A little on Chandigarh, a hand-painted city where it’s virtually impossible to get lost
There are lots of reasons why cities come into being. The first might be a purely practical one, as is the case with metropolises founded near fertile rivers, lakes or land. Another might religious or spiritual: cities born on mythical or sacred places, like Mexico City. Then there are cities born of ideology or for a name, as was the case with Alexandria or the renaming of Russian cities, like Volgograd to Stalingrad.
Sixty years ago, Chandigarh was conceived as a city to celebrate the independence of India. It’s a monument to the country’s entrance into the modern world. The name means “home of Chandi,” the warrior personified as Parvati, a deity of fertility love and devotion. Designed by the legendary architect Le Corbusier, today it’s the capital of the states of Punjab and Haryana and it was thought of as the “perfect city” (if that’s even possible).
About 300 kilometers north of Delhi, Chandigarh came into being in 1947, when the Punjab region was divided between India and the newly created Pakistan. The remaining part, in India, was then without a capital and so the Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, commissioned Le Corbusier to create a city to replace Lahore, the former Punjab capital now in Pakistani territory. Nehru imagined a city that was
“unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future.”
It was a metropolis born of ideas.
Le Corbusier devised a jewel of urbanism that survives as a collection of architecturally modern masterpieces. Even today, the city is substantially different from other cities in India. Every detail of the new metropolis was carefully planned to work perfectly. The architect and his team designed every detail, from the sculptures of the Supreme Court square to the door handles of the offices, and the most important administrative buildings, including the Capitol, the Supreme Court, the Secretariat, Parliament, a Governor’s Palace and a university.
Chandigarh is a city of open public spaces, unlike other large and more motley cities of India. Designed on a grid plane, it’s based on the plans of European cities like Paris but also on the early plans for New Delhi. But the grid of the Punjab capital also includes a series of curves, a hierarchy streets, and lanes for pedestrians and cyclists clearly designated and separated by green areas. A designated commercial street crosses the city from east to west. All of the city’s green areas were designed according to the principles of the Garden City urban movement.
Though it’s one of the most beautiful cities in India and a UNESCO World Heritage site, Chandigarh’s functionality – and indeed Le Corbusier’s master plan – is still criticized. It’s a city alienated from the rest of the country and its culture, but also one that’s sterile, expensive and lacking in social mobility.
Over time Chandigarh has expanded, surpassing the edges of what had been the perfect city. In this context, Le Corbusier’s project still generates relevant questions about utility and practicality in the “invention” of a metropolis, as though it were painting on canvas. We know that cities, like living people, are transformed in organic and uncontrollable ways. The act of conceiving and creating a city from nothing, taking on the role of demiurges, still amazes for its sheer ambition and beauty, especially in a city where every corner was designed with such care.
Images Creative Commons