CHD, a dive into the architectural history of City Beautiful

CHD is an architectural travel guide, literally a brick-and-mortar history of the city, and it was published by a Spanish architect who made Chandigarh her home five years ago.

Written by Nirupama Subramanian | Published:June 12, 2017 3:46 am
Ariadna Garetta with the book. (Express Photo)

CITY BEAUTIFUL has a well-kept secret. And I stumbled upon it during a visit to Ahmedabad, where an architect friend told me about it. Not surprising, considering Chandigarh and Ahmedabad are linked, architecturally speaking. After Chandigarh, Ahmedabad was where Le Corbusier left an imprint, and where the modernist tradition was carried forward by his students B V Doshi and Louis Kahn. But back to the secret. It’s a book, 243 pages in all, in a size that goes into a handbag, each page a brief description of the city’s most significant buildings, with a photograph, an architect’s drawing and little nuggets about each building.

The title, CHD, short for Chandigarh, was chosen not because it sounds cool, which it does, but because the full name would not have fitted on the cover in the right size. CHD is an architectural travel guide, literally a brick-and-mortar history of the city, and it was published by a Spanish architect who made Chandigarh her home five years ago. Ariadna Garetta runs her own publishing house called Altrim, and collaborated with Vikramaditya Prakash, a US-based Indian architect, teacher and urban historian for the book. Prakash, who has written the book, grew up in Chandigarh. He is the son of Aditya Prakash, who worked with Corbusier on the School of Art, and was later the principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture.

“Vikram was already working on an idea that was very similar to mine. He understood exactly what I was trying to do. It was most wonderful to work with him,” said Garetta, when I finally met her last month one hot afternoon over lassi at noisy Gopal’s, just before she flew off to Spain for a break. Adriana says she felt the need for a book like this when she first visited the city as an architecture tourist. “As a professional architect, I was looking for information about the buildings in a compact book, but there wasn’t one. And I thought, why not I do something to provide this information,” she said.

Prakash’s two-to-three paragraph descriptions focus on the pure architectural aspects of each building, with a brief comment. For instance, he describes the Carmel Convent complex, the way it is now, as “schizophrenic”, with the “austere old modernist bloc at its core complemented by a massive gymnasium block added by [architect] Shivdutt Sharma in the 90s. The old block is almost prosaic, a clear volume with alternately projecting and receding parapets.The gymnasium is by contrast an overscaled brick volume with an ambitious steel truss roof.”

Included also are the older Prakash’s Corbu House hostel building on the PEC Campus, with its zigzag corridor, sun protected sleeping balconies and rooms with direct access to daylight, his College of Architecture, J K Chaudhary’s PEC building, and the Panjab University buildings, all designed by a galaxy of modernists. A lay reader may not understand all the architectural terms. But it’s a user-friendly guide of the city, even for the uninitiated. Most of Chandigarh’s main “tourist attractions” are, after all, architectural – even Sukhna is an architect’s fantasy made real — and this book brings them all together.

Arranged around 11 “itineraries”, the book covers buildings or houses in a cluster of neighbouring sectors, the architects who designed them, whether it was Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, B P Mathur, the author’s father, Jane Drew, and the individual styles they brought to the city’s housing, instititutions, shops, markets and private homes. My eye fell on Itinerary 8, only because of its title — Geri Route — starting at Sector 11 and ending at 26. The idea here is to “check out” the buildings.

Prakash says the route, which acquired a life of its own in the 70s, is a tribute to the modernist concept of the market, “not as a space of gathering around a plaza or a court, but as a site of movement and walking, with slow-moving traffic, reflective of the life of a flaneur”, a leisurely stroller, who observes as he walks. The route begins at the Jeanneret- designed shops-cum-houses in 11-D, with their jaali fronts and houses on top, and then to some private houses that were pucca modernist, and others that strained at the leash of ‘frame control’.

Next up, Karuna Sadan and UT Public Health Office are M N Sharma’s brick reinterpretation of modernism, more a nod to Kahn’s IIM, says Prakash. The fire station is “classic modernism” with a “proudly foregrounded river rock random rubble masonry wall”, a technique perfected in Chandigarh. The Jeanneret-designed Mountview, writes Prakash, is now an “unfortunate, and for that reason, interesting pastiche of layers of commercial ‘renovations’ in the latest ‘styles’.” The route also covers the houses of the architects who worked with Corbusier, including Prakash, M N Sharma, B P Mathur and Harbinder Chopra.

Alert geri routers would find several of Corbusier’s original manholes covers, with a map of the city drawn into them. For someone who has been here two years, I am continually surprised by how much I do not yet know about Chandigarh. This book was another revelation of that, a real eye-opener. The book has sold 800 copies in India, and 300 in Europe. Adriana, who has taken all the photographs for the book, said it was a bit disappointing not to find it on the shelves in any of the tourist department shops, such as the one at Sukhna Lake, or at the Le Corbusier Centre.

But she’s put that disappointment behind and moved on. She has eight more architectural travel guides in the pipeline, each about a different Indian city, and one on Dhaka. Each is written by an architect. And except for Chandigarh, they are all named after airport codes (CHD is easier to understand than IXC, the airport code for Chandigarh). So Ahmedabad, which is next out, is ABD. It will be DAC after that, then JAI, and GOI. (Kabhi Kabhi, as the name suggests, will be an occasional column about books, people and events in Tricity)

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