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Is Chandigarh a model city?

Himanshu Burte  |  New Delhi 

The first early example of what we can call a “rational” city, Chandigarh can be either loved or hated. In the first of a series of articles on architecture and architects that have, for better or worse, influenced the way Indian cities look and behave, Himanshu Burte critically examines Corbusier’s Chandigarh

Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (1887-1965) was not trained to be an architect. But as Le Corbusier he became perhaps the most influential architect of the 20th century. An early and forceful proponent of a new approach to architecture in the 1920s called “modernism”, the Swiss born French architect famously said, “A house is a machine for living in.” By the mid-20th century, modernism had become the dominant way of building worldwide, including India. Rare in his command of a new rationality, technology and poetry in architecture, Corbusier invented a language of the industrial age. Before modernism, architectural imagination in the West was dominated by centuries-old Greek, Roman and other historic styles of building. Lutyens’ New Delhi, built during the period 1911-29 (the early years of modernism), is a good example of prevalent architectural thinking that modernism attacked.

Chandigarh, which Corbusier planned and designed in the 1950s, epitomised his belief that architecture and urban planning must have a rational problem-solving approach. At the same time, he sought meaning and monumentality through the honest expression of the construction material itself. Though modernist architecture was not new to India when Corbusier made his first visit, his work in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad was to greatly influence Indian architecture.

THE INTENT
Corbusier’s final city plan (developed from that of the American planner Albert Mayer) for Chandigarh epitomised the modernist idea of what a rational city should be like — right angled street grids, straight, wide roads for increasing automobile use, lots of (preferably continuous) open space around stand-alone buildings, greenery, light and air for every inhabitant. This was the dream that had emerged by the early 20th century in response to the nightmare of dirt and disease in the crowded medieval city in Europe with its “irregular” street patterns. For a new-born India too, Chandigarh represented a dramatic rejection of “traditional” urban layouts that had grown without a master-plan. So Chandigarh is often the preferred template for the modern Indian city in the middle-class imagination.

SETTING AN EXAMPLE
Perhaps Corbusier’s architectural vision expressed in the ensemble called the Capitol Complex (Secretariat, Legislative Assembly and High Court) has proved more enduring than his city plan. The architecture is abstract, sculptural and monumental. But it uses the humblest of industrial building materials (Reinforced Cement Concrete, or RCC) without any finishing layer of plaster or paint. When it was built (even while under construction, in fact) the Capitol Complex gave a heartening message to young Indian architects building in an impoverished society. It suggested that to be modern, creative and powerful, architecture did not need expensive material or technology. Future masters of Indian architecture like Charles Correa and Balkrishna Doshi (who assisted Corbusier on Chandigarh) internalised that message and went on to modify modernism creatively to align it better with the Indian context. Correa’s Portuguese Church in Mumbai, Doshi’s Institute of Indology in Ahmedabad, and Shivnath Prasad’s ShriRam Centre, New Delhi, show a very direct influence of Corbusier’s approach at Chandigarh. Among young architects today, the work of Gurjeet Singh Matharoo (Ahmedabad) and of Mathew Ghosh Architects Pvt Ltd (Bangalore) follows on Corbusier’s example.  

THE PROBLEMS

Over the decades, many progressive planners in India have come to see problems with Chandigarh. One simple issue is about climate. It turns out that the winding, disorderly traditional streets were climatically sensible since they were shaded by buildings. The wide open spaces of Chandigarh are not hospitable in the scorching summer or chilly winter. And, notwithstanding the Nano, sensible people and planners today realise that public transport, not the private car, is what must be encouraged.

The Capitol Complex, in particular, while extremely powerful as a composition, reveals the problems with architecture conceived as an isolated and remote object. As the seat of a democratic government, it is ironic that the large paved open spaces of the complex are so inhospitable by day. The rough concrete surfaces also deny the simplest of visual pleasures we all seek in our environment. For a lot of people, especially non-architects, the high-minded austerity is dispiriting. More dispiriting is the damage caused to the concrete because of the extremes of hot and cold that Chandigarh experiences. Most architects today acknowledge the new pathways opened for Indian architecture by Corbusier at Chandigarh, but have also learnt to apply his stated concern for local climate, appropriate construction techniques and building function in a more directly accountable manner.

THE FINAL ANALYSIS
Corbusier’s concrete-heavy vision does not sit well with the current commitment to sustainability, because steel and cement are both highly energy intensive materials. However, the fact that Corbusier tried to develop a modern architectural language responsive to the climate of Chandigarh poses important questions to the big new airconditioned glass buildings mushrooming in Indian cities. Though there is debate about their effectiveness, he did develop new forms like the giant porches and concrete screens in response to Chandigarh’s climate.  By contrast, with more advanced and energy-guzzling technology at their disposal, many architects and owners are being less rational than the poet of concrete. They avoid a thoughtful design response to climate and turn to airconditioning to solve problems created by the desire for a modern image. Chandigarh, with all its problems, shows this to be a false modernity, which believes in glass almost superstitiously.

First Published: Sat, January 30 2010. 00:40 IST
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