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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

City beautiful – Brick by brick

A series on the buildings by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret

Chandigarh |
Updated: August 30, 2021 10:51:50 am
The curvature of Mayer’s original fan-shaped concept, with roads conforming to the terrain of the site, was reworked into a grid with curves so shallow as to nearly be orthogonal by Le Corbusier.

(Written by Sandeep Goyal)

I came to Chandigarh as a 5-year-old in 1967. My parents, both government servants, had been posted in the previous few years to various small towns of Punjab. But soon as it was time for me to join a regular school, my mother was mighty worried: there were no good enough schools in the locations they were posted to. My parents opted to move to Chandigarh. So, I got to do my entire schooling (Sacred Heart and St. John’s) and college (DAV) in Chandigarh, till I left to do my Masters in 1982.

I have been away from Chandigarh ever since – nearly 40 years now. But I still call the city my own, my home. To be honest, my visits to the city were short and infrequent till about four years ago. Mostly to just visit my parents who retired and settled down at our house in Sector 21. My love affair with The City Beautiful got re-ignited quite by chance. I decided to sponsor the rather decrepit Matka Chowk roundabout. I then proposed to erect a monumental art installation at the site. And that brought me in contact (and a low-decibel confrontation) with the city’s Heritage Committee. But it also got me introduced to the Chief Architect and the Principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture. And through my interactions with them was born the idea of launching The Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret Forum (LCPJ) – a think tank and a forum that would focus on the phenomenal legacy of its founders, create conversations around it, and also become a meeting point for Chandigarhwallahs. Supported and anchored by my friend, Prof. Avanendra Chopra.

With the State of Punjab bisected at the time of the Partition and Lahore having gone to Pakistan, a new capital was needed for India’s Punjab. Also independent India needed to make an unequivocal statement to the entire world that a new India—modernized, prosperous, and independent – had arrived. The capital of the Punjab was chosen to be that showcase to the world. To be built in a plain situated along an existing railroad track 270 kilometers (167.8 miles) north of New Delhi. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, awarded the mandate for the new capital city to the American architect Albert Mayer and his collaborator Matthew Nowicki. Over the next year, the pair developed a plan based on a Garden City model but, then Nowicki died unexpectedly in an accident in August 1950, and Mayer withdrew from the project.

With Mayer-Nowicki gone, PM Nehru sent the Chandigarh Capital Project team to Europe to search for a replacement. They were referred to the French architect Le Corbusier who agreed on the grounds that his cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, be hired as the site architect. Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, the English couple and architectural team who had suggested Le Corbusier for the project, also agreed to work on the housing for the project; Le Corbusier himself said he would be in charge of further developing and detailing the preliminary plan already laid out by Mayer and Nowicki.

The curvature of Mayer’s original fan-shaped concept, with roads conforming to the terrain of the site, was reworked into a grid with curves so shallow as to nearly be orthogonal by Le Corbusier. The new roads were assigned a hierarchy, ranging from “V1” arterials that connected cities to “V7” pedestrian paths and “V8” bicycle paths. The grid of roadways bounded large Sectors (originally referred to as “Urban Villages” in the Mayer scheme), each of which featured a strip of green space along the north-south axis crossed with a commercial road running from east to west. The new layout compressed Mayer’s 6,908 acres down to 5,380 acres, increasing the density of the city by 20% while still essentially respecting the principles of the Garden City concept.

The new capital’s system of grand boulevards with key focal points was inspired from Paris. Le Corbusier was also influenced, some say, by Lutyen’s New Delhi, a more local example of comprehensive city planning aimed at the glorification of the state. The overall rectilinear format of Chandigarh has also been compared by experts to the squared layout of medieval Beijing. The new city on the drawing board was therefore based on concepts from three national capitals.

While the Master Plan took form as Le Corbusier envisioned, he was never pleased with the housing that rose alongside his cherished grid. From the moment he took on the project, the architect intended to apply his Unité d’Habitation concept to Chandigarh, inserting residential high-rises for the city’s government employees into the otherwise low-lying city. However, the local government demurred, and the design of the residential units became the sole responsibility of Jeanneret, Fry, and Drew.

The residences they designed fell into 13 categories based on the rank and incomes of the government officials who would inhabit them. Each category was assigned both a number denoting its rank in this financial scheme and a letter indicating its designer; however, all were unified in their modern, geometric simplicity. The primary visual interest in the otherwise monolithically rectangular buildings came from the deep overhangs and recesses employed for the purpose of shading, along with perforated screens and, in some cases, verandahs.

In my interactions with civic authorities in Chandigarh, I figured that not enough has been done to archive, preserve, analyse and research the monumental work that went into these government residences. The LCPJ is now partnering with the Chandigarh College of Architecture to create museum quality miniatures of each type of these buildings, and then archive the drawings, create 3D/4D visualizations, and get their students to research and record all the architectural thinking, and goodness, of these residences.

The LCPJ is also proud to partner with The Indian Express to run a series on the creations of Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, and to share the beauty of the legacy created by Jeanneret, Fry and Drew.

There are many more plans – on awards, on seminars, on conservation – but we will share them by and by. For now, look forward, to a really educative and knowledgeable series in this newspaper on Chandigarh’s forgotten pearls.

(Dr. Sandeep Goyal is Chief Mentor of The Le Corbusier & Pierre Jeanneret Forum)

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