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Chandigarh: The original smart city

A photo exhibition to commemorate the 50th death anniversary of Le Corbusier showcases Chandigarh in all its splendour

Rahul Jacob 

Chandigarh High Court Picture by Diwan Manna
Chandigarh High Court Picture by Diwan Manna

The guide standing in front of the Chandigarh High Court drew our attention to the "18.3 meter pylons" that appeared to be holding up the building. In extraordinary Day-Glo red, yellow and a kind of aquamarine bluish green, the three enormous pillars needed no introduction as they dominate any view of the building. I was part of a mid-afternoon tour of the high court, legislature and secretariat buildings designed by Le Corbusier. The high court somehow managed to be grand and playful, as if Le Corbusier was paying homage to a new democracy but believed that a youthful country might need the three pillars of government to also look as bright as the hues of the typical saree or even a giant Rubik's Cube. Look closely enough at the Secretariat or even the High Court and all these fanciful notions seem plausible. Look again at the legislature building and what seems like the overhang of the roof turns out to be a forward-looking roof-top water harvesting scheme that pours rain water into the pools in front of the building.

Le Corbusier with Pablo Picasso
Le Corbusier with Pablo Picasso
In this season of ceaseless talk about smart cities that will likely be colonies if and when they are built, Le Corbusier's Chandigarh seemed a precocious attempt to grapple with the challenge of urbanisation right after Independence. As the architect Rahul Mehrotra recently observed in a reference to early criticism that the city was too sparse and poorly connected, "We judged Chandigarh too quickly." Circa 2015, with most large Indian metropolises seemingly helpless captives of developers' lobbies, clogged roads and diesel-induced carcinogenic pollution, Chandigarh seems a pristine role model. The late Nek Chand's extraordinary rock garden, filled with mysterious creatures Steven Spielberg would applaud is the ultimate recycling project cum amusement park, made of broken ceramic tiles, cisterns and much else. This is the original smart city, and we should be grateful to Le Corbusier, the great American architect Albert Mayer and Jawaharlal Nehru for dreaming up something futuristic and civic-minded. Among the countless parks that dot the city, there is the Children Traffic Park in Sector 23, with model roads and traffic lights in miniature to teach children traffic rules. Perhaps the city's famously strict traffic cops have more to do with it, but I could not help feeling that this might be why people in Chandigarh drive like adults.

Two neighbours in Sector 23, Chandigarh
Two neighbours in Sector 23, Chandigarh Picture by Thomas Flechtner
To commemorate the 50th death anniversary of Le Corbusier, the embassy of Switzerland has organised a photo exhibition, both of little-known photographs by the architect himself as well as striking photographs by contemporary photographers of Chandigarh. Thomas Fletchner and Diwan Manna's photos put people at the centre of photos of these giant buildings, which helps one appreciate them better. The tour a couple of Saturdays ago would take on the dimensions of a religious pilgrimage because I was lucky enough to be visiting at the same time as more than 20 students from the University of Virginia's architectural programme. I watched them taking photographs, murmuring reverentially about the giant mural painted by Le Corbusier himself and craning their necks to peer into the building that was closed because it was the weekend. At the architecture museum - a must-see of urban planning fused with idealism - a quote from Nehru greets you as you enter. He does not like every building in Chandigarh, he confesses, but "some I like very much". Le Corbusier and Mayer's experimental urban planning and architecture in Chandigarh, Nehru observes, provokes "many people (to) argue about it; some like it, some dislike it… It hits you on the head and makes you think… The one thing India requires in many fields is being hit on the head so that it may think."

The exhibition, curated by Musée des Beaux-Arts La Chaux-de-Fonds, will be on show in New Delhi at the Embassy of Switzerland from 6 to 19 November and in Ahmedabad at The Millowner’s Building from 18 December to 3 January

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First Published: Sat, October 31 2015. 00:27 IST