Special issue with the Sunday Magazine
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URBAN SPACES : August 1, 1999

Rediscovering Chandigarh

Kiran Joshi

The author teaches at the Chandigarh College of Architecture and is the author of the book Documenting Chandigarh published by Mapin, Ahmedabad.

Some fifty years ago, amid the hopes associated with Independence, the State of Punjab was crippled by the tragedy and chaos of Partition and the loss of its historic capital. A new city was needed to house innumerable refugees and simultaneously provide an administrative seat for the government.

It is said that capital cities are chosen for convenience, strategy or simply for prestige. It was Prime Minister Nehru's vision of ". . . a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past . . .", that translated the emergency situation in Punjab into an unprecedented opportunity to create a city of progress, a city of prestige. It was a vision that was concretised by French architect Le Corbusier, who, while trying to locate the new capital within the complex matrix of Indian history, created a new architectural and cultural model for a society that was moving from a predominantly rural mode to an urban-technological one.

Chandigarh, the new capital for Punjab, soon became the focus of attention for a variety of reasons - for the peculiar circumstances of its birth; for being a conscious departure from existing patterns of traditional and colonial settlements; the first realisation of some of Le Corbusier's urban precepts and, especially, for being an unusual experiment in comprehensive civic design.

Aditya Dhawan
One of the many works of sculpture from the Rock Garden, Chandigarh, by Nek Chand, built out of discarded and waste material.

The city today is valued universally as a landmark of modernism and a pace-setter for subsequent post-Independence development. In contrast to the undifferentiated sprawl of contemporary Indian towns, Chandigarh is endowed with a specific identity by its picturesque setting, large open spaces, profuse greenery, as well as its well-ordered, orthogonal matrix. Above all, what places the city in a different class is its distinctive architectural vocabulary of low-rise, low-density cubic forms and experimental constructions in raw concrete and local brick.

The city is equally famous for Le Corbusier's Capitol. The massive, plastic forms of his Secretariat, Legislative Assembly and High Court complement the Martyrs' Memorial, the Open Hand and other monuments which symbolise the basis of Le Corbusier's philosophy of Urbanism.

Besides the historic and prestige aspect of its design, Chandigarh also had its rationale as a city of convenience, a city planned to provide the basic social amenities and a dignified existence to all, not merely a select handful of its inhabitants. The entire mood of those times was to construct a better future. To the many Indians who had been long confined to the extremely cramped and obsolete structures of the old cities, Chandigarh's theme of open space, greenery and light (sun, space, and verdure), touched many a chord.

The discussion on the pros and cons of Chandigarh's Master Plan (conveniently, and somewhat erroneously, attributed solely to Le Corbusier) has been going on for almost four decades. To most outsiders, especially the academics, perceptions of the city's intrinsic worth generally veer between two conflicting attitudes. The first - an adulatory one - is an idealised picture of a somewhat mythical Utopia of "Le Corbusier's Master Plan", with all its distinctive elements seen as immutable components of the greatest, and therefore, sacrosanct episode of urbanism of all times. The opposite and hostile alternative is equally vehement, projecting Chandigarh as alien, irrelevant, wasteful and parasitic, with the vitality of crowded Indian towns (even though insalubrious) infinitely preferably to the city's vacuous and monotonous spaces.

Views of Chandigarh.

Both opinions are inappropriate and misconceived - not just because they are simplistic but essentially as they are static and fail to take into account the dynamics of growth and change which Chandigarh - like any other city - is undergoing. Interestingly, nor do such perceptions acknowledge the fact that Chandigarh's general "garden city" ambience and generous social infrastructure make the city popular with the majority of its inhabitants, not excluding its poorer, homeless ones (who would meet a worse fate in other Indian towns). Thus, the issues which the city has to address are not the issues raised by its critics but those that have surfaced under the compulsions of its own evolution.

The most pressing compulsion, under which all others are subsumed, is simply the growth of population. Though designed for an ultimate population of just 5,00,000, Chandigarh, at present, accommodates some 7,50,000 persons within its bound area with another 3,50,000 inhabiting various pockets immediately surrounding it. With the present growth trends, it is estimated that by the year 2020, the population of the urban complex will be more than 20,00,000! The 1000 acres of urban land available for development just about meets the current shortages of housing - notwithstanding the need to rehabilitate the city's proliferating squatter colonies. With Chandigarh having now acquired the status of a high-class regional locus of commerce and education, the demands for more office and commercial space, hotels, convention centres and the like is escalating, just as are pressures for going vertical and densifying the existing areas.

As Chandigarh grows and expands both inwards and outwards and faces the all too familiar problems associated with the march of urbanisation, it may have to reinvent itself. No doubt circumstances have changed and the brief would be rather different from that 150 years ago. Nevertheless, it would be the same basic state of mind - social optimism, visionary design and a think-big attitude - that produced Chandigarh which would carry the city successfully into the 21st century.

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