by Gururas Khalsa
As I am riding in the back of a well cared for Toyota Innova (no, I’d never heard of one either), I catch a glimpse in the distance of the massive Secretariat with its heavy repetition and curved, sculptural roof-top silhouettes. Coupled with the heavy use of concrete and thick haze of pollution, it is only recognizable as something of grandeur because I knew what I was looking for. Earlier in the day, the hotel concierge had been perplexed when we asked how to get to the Capital Complex; “Oh, but the Rose Garden in Sector 16 is beautiful. It has 50,000 rose bushes, 1600 different species, and…”
We keep driving, and as we get closer, guards in red beret’s, shouldering AK 47s, approach and motion for us to stop. Our mild mannered, sort-of English speaking driver rolls down the window, and begins rattling on in Punjabi. At one point, one of guards smiles and says to us in thickly accented English, “No admission without permission!” With the help of our driver, we do our best to explain that we just want to see the buildings from the outside and take a few pictures. Yes, we understand we can’t go in. More Punjabi, more gesturing, and five minutes later we’re heading in the right direction. This would be the first of four heavily armed groups of guards we would talk ourselves through in our efforts to stand in front of some of the most iconic buildings of the modern architectural world.
I recently had the opportunity to travel to the state of Punjab in northern India. One of the sites on our self-planned tour was Chandigarh, a city planned by the Swiss-French architect Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier, or simply ‘Corb’ to the architecturally inclined. This was my second time here, as I was fortunate enough to have been able to spend a semester in India during my fourth year of architecture school, working on an independent study project. At that time, I was able to go through the laborious process of gaining admittance to all three of the Capital buildings designed by Le Corbusier in the Complex. Nine years later, my reactions to the city, and the architecture within, were similar, but the scene was taken in with very different eyes.
Following India’s independence in 1947 from two hundred years of colonial rule, the departing British partitioned the country, separating from India what is now Pakistan, in an effort to safeguard the future of the Muslim minority. When the map was redrawn, what had been the capital city of Punjab, Lahore, was now within the Pakistan border. The State Government of the Punjab was temporarily moved to the hill town of Shimla, the old summer capital of the British, during the hunt for a new legislative center. After surveying the many possibilities of established cities in the state, it was decided that a new capital city was to be built. This grand effort at the rehabilitation of Punjab was both practical and symbolic, and perhaps unbeknownst at the time, would also be the subject of curricula and study throughout the world’s architectural institutions.
Chandigarh was named after one of the existing villages that had been relocated to allow the new city to take shape. Chandigarh can be translated as House of Chandi – Chandi being the enabling force of transformation and change within the Hindu religion. For Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of the newly independent India, who is given much of the credit for the conceptualization and birth of the city, this was a key philosophy. An admirer of the United States, he endeavored to further the country’s advancements in technology, and even ordered the construction of numerous hydroelectric dams inspired by the Tennessee Valley Authority. At the inaugural ceremony of the city, Nehru defined Chandigarh’s identity as a ‘modern’ city and declared, “Let this be a new city, unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future.” Having traveled extensively throughout northern India, I can assure you, that while this concept has, so far, yet to be infused into the country at large, Nehru’s vision with the help of Le Corbusier’s exquisite detail, has made Chandigarh a modern oasis in an otherwise antiquated landscape and culture. It was the first time we witnessed a traffic light, linear roads that were not intertwined in a web of utter confusion, the first time we weren’t sharing the road with bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, and horse drawn carriages.
To translate Nehru’s lofty expectations, a team was hired to plan, design, and engineer the new city. Le Corbusier authored the Master Plan and the vast Capital Complex, consisting of the High Court, the Assembly, the Secretariat, the unbuilt Governor’s Residence, and the iconic Open Hand monument, a kind of graphic signature which has become the symbol of Chandigarh. The majority of the other buildings within the city were designed by Pierre Jeanneret (Le Corbusier’s cousin), Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, assisted by a design team of nine Indian architects and planners. The Chief Indian architect at the time, M.N. Sharma, is still living there today, and during my stay in school, I was privileged to be able to visit his home and speak with him about his experiences working with Le Corbusier and transforming his concepts into reality.
One of the issues he discussed was Le Corbusier’s struggle to blend his ‘Western’ background and experience with Chandigarh’s ‘Eastern’ contexts. Through many discussions, disagreements, and negotiations with the Indian government, he was able to find a harmony that, even to the untrained eye, is visibly apparent. Not only did he incorporate local building materials and techniques, he drew inspiration for his architectural designs from the landscape and culture within India, creating a monumental vocabulary throughout the city. His generic system of forms, the ‘five points of architecture’, the brise soleil, etc., are elegantly fused with Indian devices such as trabeated terraces, balconies, and loggias. The abstraction of a bull, sacred in the Hindu philosophy, is boldly represented in the Assembly building with an upwardly curving portico and towering solar sculptures. On the same building is a massive, enamel door consisting of 110 panels hand-painted by Le Corbusier incorporating “symbolic signs” representative of “our actuality… concerning the ethics, the social, and the politics of the present time.”
The magnificence and grandeur that Le Corbusier had conceived, and what the Capital I believe at one time embodied, have sadly been lost. The natural elements and human neglect have left the once brilliant primary colors painted on carefully selected portions of the facades dull and peeling. Reflecting pools green with algae and filled with debris and garbage, or in some places even completely drained, have been rendered useless in their original conception. The vast expanse of the concrete esplanade bifurcated by barbed wire fencing lends an eeriness that is palpable. Vast and abstract, daunting and puzzling, completely open yet spectacularly opaque to comprehension, the Capitol has the appearance “of a colossal grave, and dignified ruin.” At a 1999 conference ‘Celebrating 50 Years of Chandigarh,’ there was a call to declare the Capital Complex a “World Heritage Site.” The motion did not pass, and Le Corbusier’s masterpiece remains a hidden gem, misunderstood by those who call it their own and visited by no one, save architects on pilgrimage willing to give an apologetic smile to a guard.