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Le Corbusier's dream lives on in India

"Symphony in concrete" - the Capitol complex designed by Le Corbusier swissinfo.ch

An Indian town designed by a Swiss architect is set to join the ranks of the Unesco World Heritage sites in 2009.

This content was published on July 21, 2008 - 15:51

Swiss-born Le Corbusier oversaw the building of the city of Chandigarh - the only one of his town designs ever to be realised - during the 1950s.

For Indians, the town - 250 kilometres north of New Delhi - is already synonymous with success.

"You know, it is the Indian town that has the highest number of cars per resident." This fact is proudly repeated by the Chandigarhis, but not as a way of complaining about pollution. They mean that it is quite simply the richest town in the country.

Instead of cows in the streets, there is golf for the rich. And iPhones sold like hot cakes before their official release in the rest of the country.

Le Corbusier's plan was simple: around 60 identical rectangles – 800 by 1,200 metres – linked by large avenues.

Each of the districts was designed to be autonomous with its own shops, schools and temples. Everything is a ten-minute walk away. The stress is on rationality - the only exception being the lack of a 13th district, one of Le Corbusier's superstitions.

In the north of the town, the architect built its administrative buildings in his very recognisable style. The parliament, government and courts of justice stand at the end of long avenues, rough concrete against the blue sky.

Although some people complain that the material used for the building is not suitable for the heat, most inhabitants love the town. They have even nicknamed it "the town of son-in-laws", claiming that the girls of Chandigarh who go to live far away with their in-laws, always end up returning there with their husbands.

A corner of paradise

It has to be said that Chandigarh boasts an unparalleled quality of life when compared to other towns in the country. "It is the most beautiful town in India: the greenest, the cleanest and the best organised," enthuses one resident of 40 years' standing.

Hundreds of acacia, poplar and plane trees line the avenues. At the heart of the town, Le Corbusier set aside dozens of hectares for parks. Its artificial lake has become the relaxation spot for families at the weekend. Rarely for India, there is no rubbish in the roads, on lawns or at the lakeside.

This is largely to be explained by the make-up of the population. Ever since it was built Chandigarh has been a town of bureaucrats, a ghetto for the middle and upper classes from which the poor are excluded.

The town is also famous for its university. On an American-style campus, Chandigarh boasts one of the best law faculties in the country, a prestigious architecture faculty and a highly respected university hospital.

"By ordering the construction of Chandigarh, [former Prime Minister Jawaharlal] Nehru wanted to build a town of knowledge and in this sense it is a success," says Sarabjit Pandher, correspondent for The Hindu daily newspaper. At once the town attracted students from all over India.

"I always wanted to come to Chandigarh for its university," explains Rajendra, a student originally from Rajasthan, in between two law classes.

"I would love to stay after finishing my studies but it is difficult to find a house and work here."

Overpopulated

And that's the rub. Initially planned for a population of 150,000, subsequently adapted to accommodate 500,000, the town now has around 1.5 million inhabitants. While the population continues to grow, the town is paralysed on a daily basis by rush hour traffic jams.

"We are studying the possibility of building a metro and underground parking facilties, but there's a terrible shortage of land, especially for creating new districts," explains Sunita Monga, the town's chief architect.

Crammed as it is into its tight straightjacket, the town still needs to find space for another 60,000 or so workers to meet the needs of booming information technology companies. Include their families, and 250,000 new arrivals could be settling there in the coming months.

How can it grow without being disfigured? How can it respond to the challenge of a double boom - economical and demographical – while still respecting the architectural heritage of Le Corbusier?

An insoluble paradox?

Town planners like Madhu Sarin don't know where to turn.

"Chandigarh is a horizontal town. There are no tall buildings. It is impossible to build skyscrapers without disfiguring it. Le Corbusier, for example, only provided for eight courts while today we need 15 to 20 to deal with all cases. But you can't add an annexe to a Le Corbusier building."

Chandigarh has other problems to deal with too: corruption, speculation, lack of transparency in decision-making.

Becoming a world heritage site will help protect Le Corbusier's creation. Only 60 years after its creation – the mere blink of an eye in the history of a town - it will be added to the prestigious Unesco list next year.

Jawaharlal Nehru, India's first prime minister, asked Le Corbusier to create a city that would be "a symbol of the nation's faith in the future, unfettered by the traditions of the past."

The architect gave India a fundamentally western-style, international town.

The innovative spirit lives on. Chandigarh aims to become the first town in India to rely entirely on solar power by 2012.

swissinfo, Miyuki Droz Aramaki and Sylvain Lepetit in Chadigarh

The birth of Chandigarh

At the time of the 1947 partition between India and Pakistan, western Punjab, including the state capital, Lahore, was allocated to Pakistan.

India decided to build a new capital for the Indian state of Punjab. It was called Chandigarh in honour of the goddess Chandi, whose temple was located nearby.

Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru wanted to create a model for development of a modern India. Le Corbusier was engaged in 1951 after the original architect died.

He drew up the overall plan of the town and the Capitol (a complex housing the seat of the state government, parliament and high court).

Other architects – Le Corbusier's cousin Pierre Jeanneret, the English architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, and a team of Indian architects - took care of the rest of the buildings: housing, hotels, local administration.

Today, Chandigarh has the highest literacy rate in the country (73% of the population, compared to India's average of 59.5%) and the highest income per capita.

However, 25% of its population still lives in makeshift camps on the outside of the town.

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Le Corbusier

Le Corbusier, real name Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, was born in La Chaux-de-Fonds in 1887.

He settled in Paris in 1917, where he opened an architecture workshop.

From 1920 onwards, "Purism" was at the heart of his work and after 1929 he concentrated on the problems of cities.

He died in 1965 in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin in the South of France where he had built a villa.

Highlights:
1930-1932: Swiss pavilion at the Cité Universitaire in Paris
1946-1952: Cité Radieuse Housing Unit in Marseille
1950: Chapel of Notre-Dame du Haut in Ronchamp, France
1950s: Chandigarh, new capital of Punjab in India
1960: remodelling of the seafront in Algiers

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