Mid-century modernism left a distinct imprint on Indian architecture and urban design. From Le Corbusier to Louis Kahn, modernist maestros from around the world shaped a generation of Indian architects’ materials and modalities. Although the planned city of Chandigarh – designed by Corbusier as the shared capital of Punjab and Haryana – was once seen as the zenith of Indian modernism, its shortcomings have earned the disapproval of many a critic. Examining the city today, it fails abjectly through the lens of the climate crisis and in creating social inclusion. At the same time, there is much to learn from some of its charm that is overshadowed by its monuments.

The enduring fascination with Chandigarh stems from two distinct features: its unique attribute of being a planned modern Indian city, and its founders’ self-conscious vision to fashion a future “unfettered by the traditions of the past”, in the words of Jawaharlal Nehru, who commissioned the city’s development. Chandigarh is laid out as a grid tilted towards the foothills of the Himalayas. The institutions of the Capitol Complex are in the north east of the city, and there are a series of 800 by 1200 metre sectors that are home to varied administrative classes that become more compact internally as one moves towards the south west. Beyond this planned layout, neither the satellite townships of Mohali and Panchkula nor the sprawl of haphazardly assembled housing complexes and informal communities bear any resemblance to the city they orbit.

“A proper grid and then chaos,” pronounced a thoughtful architect and National Institute of Design graduate who led a heritage walk on my recent visit to Chandigarh. Shortly after the city was built, the Indian modernist architect Charles Correa wrote in 1964, in his classic “Report from Chandigarh”, about how arriving in it, one was struck by its refreshing ambition. Nearly eight decades later, it is worth questioning where Corbusier’s intentions fell short. Leave alone radiating outwards, Corbusier’s ideas have failed to inspire the design of the city’s own airport terminal, a typically bland Airport Authority of India glass-and-steel structure.

Morning commuters and exercisers on one of Chandigarh’s main thoroughfares. Credit: Aaran Patel.

An obvious mistake is Chandigarh’s unnecessarily large scale. In the early days, while senior officials would have had government cars and drivers, many of the clerks, peons and other staff who kept the administrative processes functioning would have commuted by bicycle. Overlooking these realities, the city was built for cars that most of its residents couldn’t yet afford. Today, Chandigarh still feels like it hasn’t been grown into yet: its wide avenues are striking but impersonal, and distances between places are unnecessarily long. Given the number of bicycles in archival photos and bike lanes across the city today, perhaps alternative and cleaner mobility patterns could have emerged if the city wasn’t designed for the automobile.

From a remove, Chandigarh’s monumental buildings should also be examined for their environmental footprint since making concrete is incredibly carbon intensive. From the uncritical stock take of the official Capitol Complex tour guide who equated reflecting pools surrounding the Legislative Assembly Building with rainwater harvesting to the language in the Chandigarh Department of Tourism’s brochure about the city being “a grand success story in the annals of modern architecture”, oft-repeated platitudes about ecological sensitivity have even found their way into the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

A cricket match among government staff with the High Court in the background. The outdoor spaces in the Capitol Complex are only open to those who work there. Credit: Aaran Patel.

For “The Architecture of Independence”, a current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art on post-colonial South Asia, the curatorial note lauds how “the emancipatory ideals of the period are evident in the creation of new cities, spaces for political representation, and institutions that embodied societal aspirations as well as the theory and practice of low-cost, climatically and socially responsive design”. This was perhaps true of affordable housing complexes in other postcolonial cities built in the mid-century.

But the curatorial note’s ideas are contradicted by some of the striking photographs and short films of the making of Chandigarh featured in the exhibition, which show labourers carrying and pouring concrete against the backdrop of the under-construction Legislative Assembly and Secretariat buildings. In these images, there is limited resonance between their aspirations and Chandigarh’s symbols.

Policemen and government staff by the High Court. Credit: Aaran Patel.

Standing in the middle of the stark plaza between the High Court and the Palace of Assembly, the experience as a visitor and as a citizen is cold and isolating. Amidst parades of policemen, there is no proximity to the institutions or the processes they represent. If Corbusier were to visit Chandigarh today, he would find the Capitol Complex utterly devoid of life and charm. Perhaps he may concede that it was a mistake to seclude this key civic space from the rest of the city. Or he might agree with the brochure’s language of this choice of the Capitol Complex being “visually and physically distanced from the city which lends an air of dignity and exclusivity” and “preserving [its] serenity”. Either way, he would certainly consider it a damning critique that the brise-soleil of the original facades are now punctuated with compressor units of air conditioners.

Where charm and thoughtful design abound, though, is in Chandigarh’s residential areas. Each sector is a self-contained unit with residences, civic amenities, institutions and a commercial area. In a sense, these sectors reflect what is today described as a “fifteen-minute city” with mixed-use development where residents can meet most of their needs on foot or by cycling. With large lots and tree-lined avenues, the sectors closest to the Capitol Complex where judges and senior bureaucrats live are undeniably beautiful.

A glimpse of community life in Sector 23. Credit: Aaran Patel.

But the denser sectors, home to those down the administrative pecking order, are where community life and colour characteristic of Indian settlements are most distinct and vibrant. Among the modest one- and two-bedroom row-houses, there is the familiarity of desert coolers, overhead water tanks, tin sheets to create extra shade, and sarees fluttering on clothes lines. In these quarters, as we move away from symbolic gestures like Corbusier’s open hand sculpture, which has become the symbol of the city, his architect cousin Pierre Jeanneret’s touch manifests in the arrangement of homes and common spaces.

Unfortunately, though, the sectors are also socio-economically contained units, grouping government staff by rank and function, and not allowing for much shared experience of space apart from in the city centre in Sector 17 and attractions like the artificial Sukhna Lake. Chandigarh and its culture may have emerged slightly differently if there was more integration instead of spatial segregation. But ultimately, this would still be limited because of the overwhelming number of people whose main occupation was that of being in government.

In contrast to the concrete as a framing device in the Capitol Complex, the concrete of Sector 17 is more like a canvas that has been wholly owned by Chandigarh’s residents. Credit: Aaran Patel.

While assessing Chandigarh today, it is worth remembering that Corbusier, of course, designed the city long before we knew about climate change. And architecture would be incomplete if it were bound by purely utilitarian considerations that foreclosed flights of fancy and whimsicality. This latter issue is and ought to be subjective, inviting engagement from a variety of voices to build new vocabularies of design and built form.

While there have been several Corbusier copycats, it’s not like India has tried to clone Chandigarh. But some of the city’s serious flaws that have been laid bare – exclusion of communities in its design, stratification of social classes, neglecting the delights and downsides of density – continue to proliferate. The history of human habitation and settlements has revealed the shortcomings of ignoring these principles. From urban renewal through the National Smart Cities Mission to the new urban centres that will likely need to be built in the coming decades, lessons from Chandigarh should guide how we dream of and design spaces.

Aaran Patel is an MPP candidate at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He is a Kalpalata Fellow for Architecture & Urban Issues Writings for 2021.