Architecture: India's oddest city under threat: Chandigarh, the Punjabi capital designed by Le Corbusier, is at risk. Only World Heritage City status can save it, says Patwant Singh

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Walter George, designer of several outstanding buildings in Edwin Lutyens' New Delhi, once told me that 'the Renaissance began in Florence with Brunelleschi's Chapel in the 1420s. It died in Delhi with Lutyens' Viceroy's House in the 1920s, a run of 500 years.'

I felt then, and still do, that if the Renaissance is to be viewed in its broadest sense and with India in mind, then it ended with Chandigarh, the city built in the aftermath of India's traumatic partition in 1947. With Lahore, capital of the truncated state of Punjab falling to Pakistan's share, India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru took the brilliant decision to send two emissaries around the world in search of the finest designer for a new capital for the portion of Punjab left in India. Le Corbusier was the man they chose and the Himalayan foothills 160 miles north of Delhi were a dramatic site for the sculpted buildings he would design.

Approved by legislation in the Punjab Assembly in 1952, Chandigarh was to be designed for a population of 500,000. Le Corbusier's blueprint was approved in the same year and work proceeded at such an impressive pace that it is now almost 40 years since the state government started functioning there, though many sectors took longer to finish.

Conceived by the most unconventional architect of his time, the city proved controversial from its inception. Le Corbusier's unbelievable buildings were criticised for their exuberance, strength and strangeness - for their 'unIndianness'. Even those who admired his architecture found it difficult to accept the city's urban form. While Philip Johnson, the American architect, conceded that Corbusier 'remains the great master of interlocking space . . . the city of Chandigarh as a place for humans to congregate, strikes me as a total disaster. Even if he did want to create monuments out in the open countryside, even granting that this might be a viable approach to a city, there is no possible relation physically among the three (principal) buildings that are there, nor any possible relation of the government centre to the city they are in. Even L'Enfants' Washington was a better idea.' And Peter Blake, American architect and former editor of the Architectural Forum, 'couldn't help noticing how little Chandigarh seemed to reflect the life of India's people'.

Unlike Philip Johnson and Peter Blake, who admired Corbusier and not Chandigarh, I have always admired both. The founding of an entirely new city is in itself an epoch-making event, but cities take time to grow. What gives Chandigarh its dramatic intensity is that it represents a rare convergence of creative architecture, spatial planning and imaginative landscaping.

Philip Johnson found 'no possible relation physically among the three buildings' of the Capitol complex, because it is still incomplete. Its other constituents - which would have helped to unify it - are still to be built. The lack of relationship between the Capitol and the rest of the city results from the insecurities of the state's ruling party and administration which have led them to fence the centre with barbed wire and armed guards. People have been shut out from its open spaces instead of being encouraged to make them come alive after hours and on holidays. To infuse life, colour, vitality, movement and texture into a city, after the architects and planners have done with it, is the task of an inspired goverment and civic leadership. Chandigarh has lacked it.

Foreseeing the possibility of its haphazard growth in the future, the founders of Chandigarh had, with commendable foresight, legislated the Periphery Act of 1952 which disallows any major construction within a 10-mile radius of the capital. The Act was allowed to be violated, but the damage could still be contained.

But a new threat has now prompted people to make a major effort to save Chandigarh from extinction. Alarmed by moves to build a second and bigger Chandigarh next to the first and to establish a municipal council to oversee the development and upkeep of the original one, 70 architects, designers, artists, critics and historians have, in a letter to the Indian Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao, urged him to save the city.

'We, the undersigned - architects, planners, designers, artists, writers, and other friends of India - are deeply concerned about the future of the city of Chandigarh.

'We do not necessarily agree with all the urban concepts developed in the design of this remarkable city; but we are unanimous in our admiration for the courage, idealism, and energy displayed by those who designed and built this extraordinary place - especially Jawaharlal Nehru and Le Corbusier.

'For many complex reasons, Chandigarh has grown explosively in size and in form; and it is now in serious danger of growing far beyond its designed limits. Moreover, the maintenance of the city has left a great deal to be desired - partly because of the uncontrolled manner of its growth.

'We believe that the government of India should appeal to Unesco to have Chandigarh designated a 'world heritage city' - a city worth preserving and maintaining as a monument to some of the ideals that have moved our country.'

The signatories to this appeal include, amongst others, Philip Johnson, Frank Gehry, Peter Blake, J William Fulbright, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Charles Gwathmey and Kevin Roche from the United States, Claus Baldus, Martina Duttman, Georg Heinrichs, Haila Ochs and Frederike Schneider from Germany and Tadao Ando and Arata Isozaki from Japan.

Alongside the above appeal to the Indian Prime Minister we are approaching Unesco directly, urging it to designate Chandigarh as a World Heritage City. The question is, what can be done to protect and to improve Chandigarh if it does indeed become the first modern city to be given Unesco listed status? I have three suggestions.

First, new industries should be set up not in Chandigarh, but in a new industrial town 70 or 80 miles away. This would stop not only the continuing large-scale migration into Chandigarh from the countryside, but would also help its development as the region's cultural and political centre. Second, the idea of a municipality - municipalities in India are known to become breeding ground for unscrupulous elements - must be dropped and other foolproof alternatives explored to sustain the city's character and quality of life. Third, the Periphery Act needs to be sternly enforced.

Nehru's vision and Le Corbusier's creativity made Chandigarh possible. It is up to India's present leadership - with a little help from friends from overseas - to prove that its concerns extend beyond the merely political to include the social, cultural and architectural.

Patwant Singh is an author and critic whose latest book 'Of Dreams and Demons: an Indian Memoir' is published by Duckworth (pounds 16.99).

Readers wishing to support Patwant Singh's campaign should write to Peter Blake, Architect FAIA, 140 Elm Street, Branford, CT 06405, USA.

(Photograph omitted)