site info Lucy Bullivant    Communicating Architecture contact details
Sun, Space and Verdure
introduction
changing space
showcase
curated projects
publications
consultancy
projects listing
clients listing
features
Published in the October 2007 issue of a+u (Tokyo).

Chandigarh, in the northern Punjab region of India, is described in the Lonely Planet guide to India as the country's 'greenest, cleanest and most prosperous city, with more ATMs than cows, and more mobile phones than beggars'. The only Indian city to have a festival of gardens, and also during the monsoon, a festival of tree planting, and a continuous green belt, this icon of Modernism and Nehru's expression of the new India was described by biologist turned urban designer Patrick Geddes as a city in evolution, borne of agrarian seeds as a modern and now-post modern urban landscape.


© Stafano Graziani

Chandigarh, in the northern Punjab region of India, is described in the Lonely Planet guide to India as the country's 'greenest, cleanest and most prosperous city, with more ATMs than cows, and more mobile phones than beggars'. The only Indian city to have a festival of gardens, and also during the monsoon, a festival of tree planting, and a continuous green belt, this icon of Modernism and Nehru's expression of the new India was described by biologist turned urban designer Patrick Geddes as a city in evolution, borne of agrarian seeds as a modern and now-post modern urban landscape.


© Lucy Bullivant

Part of a tradition of ideal urban conceptions, Chandigarh was a quintessentially political project created after the war to meet real needs but moreover prove that the new nation was independent and progressive. 'Brand Chandigarh', as its maker Le Corbusier described it, was intentionally a utopian vision of social and cultural transformation, and a brave new world of planned growth he unleashed when he created his seductively rational masterplan for the city.


© Stafano Graziani


© Stafano Graziani

Chandigarh came about to give the states of Punjab and Haryana, both prosperous, a new capital. Punjab lost its capital due to the reorganisation after Pakistan took it over and the borders were redrawn. The gently sloping site - a plain of agricultural land dotted with small hamlets and groves of mango and tali trees - was noted for acquisition in 1948, and chosen, as Pandit Nehru said on his first visit 'free from the existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions. Let it be the first large expression of our creative genius flowering on our newly earned freedom'.


© Lucy Bullivant

Corbusier designed the city's important buildings, the Capitol Complex, the city's focal point in the north-east of the city, and the City Museum inspired by a temporary pavilion of his in Geneva. His concept for the landscaping of the city intended to harmonise it with the beauty of the Shivalik hills of the Himalayas to the north-east. Uniquely to India apart from at Lutyens' New Delhi (1931), he insisted on straight, wide, tree-lined avenues, personally selecting the trees, shrubs and climbers. The city's lungs were to be a sprawling green Leisure Valley from the north-east to the south-west with fitness trails, a large artificial boating Sukhna Lake and more gardens, offering a variety of kinds of retreat and relaxing experience.


© Stafano Graziani


© Stafano Graziani



Quality of life - 'sun, space and verdure- - was Chandigarh's original slogan, but due the lack of land and the demand for more development, growth, especially in new technology industries (and advertising violating the city's 'Advertisement Control Order') is encroaching both officially and unofficially on the public land that there is. The region - with nearby settlements of Mohali and Panchkula - needs to be looked at more closely as a whole. The need for sustainable development to respond to change has been reflected in a relaxation of building bylaws, but the future requires attentive, holistic planning. As Corbusier pointed out, 'good urbanism makes money, bad urbanism loses money'.


© Stafano Graziani

Corbusier's plan was for low-density, low-rise housing divided via a grid-iron layout into 1 square metre neighbourhood sectors, each 800 x 1200 metres, and self-sufficient and introvert in character with their own shops, schools and places of worship and only four vehicular entries into its interior. While the houses were to face onto roads with a minimum of traffic, the shops were located along the continuous ribbon of V4 shopping street that runs through the site. The squares and piazzas lead from one another, lending a spacious intimacy. Zoning plans with a strict framework were designed by Jeanneret with Max Fry and Jane Drew, British architects who also designed affordable housing there, and Thapar, a local architect. The entire planning system was done with infrastructure in mind, and the seven Vs (voie, meaning road) create a circulation hierarchy similar to the arteries of the human body.


© Lucy Bullivant

At the time Chandigarh's masterplan was designed, town planning was a new concept in India. It is not so widely known but fully documented at the City Museum that before Corbusier was involved, for two years two American architects, Albert Mayer and Mathew Novicki, engaged to do this job developed an urban plan for the city. Before Novicki died in a plane crash and Mayer withdrew, they created one that was leaf-shaped to avoid the sterility of the geometric grid 'in an Indian idiom'.


© Stafano Graziani

Curves for Corbusier were of course a paralysing thing (he did not like solidification of the accidental), but what was carried through from this early work in the masterplan realised by Corbusier and his team is a super block, designed as self-sufficient neighbourhood units placed along curvilinear roads with cluster-type housing, markets and centrally located open spaces. Indian elements appeared in their designs, for instance of the shopping centre, drawing on the traditional Indian bazaar as a raised platform with a pedestrian street alongside, and apartment homes with jali - brick mesh awnings - on the façade. The Capitol buildings were to be monumental with a series of water basins, and Corbusier took some elements from this in his own design for them.


© Stafano Graziani


© Stafano Graziani


back to top ↑        ← back to index

The site enjoyed natural advantages of stability, favourable water and supply conditions and plentiful local building materials - brick, stone and shutter finish concrete. Its cold winters, hot dry summers and humid monsoon season were matched by vernacular shading devices including chajjas (sunshades), louvres, verandas, jails and courtyards that provide microscaled natural climate control. The Assembly and also the Gandhi Bhawan - Punjab University, part of a masterplan created by Pierre Jeanneret, a lotus-shaped building, generally appear as it floating on pools of water which tend to dry out as summer approaches.


© Stafano Graziani

Arguably the key buildings of the Capitol are the most representative of Corbusier's works. They stand against the blue silhouette of the lower Shivalik foothills of the Himalayas as three key components of a democratic society - the Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary. Massive concrete structures that were the first of their kind in South Asia, the first two nevertheless lack much intimate landscaping around them, although the High Court, completed in 1956, is dotted around with plants. A building with an ever-present group of elegant white Ambasssador cars outside, and dotted around with plants, it recently suffered two huge infestations of bees inside its parasol roof, fumigated by a drastic method that temporarily blackened its fabric.


© Lucy Bullivant

The masterplan prepared by Corbusier bore broad similarities to that of the American planners apart from the shape which was grid-iron in pattern for the fast traffic roads, and smaller. Phase 1 included 30 low-density sectors spread over 9000 acres for 150,000 people, and Phase 2 had 17 much higher density sectors (31-47) spread over 6000 acres for an expanded population of 350,000. The first was a period of controlled growth, the second a period of more affluent consolidation, with the size of dwelling units slightly reduced and expansion of the commercial aspects of the new sectors. Since 1995 another seven (population 250,000) are aimed for, along with Panchkula's expansion to the north-east and Mohali's to the south-west (seven km from the centre of Chandigarh; total population 350,000), which try, on a smaller scale, to retain the modernist concept along with contemporary shopping malls.


© Stafano Graziani


© Stafano Graziani

There are masses of green parks, the largest being the Rose Garden designed by M.N. Sharma in Sector 16, built as part of the green belt of the city. Behind the long shopping arcades of Sector 22 are lines of three-storey terraced housing in concrete and brick. Superficially similar, each unit has different doors, windows, balconies, decorations and colours. Set on tree-lined streets and interspersed with parks (no house was to be more than 200 metres from a green open space) and schools, these contrasting features fit into a unified whole. His first sketches for the site show a leisure valley with bridges crossing it and a continuous green underpass, with the checkerboard of rectangles coming later. Corbusier used vegetation as an essential element in the image of the city, and ideally one could cross the city as one crosses a park, without seeing a single building, as in the parkways described by Siegfied Giedion in the fifth edition of Space, Time and Architecture.


© Lucy Bullivant


back to top ↑        ← back to index

Garden City models, for instance Letchworth or Welwyn Garden City, with its ban on high rise buildings, were influential models, as were the US Green Belt towns including Radburn and Salt Lake City; Hilversum and the replanning of Amsterdam were further influential concepts. The impetus to create a Garden City by Chandigarh's developers was due to the fact that in the colonies developed by the British, broad and shady tree-lined avenues and bungalows set amidst big open spaces created an evocative template for settlements they wanted to emulate. A number of landscaping features lend the city a sense of serene equilibrium. The Rose Garden, with its variety of roses, large fountain and lawns stretching far and wide, is a very attractive place. The Suthna Lake, a man-made creation of Corbusier's, is one of the largest in India and in good weather full of people in small pleasure boats. The Rock Garden, which was not part of Corbusier's original masterplan but designed much later by an art lover who was a government road inspector, Padam Shri Nek Chand, is based on the fantasy of the lost kingdom. A sequence of doors, archways and lanes lead to ever more courtyards and chambers with displays of found and made figures made out of broken jewellery, glass, tiles and electrical fittings, all waste he salvaged from the city's construction sites.


© Stafano Graziani


© Stafano Graziani

On a visit this year, the central city looked clean, lush and well maintained. The infrastructure was good. Fitness trails were attractively visible, the greenery well maintained. The cost of living is low compared with Delhi or Bangalore and a lot of students from neighbouring states study here at the highly regarded university, colleges and other institutes. There is a less developed private sector, but government (Haryana, Punjab and Union Territory) jobs are plentiful, although hard to obtain. Its population has gone from 150,000 to 1.5m, and yet the original intention was to house up to 600,000 people. 10 years ago it was a sleepy city, with no people on the streets after 10.30pm, now with its high student numbers it is much more lively. New developments like the 111 acre technology park on the edge of the city close to the lake are significant. 68 acres are used for facilities, the rest are green, with a mall and a food court, but not much on-site residential accommodation, but third phase residential sectors are evolving elsewhere in the city. The Senior Town Planner, Arvind Methani, has vowed to keep Chandigarh as green as possible, and is rebuilding the cycle tracks.


© Lucy Bullivant

At the international conference, Celebrating Chandigarh, staged by the city's administration in January 1999, it was asked how Chandigarh could evolve. Would it overcome its Corbusian principles in order to enter into an urban condition that was more continuous, dense and mixed use? By that year the surrounding city, poorly provided with social services, was threatening the viability of the schools and hospitals of the central city, with about 30% of the population considered poor. Around 250,000 people were by 2003 living in non-planned settlements, mostly in a ring around the central city, at a much higher density (around 900 per hectare) compared with the residential sectors (15 people per hectare). This periphery has seen a lot of planned and unplanned urbanisation resulting in traffic congestion, and environmental pollution threatens to deplete the peripheral green belt and the area's natural resources.


© Stafano Graziani


© Stafano Graziani

In 2006 a group of German students at the TU Berlin, Jan Bunge, Deniz Dizici, Daniel Stimburg and Laura Vahl, presented the research publication Update Chandigarh. They were aware that the city was fast becoming a global hub of IT services, and on the verge of huge growth. While most of the city needed to be protected, they concluded, their conception was for a modular add-on system in flexible parts of the city. This would allow for new typologies to be overlapped and produce sustainable growth. Their position was that urban rural interrelationships are vital, on an equal partnership basis. They were surprised to learn that Mohali developed almost without dialogue with Chandigarh. That surely has brought drawbacks. Furthermore, the city's administration, they felt, needed to work more closely with the three State Governments, as a Greater Chandigarh Region to expand its trade prospects and reinforce its IT economy.


© Lucy Bullivant

When it comes to the balance of man and nature, Michael Sorkin stated at the 1999 conference that 'the spaciousness and greenery of Chandigarh is not merely aesthetic but part of a polemic about social wellness' supported by a modish environmentalism in which 'we empower trees and shrubs' rather than human beings. However, this scenario does appear not to be the case in 2007, although quite how the inevitable densification continues to take place continues to be a major concern. Some towers could even conceivably be built in the city centre as Corbusier had proposed. Maintaining the city's beautiful singularity defined by its horizontal greenery and low density is vital, in spite of social pressures. Chandigarh has quite understandably proved to be a most powerful model for Indian cities, even though now a different genre of developer-driven townships is on the rise in the country, and none unfortunately shares the same density of housing (comparatively low) - or planting (pleasingly high).


© Stafano Graziani


© Stafano Graziani


© 2018 Lucy Bullivant



a + u feature series