Ville Machine: Chandigarh

Words & Images: Tag Christof

March 20 2016

Colonialism was dead. And so the newly minted first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru, wished to communicate to the world that his young, new country was to be a paradigm of modernity, progress, and technology. He recruited Le Corbusier, the notoriously single-minded French architect to help build a city that would reflect his ambitions. Together the two built Chandigarh.

India is a country of vibrant, chaotic cities. Their streets wind every which way, rickshaws and tuk tuks vie for space with cows and flashy luxury cars and ramshackle old taxis. Drivers use their horns gratuitously, but instead of angry New York-style outta my way blasts, Indian honks are polite, staccato, and like a highly developed form of sonar. Restaurants and shops are hidden in plain sight everywhere. All in all, an Indian city is generally vibrant, emergent, improvised, organic.

Chandigarh is the one and only anomaly. From the sky, its gridded streets could pass for any anonymous city in the American west. Its thoroughfares are long, tree-lined avenues each terminating in massive roundabout nodes. The city was a beneficiary and major case study for the “City Beautiful” movement in urban planning, in which it was believed that monumental tree-lined parks and grand spaces were the tonics to many societal ills. These ideals gave the city its beautiful rose garden, sweeping vistas, and relatively spacious feel, but they also leave it feeling rather empty compared to other Indian cities. 

From the road, or along any of its interminable sidewalks, Chandigarh feels expansive the way Phoenix, Arizona feels expansive: the hot air and sprawl almost certainly mean you should stay home in the air conditioning and definitely not walk anywhere. Still, over the course of a few days, I walked more than 30 miles along and through the grid and found that what are usually spatial black holes in American cities – open, undeveloped fields, parking lots, sidewalks, etc. –are used creatively in Chandigarh. Anywhere is fair game for a car repair stop, a trough for feeding horses and mules, impromptu mini markets, space to play board games or cricket. There’s even an entire old village, Burail, that is walled off from its surrounding area and functions somewhat independently of its surroundings in full-on emergent chaos. The familiar smells of spices and engine exhaust are everywhere. Chandigarh might be an aberration, but it is a thoroughly Indian city.

Each megablock is designated with a very sci-fi sector number (I stayed at the edge of Sector 35A, for instance). On the interior of each are mostly tree-lined, neat rows of minimal, modernist brick houses with well-groomed little yards and a place to park a car. The outer roads are lined mostly by long proto strip malls that today house everything from microbreweries to motels, pet shops, bakeries and clinics. You can walk along them for miles, mostly in the shade of their broad 1960s-style porticoes, never seeing the same type of business twice.

Off the northwest end of the grid is Le Corb’s pièce-de-resistance, the Capitol Complex. To enter, you are required to show your passport and visa at a police station, who then faxes it to a number of other government agencies to clear you in. A Japanese architecture student and I waited almost six hours for approval, but were both eventually welcomed in with a comprehensive tour. The complex was built as the government headquarters for the state of Punjab, and which later became a “union territory” shared between Punjab and the newly formed state of Haryana. The two share Chandigarh as their capital, and each carries out its legislative and political business in one side of each of the main structures, the Secretariat building, the High Court and the Assembly.

Above is the front elevation of the Assembly, with an Le Corbusier sketch of the side elevation. While the tilted cylindrical structure up top was part of the original design, the angular multi-sided pyrimidal structure was added later for Haryana. The interior (no photos allowed) is otherworldly and totally frozen in time – it is the bureaucratic inside of India that the public rarely sees, and includes a treasure trove of fraying Pierre Jeanneret furniture in teakwood and rattan, carpet whose bold colors could only come from the 1960s, and spectacular, soundproofed assembly chambers that still make use of vintage microphones and speakers for twice-yearly legislative meetings.

The other official buildings in the complex can only be viewed by visitors at a bit of a distance, including the High Court (below). It looks vaguely like Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation from a distance, but it is mostly architecturally noteworthy for the massive concrete structure that surrounds the inhabited part of the building below – apparently, it makes the large spaces within much easier to cool during the hot summer months. Also, note the most stylish government plant displays on the planet. No #institutionplant in Chandigarh.

Nearby is the Open Hand, which doubles as a sculptural monument to peace – Le Corb said that “an open hand can hold no weapon,” or so the legend goes – as well as a giant bird-shaped weather vane that moves with a lumbering grace in heavy wind. It has become one of the popular symbols of India, and is also the official symbol of Chandigarh.

Nearby is the Tour d’Ombres, or Tower of Shadows, a concrete with no interior designed to showcase how good design makes for better architecture the interior space gets no direct sunlight all year, and thus almost always maintains a temperate atmosphere inside despite having no windows, doors, or enclosed walls.

For better or for worse, Chandigarh very much became a template for 20th century cities: spacious, optimistic, and a total slave to the automobile. Generations on, the whole city still stands as a monument to progress, however outdated, that remains inspiration for its sheer determination and beauty.

There’s also Nek Chand’s fascinating, immersive, labyrinthine Rock Garden, but that’s a blog post for a different day.

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