May 16, 2011

Chandigarh, an architect’s mecca, and me, a kid who likes to think of himself as a bit of an architect, met under uncertain circumstances. I had just run out of money, and of course, it was Friday afternoon, just after the banks closed for the weekend in the states. So I was limited to just 400rs a day for the weekend until I could get money out Monday evening. But I was not going to let a little thing like that affect my pilgrimage¬† to one of the world’s most architecturally famous cities. I was like a kid in a candy store.

Chandigarh, designed from scratch and built on an area of dust and dirt next to a small river over 50 years ago, was a symbol for India’s independence and progress at a time when the country was still a fledgling on the international scene. Championed by Nehru, the city’s architect was Le Corbusier, one of the greatest architects and architectural theorists of our time. Its masterplan, urban systems, infrastructure, and many of this buildings were designed by Corbusier and his team, and the result is amazing. It has as many flaws as it has successes, but to experience a city that was designed by one of architecture’s great modern thinkers, to walk down his streets, to see his thoughts and methods in action, and to physically experience, frankly, a theory, is incredible.

If I am going to get into it, and I don’t think I’ll be able to restrain myself, we first need to look at the problems. First in my mind is the way the city’s growth has been handled over the past fifty years. I don’t think Corbu left quite enough of a guideline or system for growth for the city’s government to go by, or if he did, the government does not quite get it. There is so much potential for modern redevelopment on both a commercial and residential scale within just the city center – large areas right downtown are just sitting, unused except by the dogs and mice who call the scrubby grasses home – but for some reason, the city feels the need to expand out instead of in, which is really a massive loss of potential. There could be so much more life and activity downtown if the blocks were filled in and kept up. And, if I can complain directly to Corbusier for a second – Corbu, your blocks are too big. I know why you did it, and the logic is valid, but at 800m by 1200m, you gota break it up a bit.

But man oh man, the successes! Its so green! There are trees everywhere, grass lining sidewalks, and an amazing system of parks and corridors. It is a beautiful city just for that. But then the transportation systems are great and easy to use. Its internal block fabric is another success, although I would have to live in it for a while to really get a feel for it. And his buildings! Beautiful on the outside and breathtaking on the inside; it is spectacular to see so much of his work in just a few days. The High Court building was simply awesome (after wading through an insane amount of governmental procedures and paperwork), I must have taken 200 photos alone in the Government Museum (and none of that of the art itself), but the Assembly building left me speechless. Simply speechless.

In the end (yes Jeff, “in the end”), if I may make a few bold claims made on my brief impressions of only a few days time, I think that Chandigarh is a city with a lot of underutilized potential. And only a few changes in the city’s approach – namely re-development instead of development – would truly make Chandigarh a city of the world instead of a city of India. But that being said, to see it in action, to see Corbusier’s theories manifested and his buildings standing to the test of time, is really a beautiful thing. I only wish I could spend a few more months here and really get to see how well the city works – how good its concrete buildings are in the heat and the rains, how comprehensive its public transportation systems are, how the residential systems work, and to see if my first impressions have any weight.

2 Responses to “Chandigarh”

  1. Dan Saulnier Says:

    Is that really India? There are no people in any of these pictures.

  2. johngmartin Says:

    Wow I did not notice that. Its a bit eerie, because there were in fact people everywhere for all of these pictures…

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