I’m neither an urban planner nor an architect, but I tend to have strong opinions on these subjects. I have always been in awe of how India, the posterchild of global poverty in the late 40s, started building a new city from scratch almost immediately after its independence in 1947. A city that today houses more than a million people. I am writing this post partly because of my fascination with urban planning, and partly because I have a solid relationship with the city in question – I lived here for nine years as a child.
Located at the foothills of the Himalayas in northern India and named after the Hindu Goddess Chandi (a temple to whom was located near the chosen site), Chandigarh was one of the first (and some would say only) planned cities in independent India.
But how did Chandigarh come about? As the city of Lahore was lost to Pakistan during the partition of Punjab (and indeed the whole subcontinent) in 1947, the part of Punjab in India (comprising of today’s states of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh) required a new capital. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, was keen on building a new capital city, designed by the the best planners of the world, that would go on to become a powerful and influential city, and a role model for other cities across the world. So, work began on building a brand new city from scratch, that is today a union territory and the shared capital of the two states of Punjab and Haryana.
Nearly every schoolchild in Chandigarh will confidently answer, “Le Corbusier” when asked who planned the city they live in. But as with most things, we as people tend to remember heroes, champions and superstars, and gloss over or forget the roles of other exemplary figures whose contributions are often just as impressive, if not as influential. Few residents of the city would know about the other planners and architects chosen for the job. Here is an attempt to talk about them.
Albert Mayer: The First Planner of Chandigarh
Albert Mayer was an American planner and architect who was particularly interested by the social ramifications of design. He served as an engineer in the US Army during World War II, and was stationed in India, tasked with building airfields in Bengal and northeastern India. It was here that he found himself fascinated with Indian culture, and proposed many new town schemes for Indian villages. In 1946, he met Nehru, and discussed a plan for what a model Indian village should look like; and after the war was over, he started work on a pilot project in Etawah in 1946, aimed at improving the quality of life for rural Indians. This was the foundation of several rural development projects across the country, and Mayer was appointed as the Planning Advisor to the Government of Uttar Pradesh in 1947.
In 1949, Nehru asked Mayer to lead the Chandigarh planning project. Mayer developed a superblock-based master plan for the city, interspersed with green spaces, but retired in 1950 when his architect-partner Matthew Nowicki died tragically in a plane crash near Cairo, Egypt.
Looking for a Replacement
After Mayer’s departure from the project, the Government of India was looking for suitable replacements, and it looked far and wide: the UK, France and the Netherlands being some examples. The administrative head chosen for the Chandigarh project was a civil servant with the name of Prem Nath Thapar (not to be confused with Gen Pran Nath Thapar, a later army chief), and he was assisted by a man named Parmeshwari Lal Verma. Together, Thapar and Verma travelled extensively across Europe in 1950, trying to find someone to lead the project after Mayer’s departure.
The Dutch Ministry of Reconstruction and Public Housing suggested the names of urban planner Sam van Embden and architect Gijsbert Friedhoff. The French suggested Henri Prost, a French architect and urban planner who had made comprehensive city plans for the Moroccan cities of Casablanca, Fez, Marrakesh, Meknes and Rabat; as well as the masterplan for redevelopment of Istanbul, Turkey.
When in London, Thapar and Verma were particularly impressed by the husband-wife duo of British modernist architects specialising in tropical climate architecture – Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, who were hired to design housing projects and other buildings for the city. On their recommendation, the two administrators travelled to Paris to interview a man named Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known more popularly to the world as ‘Le Corbusier’.
Le Corbusier saw this as something of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity – “the fruit of a 65-year-old man’s long experience,” as he called it himself. He had strong ideas of his own on what modern cities should look like, and this was a rare chance to put theory into practice. He accepted the offer and was accompanied by his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. The two cousins had set up an architectural practice together in Paris 1922, which fell apart in the early 1940s when Pierre decided to join the French Resistance to fight the Nazi German occupation of France, while Le Corbusier did not. It was now 1950, and the Chandigarh project would be the first time they would be working together after the war.
Le Corbusier: The Superstar Planner
When Le Corbusier came on board the Chandigarh project, he dismissed the earlier Mayer plan as “Faux-Moderne” (Fake Modern), filled with concrete parking spaces. He developed the now iconic grid-shaped masterplan for the city. His architectural designs called for the use of raw concrete structures as exteriors – a style called ‘brutalism’ (the word comes from ‘brut‘, the French word for concrete, and not from the seemingly cold-blooded external facades of buildings in this style).
“It will be a city of trees, of flowers and water, of houses as simple as those at the time of Homer, and of a few splendid edifices of the highest level of modernism, where the rules of mathematics will reign.”Le Corbusier, in a letter to his wife Yvonne, writing enthusiastically about his vision for Chandigarh.
If it wasn’t apparent from the letter to his wife quoted above, elements of narcissism were quite evident in his character, design and communication. In another letter, this one to his mother, he wrote, “It is an architectural symphony which surpasses all my hopes, which flashes and develops under the light in a way which is unimaginable and unforgettable. From far, from up close, it provokes astonishment; all made with raw concrete and a cement cannon. Adorable, and grandiose. In all the centuries no one has seen that.”
Le Corbusier would stay in Paris and visit India twice a year for extended periods of time during the time he worked on Chandigarh. In addition to the master plan for Chandigarh, his most notable architectural designs include many buildings that today form part of the Capitol Complex – the Palace of Assembly, the High Court, the Secretariat Building, and the Open Hand Monument, which has sort of become the central icon of Chandigarh and is the main feature of the official emblem of Chandigarh.
Pierre Jeanneret: The Quiet One
Le Corbusier’s relatively unassuming cousin Pierre Jeanneret decided to stay in the city, overseeing the construction of many buildings designed by Le Corbusier and himself. Their relationship was an interesting one. While Le Corbusier was the quintessential hero of the Chandigarh project, Pierre was the quieter, more reflective man often working behind the limelight of his more dominant cousin. He had a very good understanding of local climate and material, and his designs were extremely well-suited to the local context. He designed several iconic buildings in the city, including the Gandhi Bhawan at Panjab University, and the main building of PGIMER, Chandigarh’s biggest hospital and arguably India’s best medical institution for postgraduate training.
Pierre Jeanneret loved to build boats in his free time and would take them for a ride to the manmade Sukhna Lake, where he would spend many evenings. He stayed on as the Chief Architect and Town Planning Advisor to the Punjab Government for ten years until his health forced him to leave in 1965 – long after the other foreign-born members of the team had returned. He then returned to his home in Geneva, where he was cared for by his niece Jacqueline, until his death in 1967. In accordance to his wishes, he was cremated and his ashes were immersed in the waters of his beloved Sukhna Lake in the city he helped build.
I understand that one cannot do justice to everyone who worked on the process of designing public buildings in Chandigarh, and that there would be a nearly endless list of people whose names and contributions are acknowledged mostly in record-keeping journals kept in dusty drawers of museums and administrative offices. I tried to write this article based on the contributions and designs of those immortalised at Le Corbusier Centre and the Chandigarh Architecture Museum, attempting to balance detail with brevity.
If you’d like to read more, I’d highly recommend two other blog posts about Pierre Jeanneret and his contributions to Chandigarh that I really enjoyed reading. This one by Bharat Kashyap; and this one by Deepak Srinath, the founder of Phantom Hands, a furniture workshop specialising in modernist pieces made with traditional Indian craftsmanship.
Photographs in this article are mine unless otherwise mentioned.