In the immediate aftermath of Partition, between resettling refugees, drafting a Constitution, and grappling with military challenges from Hyderabad to Kashmir, India would inaugurate a new tradition of urban planning to complement this dizzying mix. In 1948, the government of (East) Punjab – administratively disoriented with the loss of Lahore to Pakistan – announced its intention to build a new provincial capital. With Jawaharlal Nehru’s blessing, by 1964, this proclamation amounted to the construction of Chandigarh, a full-fledged city the size of Paris designed by leading architects of the day, and inaugurated to widespread acclaim.

In Norma Evenson and Ravi Kalia’s retellings, Chandigarh by chance fell into the hands of the Swiss-French architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known as Le Corbusier. An initial search by PN Thapar and PL Varma, the two bureaucrats deputed to lead the project, turned up few Indians, compelling them to look to Europe. Centuries of colonial urban planning, the bureaucrats reasoned, had hollowed out Indian traditions. Le Corbusier, then perhaps the most famous architect in the world and widely acknowledged as a founding father of modernist architecture, only came into the picture when his name was suggested by the British architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, his colleagues at CIAM, the European modernist architecture collective. The addition of Le Corbusier to the Chandigarh project would only add “honour and glory”, Fry promised, and elevate its status from a provincial capital to one of the great cities of the world.

To Thapar and Varma’s surprise, Le Corbusier, spurred by the promise of constructing a grand capital city of his own, signed on to the project, accepting an annual retainer fee of £3,000, ten times below his usual price. That Le Corbusier and his team would do much of the planning for Chandigarh in Simla, where Sir Cyril Radcliffe had three years before partitioned Punjab into two, could only have come as sweet solace for Thapar and Varma. The two bureaucrats were among the thousands uprooted from Lahore in 1947. Their conception of a capital city demanded more than a mere administrative centre. Chandigarh would amount to panacea and recompense for the loss of Lahore.

The Punjab and Haryana High Court. Photo credit: Paul Lechevallier/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons BY 2.5]
The Punjab and Haryana High Court. Photo credit: Paul Lechevallier/Wikimedia Commons [Creative Commons BY 2.5]

To Nehru, it would testify to his constitutional and cultural vision: “Free from the existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions”, the prime minister remarked, and in concert with the movement of world history, “let this new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past… [be] an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

A model city

Chandigarh – perhaps India’s first ever “smart city” – would be organised according to a grid plan, divided roughly into 60 square-shaped sectors, each 960,000 square-metres in size, with the farthest points of a sector a 10-minute walk away from the other. The city’s functions – administrative, commercial, educational, and residential – would operate independent of one another in specifically designated sectors. Roadways were classified into seven categories, from V1 (principal avenues and thoroughfares for vehicles) to V7 (pedestrian-only parkland paths).

With Nehru’s backing, Le Corbusier saw through legislation that froze land use in the city according to the vision outlined in the original grid plan, with most of the city reserved for the bureaucracy. There would be no room for industrial or military activity in Chandigarh, both of which Le Corbusier saw as noisy aberrations taking away from the serene administrative aesthetic being developed.

An undated photo of Le Corbusier standing before the plan of Chandigarh. Photo credit: AFP
An undated photo of Le Corbusier standing before the plan of Chandigarh. Photo credit: AFP

The city’s centerpiece was its administrative nucleus – the Capitol Complex, consisting of the state assembly, secretariat and high court buildings. Set before a picturesque backdrop of the Himalayan foothills, all were built with raw concrete to monumental scale, rivalling only the herculean dimensions that Edwin Lutyens and Herbert Baker had conceived for New Delhi four decades earlier. The buildings, grid plan and “Open Hand” symbol meant to symbolise the new city, came out of decades of experimentation in Le Corbusier’s native Europe. To Thapar and Varma’s delight, one could spot the hallmarks of Le Corbusier’s work in Marseilles, Paris and Ronchamp in the buildings of the Capitol Complex. The grid plan and the “Open Hand” contained ideas originally developed for urban plans in Moscow and Amsterdam.

Part of Le Corbusier’s immediate acceptance of the commission to design Chandigarh lay in his frustration at not being able to do the same in Europe. Fascists and Communists alike had rejected his plans for monumental cities between the two World Wars. By supreme irony, Le Corbusier’s most enthusiastic client would come in the form of a prison-tested postcolonial democrat, Nehru. “It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture,” Nehru would say of the Capitol Complex. “It hits you on the head and makes you think. I like the creative approach, not being tied down by what has been done by our forefathers but thinking in new terms… In the ultimate analysis, a thing which fits in with the social functions is beautiful.”

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The future by design

Seven decades after Chandigarh was first mooted, this ambition appears to have been optimistic at best. Beyond a handful of Corbusier-inspired Indian architects, Chandigarh does not hold the popular imagination of India the way a pop-culture metropolis like Mumbai, or a pilgrimage centre like Tirupati, does. The city mostly serves bureaucrats and ministries for whom Le Corbusier had deliberately cordoned off most of the grid plan. The grid plan’s strict emphasis on separating city functions meant that, outside career bureaucrats with no particular attachment to Le Corbusier’s ideas, few would be allowed into the city to live, work, and imagine a place for themselves within it.

To complicate matters further, in 1966, the city was enveloped by long-simmering Hindu-Sikh antagonisms that created Haryana out of Punjab. Forced to host two state governments with competing priorities and competing claims to its territory, Chandigarh’s prospects periodically came under strain and rendered the city administratively impotent. To most outsiders, Chandigarh appears a modern-day monumental fossil around which squatter settlements and the satellite towns of Mohali and Panchkula have arisen. In these places, people have built as they please and loudly disregarded Le Corbusier’s land use restrictions. Only urban planners planning similarly rigid, regimented grid plans for capital cities in Gandhinagar and Islamabad have cited Chandigarh’s example, and organised their cities in similar fashion. Neighbourhoods here are known not by historical or cultural markers but by numbers and letters.

The Open Hand monument in Chandigarh. Photo credit: Ravjot Singh/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The Open Hand monument in Chandigarh. Photo credit: Ravjot Singh/Wikimedia Commons [CC BY-SA 3.0]

In a contemporary Indian landscape awash with ambitious smart city schemes and the Amaravati capital city project in Andhra Pradesh, Chandigarh’s example is particularly useful when assessing just how far a well-planned and well-intended urban project by renowned architects, can go in breaking with the past, anticipating how design strictures will affect a city’s future growth, and developing an urban consciousness. In Chandigarh’s case, plan and monument alone could not guarantee a city in full.