Sunday, February 22, 2009

Writing Sample: "A Chandigarh Refresher" (Non-fiction)

This is a published article in a book of essays and commentary:

Le Corbusier, Chandigarh, and the Modern City
Insights into the iconic city sixty years later

Editors: Hasan-Uddin Khan with Julian Beinart and Charles Correa
Published 2009, Mapin, India & Grantha (UK)

This piece was aimed at those who were less familiar with the city's history and concept; it is essentially a Chandigarh 101.


Architecture to a large extent is a product of the age. It cannot isolate itself from the social conditions, the thinking and the objectives and the ideals of the age to which it belongs. … Many people argue about [Chandigarh], some like it, and some dislike it. It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head, and makes you think. … I do not like every building in Chandigarh. I like some of them very much. … I like the creative approach, not being tied down to what has been done by our forefathers but thinking in new terms, of light and air and ground and water and human beings. Therefore, Chandigarh is of enormous importance.

Jawaharlal Nehru

Seminar and Exhibition of Architecture, 17 March 1959, New Delhi (Kalia 29)

Chandigarh is, first and foremost, a planned city – among all of the new or renewed cities in post-Partition India, it is the most striking testament to the decisiveness and ambition of the Indian government. A planned city, as opposed to an organic city which has grown over time without any central design, is “a moral and social act to improve the urban condition. Its origins are in social reform and its objectives are to restructure urban life” (Kalia 121).

Chandigarh was the intended solution to several daunting problems which confronted the newly-independent Indian government in 1947, problems centered on the famous and politically explosive area of the Punjab. The Punjab was considered one of the gems of India, from the time of the Raj and long before, and its crowning jewel was the city of Lahore, famed for its cultural offerings, architecture, and long history as the capital of the region. But Lahore was awarded to Pakistan (then West Pakistan) in the Partition, and the Punjab – an area which had served as an ethnic unit in everything except religion (Nilsson 87) – was split along religious lines.

This meant that there was an administrative vacuum to fill – the Punjab needed a new capital city, one that could rival or replace Lahore in terms of cultural and social significance, economic production, beauty, governmental function, and national pride (Kalia 54, 144). Independence, Partition, and World War II had also, between them, left India with a significant refugee problem – mostly Hindus, originally from what had been turned into East and West Pakistan, who desperately needed a place in the new state (Kalia 1). A few months of religiously-fueled civil war had resulted in half a million dead and over twelve million homeless, who needed not only shelter, food and employment, but a new sense of national identity and pride to replace all the old ties and loyalties that had been irrevocably cut (Nilsson 88).

Why build a new city – why not just revamp or renew an old city, with its own proud history? Simla, the Raj’s cool and misty summer capital, was considered, but was eventually rejected because of its mountainous inaccessibility, its distance from the Grand Trunk Road, and its British Imperialist connotations (Nilsson 89). Financial concerns played a major part: adding “capital functions” to an existing town would in fact be just as expensive as building a brand-new city (Kalia 2). So the decision was made as early as 1948 to plan and build Chandigarh, a new capital. The plan was to create a modern, industrial town (Kalia 23), with room for decent refugee housing, for governmental buildings, and for expansion to accommodate a projected population of 150,000 in its First Phase (Joshi 12), and an ultimate of over half a million people (Kalia 3).

Site Selection

The site at Chandigarh was chosen by the government of East Punjab in March 1948. The name is a derivation of that of a Hindu goddess of power, Shri Chandika, whose center of worship was in the area. Located at the base of the Shivalik Range of the Himalayas, bordered by two seasonal rivers, the site was a flat, gently sloping plain, encompassing the mango groves, houses and temples of 58 existing villages with a resident population of roughly 21,000 people (Joshi 11). In 1950, the purchase was revised downward to 8,000 acres, at a cost of 100 million rupees. The land was still cheaper than several of the alternatives, and it was considered to be a “safe” distance from the Pakistani border (Kalia 12) – Amritsar having been rejected due to its proximity to said border. Water supplies (always a touchy subject in India) were to come from a reservoir to be created by damming the Ghaggar River, and from subterranean reserves under the city site itself (Kalia 18). The Indian government began accepting applications for residency as soon as 1949 (Kalia 5). By April 1952, 2500 residential plots had been sold to the public (Kalia 18).

The Planners

Chandigarh was the brainchild and darling of three very influential men: Jawaharlal Nehru, Albert Mayer, and Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, a.k.a. Le Corbusier. Nehru gave the city his enthusiasm and nationalistic idealism, trying to make it into a symbol and embodiment of his newly-fledged country’s modernity and ability. Albert Mayer was first hired to create the city’s master plan, with his assistant Matthew Nowicki working out the architectural details (Joshi 13). Mayer, an American designer and MIT graduate, was a personal friend of Nehru’s, having served in India during WWII (Kalia 25, 31). His fee was steep for financially-strapped India, however (Kalia 37-8), and he was replaced by Le Corbusier’s team in 1951, after Nowicki’s sudden death in an airplane crash.

The two architects’ ideologies clashed, and this difference in opinion is visible in Chandigarh’s eventual design. “Whereas Mayer’s thinking was rooted in the Garden City Movement and in the ideas of Camillo Sitte that placed urban design on the random forms resulting from the growth of medieval cities, Le Corbusier believed in the gridiron plan as the only correct way of approaching the modern problems of city planning” (Kalia 88). Another major difference in philosophy was that, though neither architect could be persuaded to live in India for any appreciable amount of time, Le Corbusier felt that a thorough understanding of Indian history, society and culture was extraneous and irrelevant to the planning of Chandigarh, while Mayer understood the relative paucity of his own knowledge, and regretted it, saying that “what others have accomplished or failed to accomplish seems to be due to much larger factors in the social and economic conditions than I can possibly control or influence, and which I don’t know that I thoroughly grasp” (Mayer, quoted in Kalia, 48).

Le Corbusier considered himself the “Spiritual Director” of Chandigarh, and was most involved in revising Mayer’s plan to suit his vision. The three Senior Architects on the project were his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, and the English husband-and wife architects Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Beverly Drew. Jeanneret, in contrast to his cousin’s lofty ideals, was considered a good detail man. Fry’s Quaker background and deep moorings in the family made him essentially a housing architect; he and his wife were especially qualified for the project due to their considerable experience developing designs and technologies for tropical conditions in West Africa.

Chandigarh: a city of subdivisions

Albert Mayer’s city would have been fan-shaped and firmly rooted in a naturalistic, almost anti-urban vision. Nowicki developed this into a leaf plan: curving roads branched off from a central stem or trunk road, like the veins of a leaf, further subdividing into neighborhoods, so that the edges of the city would be mostly composed of the smallest roads (Joshi 15).

Mayer’s overarching vision was based around his attempts to solve the problems he saw in American cities in the 1940s. He distilled these into three major issues. The first was the land-crowding tradition, for which he blamed the high cost of real estate; his solution was to emphasize open spaces, green areas, and above all plenty of natural light for offices as well as residential areas. Green areas were a pet idea, especially the idea of a green belt of forest, farms, and parkland around the city to prevent excessive expansion. From large parks to small hedged backyards, he wanted to give people outdoor places “to meet and dine” (Kalia 51). The second problem was the widening of downtown streets and narrowing of sidewalks caused by the automobile; to relieve car traffic he advocated that parking and loading areas all be off-street. The last problem was the un-integrated feeling of most American neighborhoods; Mayer wanted to “remake our cities so that they will be places in which responsible parents will desire to have children.” This meant a community that included residential, retail, and recreational areas and facilities as well as office space, all focussed around an elementary school (Kalia 62). This planned neighborhood unit became known as the Superblock, and it also formed the basis for Le Corbusier’s master plan, composed of large Sectors subdivided into Superblocks.

The concept of the Sector was a self-sufficient, introverted unit, containing shops, schools, health centers, places of recreation and worship. It was bounded by four fast-traffic roads and connecting to them only at four specific points (Joshi 14). It measured 800 by 1200 meters, which Le Corbusier claimed meant that no-one would ever have to walk more than ten minutes from the farthest point to the center of the Sector. Each Sector was divided into three major density groupings by income level, the housing planned in fourteen different categories of grandeur for the various governmental employee ranks (Kalia 106-8).

Le Corbusier’s Vision

Le Corbusier presented a plan to Nehru which he called the “CIAM Town-Planning Grid” (CIAM being the Congrès Internationeaux d’Architecture Moderne, of which all four major architects of Chandigarh were members). It attempted to create a hierarchical system to order the citizens’ living, working, recreation, and communication (a city’s four functions, as defined by Patrick Geddes), and to reintroduce sun, space, and greenery into modern urban life (Kalia 105). Whereas Mayer had been very concerned with the “socioeconomic factors of the city, its potential for future growth, the peculiarities of Indian traffic” and social customs, Le Corbusier was more concerned with the physical look of the city – with making it avoid the appearance of an industrial town, with the monumentality of the building designs, and with the separation as much as possible of automobiles and people in daily life (Kalia 106-110). He was also much more concerned with climate than with culture; he wanted the buildings to be livable in India’s heat, and to that end his team studied the climactic issues closely while designing the major edifices of Chandigarh.

Despite this nod towards climate, Le Corbusier’s ultimate goal was, in Chandigarh as well as in most of his other city plans, to discover or apply a universal plan – “attention was devoted to the physical aspects of planning while important social functions were neglected [… in an] attempt to formulate simple ‘rules’ which would be applicable the world over” (Nilsson 95). Thoroughly a product of the classic western tradition, Le Corbusier’s ideal cities were those of Ancient Rome, which he described in La Ville Radieuse: “The Roman city is a city of ORDER. Disciplined, hierarchic, dignified…” (Nilsson 97). Unfortunately, the monumentalism and hierarchic organization he so admired were among the principles from which Nehru’s government was attempting to move away, reminiscent as they were of the recent British Imperialist philosophy – but this was not apparent until well after the construction had begun.

The basic design was hammered out in less than four days, relying on the Mayer plan even while changing it, and thereafter only details were refined without changing the original idea much (Nilsson 96). The city plan contained four main work areas: the Capitol, the University zone, the City Center, and an industrial area. Though Le Corbusier initially vehemently resisted the idea of Chandigarh becoming an industrial town, he set aside 580 acres of land for “light” electric-powered industry, separated from any housing areas by a wide green belt. (Kalia 119).

Le Corbusier’s cure for the urban congestion he saw around him rested on the separation of automobile traffic and pedestrians (Kalia 106). He first divided traffic into seven categories comprising a hierarchy of circulation and congestion: V-1 roads were regional highways leading into the city; V-7s were the parkland footpaths. [added details in map caption] He believed that using them to divide up the Sectors created “order” in the city (Kalia 108).

The City Center buildings were mostly standardized concrete-frame constructions four storeys high (height restrictions were due to fear of earthquakes and lack of elevators), with no housing. Le Corbusier’s pet projects were in the Capitol Complex, which was hoping to employ nearly 18,000 government workers in the Legislative Assembly, the High Court, and the Secretariat. The Complex “resembles an acropolis of monuments, which radiate their dominance for miles” against the backdrop of the Himalayan foothills (Kalia 112-3).

As always, Le Corbusier’s designs remind one of geometrical exercises. The High Court, first to be completed, was a huge parasol of concrete, held over the court roofs by arches. The structue of the Secretariat, the biggest building in the Complex, resembles a huge wall visually broken up with recesses, projections, stair towers and changes in pattern. The Assembly, third to be built, is a play of concrete cubes with a pyramidal prism and a hyperbolic form that resembles the cooling tower of a nuclear power plant. Nehru vetoed Le Corbusier’s plan for a governor’s residence within the Complex as being undemocratic. Other planned but never-built structures included a futuristic science museum, a cultural center, and a “leisure valley” for the performing arts. Eventually, Punjab University was built in the area, designed mostly by Pierre Jeanneret and B.P. Mathur.

Design Weaknesses, Slums, and Cultural Cross-Purposes

Chandigarh’s design included several major flaws, but they did not become prominent until after much of the city had been built. The city’s vaunted green belts, parks and gardens fell prey to the harsh Punjabi climate, the lack of resources to buy or renew plants and pay gardeners, water shortages, and the stray animals so common to Indian cities (Kalia 120). Preventing unplanned construction became another major issue for the regional government, despite the passing of several laws such as the Punjab Act and the Punjab New Capital (Periphery Control) Act, both in 1952. These attempted to prevent any construction not approved by the Deputy Commissioner in writing. Anyone who knew much about the usual Indian response to such measures could have predicted their ineffectiveness.

Illegal commercial areas, industrial ventures, and especially habitations sprang up all over the city. Planned growth lagged far behind due to administrative indecision (exacerbated by the lack of any municipal authority – as opposed to central or regional – until 1996, when a mayor and councilors were elected), artificial shortages in building materials (corruption), and general lack of funds (Kalia 122-132). All these factors combined to the rise of slums, which squat in stark contrast to the neighboring planned housing and give the lie to Chandigarh’s image as an equal, democratic city for the world’s largest democracy. Nehru said, “Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India” (Kalia 21) – but starting relatively soon after its construction, Chandigarh’s physical landscape reflected the huge economic and social gaps characteristic of most Indian cities.

“Shacks are squeezed onto every square patch of land, starting at the edge of the airport runway… There are even shack-shops sporting Coca-Cola signs, and shack-temples” (Kalia 161). It is estimated that a quarter of the population lives in unauthorized structures; the city’s total population is almost double the original maximum capacity estimate and is still growing; power consumption and water supply demands cannot even remotely be met, resulting in frequent shortages of both; and nearly all room for expansion has been exhausted, necessitating new communities to be planned beyond Chandigarh’s bordering rivers (Kalia 157-8).

The city’s plan was trying to solve Western urban problems, not Indian ones, and this is the root of many of Chandigarh’s issues. It was based on the consumption patterns, lifestyle and eccentricities of the industrialized West’s middle classes. The physical aspects of the city reflect this: overscaled streets for high-volume traffic (whereas Indian culture favors small or animal-powered vehicles, and the climate demands small, shaded streets); single-family homes with gardens (South Asians prefer to live in large multi-generation family units, and prefer courtyards to gardens which use too much water); and large, concrete-based open spaces (which in India’s climate are murderously hot, unpleasant, and therefore deserted). The homes and gardens are overscaled, and even the well-heeled citizens find it prohibitively expensive to maintain them.

Additionally, the planners had made an effort at an artificial social engineering, by assigning homes in Chandigarh in mixed-income groups by administrative rank. The highest-paid officials and the largest houses were nearest the Capitol, and the greater the distance of a sector from it, the higher was its population density. Densities varied from 7 persons per acre to 100 in the high-density Sectors – which was still less than 1/10th the average density of a New Delhi neighborhood (Joshi 15). This practice of mixed-income organization, rather than by caste, community, or language group was completely incompatible with the traditional social structure, and the city’s residents duly rearranged itself so that today Chandigarh resembles most other Indian cities (Kalia 149-50).

In all fairness, it is said that though Chandigarh feels like “an alien concept in which people have been forced to live,” today’s Indian architects might end up designing a similar master plan simply due to the fact that the majority of their educational training is Western (Kalia 154).

Competing Cities

In 1966 the Punjab was bifurcated along linguistic lines; the two dominant communities being Hindi-speaking Hindus and Punjabi-speaking Sikhs (Kalia 133). Next to (and partially out of) a new, reduced Punjab, two new states were created: Haryana, and Himachal Pradesh. Chandigarh was caught between Punjab and Haryana, with each state demanding the city as its own capital; Prime Minister Gandhi awarded it to Punjab in 1970, giving it the status of a union territory administered by a separate secretariat and regulatory agency (Kalia 135-7).

Today, due to spatial restrictions, the city region is dottoed with the new satellite towns of Parwanoo, Punchkula, Sahibzada Ajit Singh (S.A.S.) Nagar, Hindustan Machine Tools (H.M.T.) Township, and Chandimandir Cantonment – none of which are included in Chandigarh’s original master plan. Several occupy areas earmarked for the city’s greenbelt; for example, Punjab developed S.A.S. Nagar as an industrial and economic suburb contiguous to Chandigarh’s city limits. In response, Haryana developed Punchkula, which has since mushroomed in population and attracted many new builders. Neither of these towns, however, has a decent urban infrastructure, and both must depend on Chandigarh for basic amenities such as medical care and education (Kalia 139).

Chandigarh Today

No longer a mere administrative capital, Chandigarh today serves as the regional center for cultural, economic, educational, and social activities. Thousands of people from neighboring towns and villages commute daily into the city for one reason or another (Kalia 153). Its population has risen over one million, more than twice the number it was originally planned to hold. It covers 114 square kilometers, with an average population density of approximately 8,000 persons per square kilometer.

It was once hoped that Chandigarh’s projected success would influence other Indian cities, creating a better urban environment across the country; it was “forgotten, however, that innovations in new towns are usually not transferable to existing cities.” In addition, it is a South Asian peculiarity that “modern” (i.e. Western) cities do not necessarily have a modernizing influence on their regions; they are usually just outward expressions of middle and upper class lifestyles (Kalia 146-8). In a way, this is very expressive of Indian culture: planned as an egalitarian, democratic statement, it has evolved into a hierarchical chaos.

“Chandigarh began as the cherished hope for equality; it now stands charged as a socially segregated city, a fortress of privilege. Yet, it is a city with beauty, with space, with light

Ravi Kalia

Works Cited:

Joshi, Kiran. Chandigarh: the context” in The Transformation of Chandigarh: 16 projects of professor Patrick Berger’s studio. (Translation: P. Bonhôte & S. Hare) Lausanne: Presses polytechniques et universitaires romandes, 2003.

Kalia, Ravi. Chandigarh: the Making of an Indian City. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Nilsson, Sten. Chandigarh” in The New Capitals of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Scandinavian Institute of Asian Studies Monograph Series, No. 12. Copenhagen: Curzon Press, 1973.

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