The Chandigarh dream

The Chandigarh dream
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First Published: Sat, Aug 30 2008. 12 05 AM IST

Updated: Sat, Aug 30 2008. 12 05 AM IST
“[Chandigarh] hits you on the head and makes you think. You may squirm at the impact but it has made you think and imbibe new ideas, and the one thing which India requires in many fields is being hit on the head so that it may think.”
Jawaharlal Nehru, at an architecture seminar in New Delhi, 1959
Almost 50 years ago, Nehru saw Chandigarh as a symbol of the new India, a city that would prove the country’s ability to unite the social classes, embrace modernity and inspire generations of thinkers and inventors. Constructed as the new capital of the sorely divided Punjab, Chandigarh gave architect Le Corbusier his only opportunity to implement his modernist ideals about shaping cities around the new mode of transportation—cars; self-sufficient sectors dividing a city into small parts; and the nobility of cement as a building material.
In reality, after its much-crowed-about beginnings, Chandigarh, with its quirky architecture, settled for the status of a second-tier city, meant for bureaucrats and middle managers. Long-time residents called it the best place to live in India; others called it a city for the “dead and the dying”; and the rest of the country barely cast a second glance at it.
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Outside India, though, the city has been a source of fascination for the international architecture community that has both vilified and adored Le Corbusier, “the father of modern architecture”. The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (Unesco) approached the city in 2001, with a plan to nominate the city as a possible modern World Heritage site. Design students constantly make pilgrimages to the city. And, last year, foreign furniture dealers auctioned off original Le Corbusier items from Chandigarh. A typical piece, such as a wooden coffee table, which fetched around Rs100 at a government auction, went for over Rs67.7 lakh at Christie’s in New York.
After years of dragging their feet, the city’s authorities have finally gone into an overdrive to protect their heritage, spurred on by a group of architects and design lovers in the city, and by the embarrassment of the Christie’s sale. Not only have they created committees to oversee the preservation of its historical core and organized community outreach programmes to educate citizens, but, in a major coup, the three governing bodies in Chandigarh—the Punjab, the Haryana, and the Union government—have finally agreed to submit the Unesco nomination. The preservation, maintenance and repair work done at a Unesco Heritage Site can only be carried out under the UN body’s supervision. According to Vivek Atray, secretary, Chandigarh department of tourism, Unesco will likely add the city to its heritage list as early as January, and Chandigarh, long overlooked by its own people, may finally get the recognition it deserves.
One of the main reasons people tend to overlook Chandigarh’s significance can be attributed directly to Le Corbusier. Before he was roped in by Nehru, Le Corbusier had tried, and failed, for years to convince European governments to implement his ideas on city planning. He believed a modern city needed to be shaped around cars, the new mode of transport. That meant wide roads, traffic circles and all walking paths and storefronts set off from the main roads. He also believed in dividing the city into sectors—small, self-sufficient blocks that would each include areas for schools, shops and parks. And finally, he believed in buildings that served the people, rather than imposing ornamentation and form on them.
He famously wrote in his book Toward an Architecture: “The house is a machine for living in.” It was this philosophy that contributed to an utterly unassuming town structure, though the buildings look different from those in any other city. The cleanliness, functionality and peacefulness of the city can also be largely attributed to the architectural plan. In Chandigarh, Le Corbusier finally had the opportunity to put his theories to work, but to the untrained eye, it isn’t always obvious why the city works so well.
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Kapil Dev, a former captain of the Indian cricket team who grew up in Chandigarh, recalls that he naturally assumed every city ran in the same orderly fashion, that every road had its own function, that parks were plentiful and that sectors divided cities evenly. Once he started travelling to play cricket, he realized how wrong he had been.
“I thought the entire world was like that,” he says, “but it is the only planned city.” His work keeps him away from his childhood home, but “if I didn’t have a business… I wouldn’t think twice about” returning to the city to live there, he says.
Dev isn’t alone in boasting about his home city—visit any part of the city and people will readily talk about the virtues of the place: “It’s the only place our children can grow up with safe areas to play in… Our police force is second only to Mumbai in the country… Soon, we’ll even surpass Bangalore in attracting IT companies… A recent smoking ban keeps the public spaces and the air clean… Everyone wants to live here now, just look at how much our population has gone up.”
While the city was under construction in the 1950s, Y.P. Vohra, now 80, says most public servants were horrified at the government’s decision to shift from Shimla to Chandigarh. “Nobody wanted to go,” he chuckles. But 49 years later, he “wouldn’t live anywhere else”.
For visitors from Delhi—with its traffic, its pollution and the brutal sun beating down with little respite—it’s easy to fall in love with Chandigarh. The streets offer long, unbroken sidewalks to stroll on in the shade of leafy trees. In the evening, as the sun sets in hues of purple and pink, people sit out on their stoops and balconies, greeting friends and strangers.
Le Corbusier insisted that every building maintain greenery in the front, the back, and, occasionally, on the roof, so the whole town seems like one large garden party. It is peaceful, easy living, far removed from the chaos and dirt of the usual big-city life.
Even the buildings—the functional, concrete, angular buildings that many people harp on about due to their lack of ornamentation—are aesthetically appealing as a whole. The definitive stamp of one style on the whole city makes it visually stimulating, even if you’re not an architecture enthusiast.
This seems to be the year for Le Corbusier. Chandigarh, as his major work, is being revisited by design students and architects as an example of urban planning that has withstood 50 years of active use. A discussion organized in Mumbai last month by the Asiatic Society of Mumbai examined Chandigarh for lessons on how a city and its society interact with and shape each other over a period of time. A new exhibition sponsored by the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) opens in Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral in England on 2 October (and will run till 18 October) as part of Liverpool’s 2008 European Capital of Culture programme, and will examine both Le Corbusier’s great ideas (plans for the Capitol Complex at Chandigarh) and his terrible ones (he wished to tear down the historic centre of Paris, particularly the second, third, ninth and tenth arrondissements, and rebuild it with concrete skyscrapers). A new translation of Toward an Architecture was published last year and chosen as a Favorite Book of 2007 by the Art and Architecture Critics of The New York Times. And many urban planners, such as the US Department of housing and urban development (HUD), have adopted “New Urbanism”, a style based on many of Le Corbusier’s precepts, which espouses the creation of compact, walkable, mixed-use cities.
Riba president Sunand Prasad curated an earlier exhibition on Le Corbusier and is thrilled to be sponsoring the forthcoming exhibition in Liverpool. “His best buildings are really, in the view of many of us, some of the best works of architecture, indeed of art, that we have anywhere in the world,” says Prasad. “Architecture has to be useful, it has to work for people, but at its best, architecture gives pleasure and uplifts one’s spirit. Le Corbusier’s best works do just that.”
Despite all the international attention and the citizens’ avowals of love for the city, little has been done to protect the design elements that have made Chandigarh so distinct, other than obeying the building authority edicts that Le Corbusier set in place in 1961.
Architect Kiran Joshi, a professor at Chandigarh School of Architecture, began researching Le Corbusier in 1988 with the help of her students. The Chandigarh administration had asked her to compile a study on the works of Le Corbusier for reference. She expected it to take her around four months. It took her 10 years, and she continues to update it to this day. The study became “a voyage of discovery” for her and she says that everyone who worked on it with her became fascinated by Le Corbusier’s work.
Unfortunately, few people in the city paid her study much attention. She recently tore out a full-page advertisement in the local paper requesting a painter to create a mural depicting “the bounty of Haryana” for a judge’s quarters in the high court. The high court was designed by Le Corbusier down to the last detail—the murals in offices, the desks for judges and the lamp posts outside. But the people working at the high court didn’t realize the value of the art they had in their own offices and preferred newer furniture, shiny desks and cheap paintings. “The judges are supposed to protect the heritage of the country, but in Chandigarh, they are the ones actively destroying it,” Joshi says.
It came as little surprise to her when the city’s furniture, sold for mere rupees in government auctions, went on sale in 2007 for thousands of dollars at Christie’s in New York. Chairs that can still be found, damaged and discarded, on the balconies in government offices in Chandigarh sold for as high as Rs20 lakh. That incident shamed the administration, with The New York Times crowing: “The city that sat on its treasures, but never saw them”.
But the director of the Museum of Architecture, Navjot Pal Singh Randhawa, who is also the inspector general of the Chandigarh jail, says that the sale actually benefited the town.
“We would have destroyed what’s left,” he explains, sitting in his office at the museum. The furniture was specifically made for offices and the very simplicity of design that makes it worth so much today is exactly what turned off people in Chandigarh. “If people had liked it in their house, they wouldn’t have thrown it out,” Randhawa explains. Thankfully, the auction made people realize what they had, and now more people are trying to preserve the furniture.
The changes in architecture occurred most often in personal homes. One grand mansion at No. 33, Sector 1, was divided up to create a guest house for visitors of the Haryana government. The wide-open veranda had a ceiling built over it; the genteel, curved driveway was split to make way for a reception area. And that’s one of the lucky ones that hasn’t been torn down by new owners to design homes in styles that are completely incongruous with the rest of the town.
Joshi’s husband, I.J.S. Bakshi, also an architect, laments the loose regulations for building new homes: “There’s no control over what people might be doing,” he says. “They put up anything they want rather than being loyal to the city’s aesthetic. So you get strange things that don’t belong here.”
It is jarring to see the mishmash of a new home built in a strange colonial-gothic mix in a city known for its bare-bones ornamentation. For example, the peaceful Sukhna lake was built with no buildings obscuring the view to the foothills of the Himalayas. All the structures were low-slung and devoid of flourishes. But, these days, across the street from the main entrance, a grandiose mansion with Corinthian pillars dominates the view. It appears as a gaudily overdressed guest at an otherwise sober party.
Aditya Prakash saw all these changes as the natural ageing of a city—and he liked it that way. He worked under Le Corbusier as part of the original 50-person architectural team in Chandigarh and took over as chief architect of Chandigarh from Le Corbusier’s partner and cousin Pierre Jeanneret. He passed away on 12 August and spent his last weeks in the home he designed, obviously derived from the teaching of Le Corbusier, from its angular lines and sparse furnishings to the main material, cement.
A month before he passed, Prakash complained that the Unesco designation will be akin to “pickling the city”. He said that like a human body, cities grow, age and die, “We should not kill it, but it should be able to die”. He worried that the preservation will fortress the city, keeping residents from actively living in it.
Prasad has similar concerns. He says that World Heritage status protects buildings, but it also freezes them in time since no more building or changes will be allowed after the designation. “(The Capitol Complex) is an extraordinary piece of theatre, but it is not very functional. It should be altered through intelligent modification,” he says.
Joshi and other architects, such as the chief architect of Punjab, B. Saini, disagree. Joshi firmly believes the Unesco heritage tag is necessary to make people in Chandigarh value what they have and that they need the backing of the designation to preserve the historical core. Vivek Atray agrees with Joshi. “Over the years, awareness about heritage has gone down” especially with buildings that are functional and lived in, he says. “Highlighting the heritage status will make the people more conscious.”
The process for a World Heritage designation was initiated in part by Unesco and a consortium of other countries, including France and Japan, with other Le Corbusier-designed buildings. In December 2007, a panel of Unesco experts visited the city for a Le Corbusier convention. Atray says the designation will not only give the city prestige, and a huge boost to its tourism, but Unesco will also provide expertise on preserving and modernizing the city.
The city administration also hopes the designation will raise community awareness about its historical treasures. The Museum of Architecture, under the guidance of Randhawa, has begun to compile a catalogue of Le Corbusier and Jeanneret’s furniture designs. Randhawa says that despite the bad press about the auctions abroad, people still don’t know what pieces deserve to be kept. The museum and government are marking each piece of furniture with a serial number and creating a board to oversee all future government auctions, in order to preserve what they have now.
Randhawa, in his role as inspector general of the jail, also decided to turn the inmates into protectors of the Le Corbusier legacy. “I had a potential labour force that could be utilized in any direction that I gave,” he says. So he trained the inmates in furniture restoration. Now, when pieces of furniture at government offices break or are damaged, they aren’t thrown away—they are sent to the jail to be fixed. “They think I’ve gone mad,” Randhawa laughs.
Some private building owners, too, have taken it upon themselves to restore their homes to the original designs. The family behind the Delhi-based Imperial Hotel plans to restore the house at No. 33, Sector 1, to its original floor plan and furnish it with time-appropriate pieces. It should open as a boutique bed-and-breakfast some time next year.
For now, though, the city still needs to wake up to its own value. On a rainy afternoon at the city’s “head”, at its capital park, the great works of Le Corbusier—his massive, ship-like secretariat, the playful assembly, with its gravity-defying concrete curve roof, and the colourful high court—preside over only a few people. Ensconced in tight security, ever since a car bomb exploded outside the park in 1995, the place Le Corbusier saw as a modern-day Greek forum now stands eerily empty, with grass growing through cracks in the park’s cement pathways and the artificial lake a mire of moss and mosquitoes. The only people enjoying Le Corbusier’s masterwork are a group of sanitation department workers, clearing wastepaper through the grand ceremonial door to the assembly. A trash collector, Amarjeet Singh, pauses in his work to point to the bright, large mural Le Corbusier painted: “A French architect gave us that!”
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First Published: Sat, Aug 30 2008. 12 05 AM IST
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