Chandigarh is the modern, new state capital built by the government of India in the immediate aftermath of its independence from 200 years of colonial rule. On 15 August 1947, India’s hard-won freedom was accompanied by a partition that established Pakistan as a separate country. As a result, the Indian state of Punjab lost its historic capital, Lahore, to Pakistan. Consequently, the search for a replacement capital for East Punjab was high on the agenda of the fledgling Indian nation-state.
A burgeoning sense of national pride focused attention on the search for this new capital, and the project took on great symbolic value as a demonstration of the new government’s effectiveness, ideals, and abilities. Although the development of this new capital was ostensibly a state project, the central government took an active role in the endeavor, propelled by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s personal interest in it. Instead of choosing an existing city, Nehru advocated the making of a new capital that would express the ideals of the new nation-state, which was precipitously embracing modernism as a catalyst for change.
This kind of ideological momentum propelled the project quickly to a developmental stage. The new capital was intended to resettle not only the Punjabi government and university but also thousands of refugees displaced in the political upheaval. The new city was named Chandigarh after an existing village which had a temple dedicated to the Hindu goddess Chandi. A site for the project had been chosen by 1948, but in 1949 it was changed to its present location in an effort to reduce the number of people whom the project would displace. Even so, 24 villages and 9000 residents were forced to give up their land and relocate. They actively protested their displacement, but the project went forward, driven by the optimism and determination of the central government.
Although industrialization and modernization were key to Nehru’s agenda, he did not actually prescribe a modernist architectural language for Chandigarh. The architectural vision for the city first took shape under A.L.Fletcher, the government of Punjab’s “Officer on Special Duty” for the capital project. Of Indian descent, Fletcher was trained as a civil service officer under the colonial administration, which functioned through procedures sanctioned by the home government in London. In what could be considered a postcolonial reflex reaction, Fletcher turned to contemporary official town-planning practices of England to derive his vision for a modern Chandigarh.
In 1948, English town-planning practices were strongly influenced by the principles of the Garden City movement and Ebenezer Howard’s 1898 book To -Morr ow: A Peaceful Path to Real Reform (republished as Garden Cities of To -Morrow in 1902). Howard’s fundamental goal was to invent new living environments that could coexist with industry without suffering from the congestion and squalor that resulted from industrial pollution and agglomeration of labor. By the 1930s, garden city principles had influenced the construction of several experimental new English towns, including Letchworth (1903) and Welwyn (1919), and Radburn, New Jersey (1929). Eventually, its principles were adapted to develop the greater London plan of 1944 and the New Towns Act of 1946, which was used to design a ring of new towns around London.
Fletcher recommended a vision for Chandigarh based on these ideas and proposed sending officials to England to recruit appropriate town planners and architects for Chandigarh. However, Nehru quickly vetoed this idea, saying, “There is too great a tendency for our people to rush up to England and America for advice. The average American or English town-planner will probably not know the social background of India. He will therefore be inclined to plan something which might suit England or America, but not so much India” (Kalia, 1987).
Instead, Nehru suggested Albert Mayer for the job. Mayer was an American town planner who had been strongly influenced by Lewis Mumford and Clarence Stein and who had been working on an innovative pilot project for rural development in the state of Uttar Pradesh and the urban development plan of greater Bombay. Although his ideas were quite close to those of the Garden City movement, he had made considerable effort to ensure that there was effective citizen participation in the design process based on the principle of what Mayer called “inner democratization.” Nehru, attracted by Mayer’s modern ideals and innovative practice, maintained friendly relations with him.
Mayer accepted the commission and began work on Chandigarh early in 1950, along with four (non-Indian) associates: Julian Whittlesey, Milton Glass, Clarence Stein, and Matthew Nowicki (a Siberian trained in Warsaw who joined the work on Stein’s recommendation). The idea was that this team of architects would direct and supervise the work of a group of Indian architects who could continue the job after their departure. This apprenticeship model was carried through the remainder of the project.
Mayer’s plan centered around the basic unit of a superblock that would serve the daily needs of a community with amenities such as markets and schools. A larger, three-block unit that he called the Urban Village was to house a theater, hospital, meeting hall, and additional shopping facilities. The Urban Villages were organized in a gridlike pattern, although the main streets in Mayer’s plan were allowed to follow the natural topography and thus broke from the geometric rigidity of the grid.
With the institutional campuses of the government and Punjab University at the north, the city plan widened out in a triangular shape toward the south. A large business district was sited at the center of the city, and an industrial site was proposed at the southeast corner of the plan. Mayer’s plan accounted for a future phase of southward expansion that could bring the town’s projected population from 150,000 to 500,000. Architectural designs, including sketches and standards for the capitol complex, the commercial buildings (bazaars), and much of the housing, were taken on by Nowicki, who was largely responsible for envisioning the details that would determine the quality of life in Chandigarh. Nowicki’s hand is also evident in a proposed continuous park system that linked the various parts of the city.
Following Nowicki’s tragic and unexpected death in a plane crash on 31 August 1950, progress on the project was deterred by Mayer’s increasing communication difficulties with the Indian bureaucracy. As a consequence, Punjabi state officials began a search for a new architect that resulted in the selection of the professional with whom the project is most often associated: Swiss-French modern architect Le Corbusier, who viewed Chandigarh as the superlative opportunity to model his theories on town planning in a manner more befitting his conception of the true potential and purpose of modern civilization. Modern Western civilization, according to Le Corbusier, had lost contact with the “essential joys” of life in its clamor for money. In India, with its rural and primitivistic way of life, Le Corbusier saw the potential of a civilization that was still in touch with these atavistic desires but had as yet to advance into modernity.
Le Corbusier’s enchantment with this “humane and profound civilization” only served to reassure him of the veracity of his vision for a true modernism. There seemed to be a vindication at hand, and Le Corbusier set to work at the task of upgrading India to what he described “the second era of mechanization” (quoted in Sarin, 1982)
Le Corbusier redesigned the Mayer master plan; what had been named an Urban Village in Mayer’s plan, Le Corbusier renamed a “sector.” Each sector featured a green strip running north to south, bisected by a commercial road running east to west. Le Corbusier’s plan comprised a smaller area than Mayer’s (5380 acres versus 6908 acres) reorganized into a more rationalized, orthogonal order and rectangular shape. A light industrial zone was planned at the eastern limit of the city, with an educational zone on the western. Le Corbusier’s strategy for organizing the city in the modular mode stemmed from his view of the city as a living organism. Well-defined cellular organization predicted orderly growth, with the unencumbered flow of traffic acting as vital circulation to link the city’s head (the government complex) to its heart (the central commercial sector) and to its various extremities.
In the end, Le Corbusier was responsible only for the overall master plan of Chandigarh and almost nothing of the city itself. He prepared the guidelines for the commercial center, and in an adjoining sector he designed a museum and a school of art. The majority of the buildings within the city (other than those developed privately) were designed by Jeanneret, Fry, and Drew, with assistance from their Indian team. Housing designs for sectors 22 and 23 were the first to be developed. As most of Chandigarh’s original housing was intended for government employees, it was decided that the housing costs would be determined by a set percentage of a government employee’s income. Jeanneret, Fry, and Drew devised 13 (later 14) “types” of housing based on a spectrum of incomes from employees earning less than Rs. 50 per month to the chief minister. Each design was given a designation with a number (denoting the economic sector for which it was envisioned) paired with a letter (indicating the architect who designed it), type 13J or 14M, for example. All the designs were visibly “modern,” exhibiting unornamented stark geometries broken only by sunscreening devices, such as deep overhangs and recesses, perforated screens, and open verandas. There was even a “frame-control” system devised to regulate all the construction that was privately developed.
Chandigarh’s more adolescent years have been burdened by the onus of carrying out the idealistic and formalistic vision on which the city was founded while dealing with the massive housing and economic problems that are, in part, the legacy of this vision. It is one of the ironies of history that Chandigarh, born of a partition, once again found itself the center of a political divide. Punjab was further partitioned in 1965, creating the new state of Haryana. At that point, Chandigarh acquired the unique status of a centrally administered “Union Territory” while also functioning as the capital of both Punjab and Haryana. This was accompanied by the redrawing and reduction of the municipal boundary of the city and the location of Chandigarh right at the line of division.
This repartition resulted in the establishment and growth of “satellite” towns, bordering Chandigarh but legally in Punjab and Haryana. Now, “greater Chandigarh,” originally designed for a population of 800,000, is approaching the one million mark. Although efforts are under way to increase the density of the city and to accommodate the changes, the most glaring omission of the city’s “master plan” continues to be neglected by its new development plans. There is still no comprehensive plan to integrate the poorest dispossessed people, who form almost 20 percent of the city’s population and cater to most of its service needs, into the urban fabric. They continue to live in illegal, substandard slums along the edges of the city.
In its ideological purity, Chandigarh belongs to the roster of cities such as Canberra, Brasilia, and Islamabad, pregnant with the brazen optimism of their time. Brought to life and now aging, it is one of the rare events of our modern era that, in its unadulterated realization, define a moment (in time, place, and theory) from which our distance offers a critical view.
VIKRAMADITYA PRAKASH WITH AMY POTTER
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