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garden tales from a Brit abroad

Faith in the future

Born from the trauma of partition, the northern Indian city of Chandigarh, in the Himalayan foothills, was designed as a model city and a decisive break with India’s colonial past.

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Le Corbusier with Pandit Nehru in Chandigarh. © FLC/ADAGP

Nehru, the country ‘s first prime minister after Independence, famously described it as “a new city unfettered by the traditions of the past. ..an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

From 1951, the design work was led by the great Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, working with three other Europeans and a team of young Indian architects.

Much has been written about the city – on the irony of Western design becoming the symbol of India’s future; on whether Chandigarh really adapts European style to the very different climate, values and lifestyles of northern India; on the seeming success of the new city in terms of wealth creation, sanitation and human well-being.

I was lucky enough last month to join a private tour of Corbusier’s capitol – the great civic centre of the city, with its high court, assembly building and secretariat arranged around a vast courtyard. There is no easy public access to any of these buildings, and it was a privilege to visit them in the company of international architectural historians and preservation experts.

To my eyes, the buildings were an extraordinary mixture. The expected monumentality was everywhere, in line with the city’s role as a symbol of the new India. We saw three vast columns dramatically painted in primary colours at the high court:Chandigarh 04

Chandigarh 03 Chandigarh 14the great curved concrete parasol of the assembly building, reflected in its rectangular pool:

Chandigarh 15the striking drum shape on the assembly roof, reminiscent of some industrial-scale cooling chimney:

Chandigarh 08and the towering Open Hand sculpture, now the symbol of Chandigarh.

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier sketch for the Open Hand. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 10But there were many fine details as well, reminders perhaps of Corbusier’s early grounding in the precision of watch-making and the arts and crafts movement, from the mosaics in the courtrooms:

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Corbusier design for courtroom tapestry, 1961. © FLC/ADAGP

Chandigarh 06to the precisely modelled door frames, rhythmic ceiling supports and geometric window patterns:

Chandigarh 12  Chandigarh 07 Chandigarh 02Chandigarh 11I was in Chandigarh to speak at a conference on 20th century heritage. We discussed how Corbusier’s great capitol may be admired by experts the world over, but is little appreciated by many locals, for whom it is distant from the town centre and irrelevant to their daily lives. We witnessed the challenges of building and maintaining structures on a scale and at a cost unfamiliar to most Indian cities.

And, particularly striking for me as a landscape historian, was the sad impact of a sectarian attack in the 1980s, which led to Corbusier’s once glorious open courtyard being divided up by barbed wire. Instead of being the heart of the complex, the space is now meaningless, neglected and overgrown. Given these issues, the city of Chandigarh proved a perfect example for conference delegates of the joys and challenges of managing designs from the recent past.

Chandigarh 09

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4 comments on “Faith in the future

  1. Don Statham
    November 5, 2013

    Jill thanks for sharing your photos. I was completely ignorant of Corbusier ‘s civic buildings in Chandigarh. It looks a little dated and yes worn by violence, which is sad. As I was reading your post I kept thinking of National Assembly Building of Bangladesh / Louis Kahn and how that building really seems to honor a sense of place where this one feels odd to me – maybe trying to hard.
    Thanks for bringing it to our attention. Much appreciated. Don

    • landscapelover
      November 12, 2013

      Thanks for the comment, and for the the reference to the Louis Kahn building, which I know only through photographs. I liked the Corbusier buildings much more than I expected – the bright colours and details are very Indian in feel, and the interiors (many of which you cannot photograph) are beautiful.

      Chandigarh is certainly ‘of its time’ – but I wonder what we will make of the Kahn building 30 years hence, when it will have weathered and worn longer in an unforgiving climate and among changing architectural fashions, and will be as old as the Corbusier capitol is now?

  2. Catherine Stewart
    November 11, 2013

    What a sad final photo. As I was reading I was thinking about what sort of magnificent landscape that must surround these exciting buildings…and then that. Does it just reinforce the failed attempt to create an Indian administrative centre that’s really all about western style and ideas?

    • landscapelover
      November 12, 2013

      Catherine, I don’t have an easy answer to your question. India is certainly capable of maintaining and cherishing European-style civic buildings – think of the Lutyens centre of New Delhi with its fabulous palace, gardens and wide axial roads, which have been adopted as the home of the Indian government.

      Here I think the history of the place is at the heart of its problems. Chandigarh was only created as the new Indian capital of the Punjab after the state was torn in two by partition, and the historic capital of Lahore became part of Pakistan. Insurgency and sectarian violence still erupt here, and were rife in the 1970s and 80s. Open access to civic buildings and free passage between them just isn’t valued when so many have died in attacks on – and by – the government of the day.

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This entry was posted on November 5, 2013 by in India, Modern design and tagged , .

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