Chandigarh: India's modernist marvel

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The pioneering architect Le Corbusier spent the 1950s bringing concrete to Chandigarh and 'the City Beautiful' now celebrates its creator

Is Chandigarh unique? There can't be too many cities in the world that have been designed from scratch to resemble a living organism, complete with head, heart, limbs and circulatory system. Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born modernist architect who was hired to design Chandigarh in 1950, is often described as a visionary, yet the north Indian city is also a tribute to his eccentricity.

Chandigarh's regimented grid layout, comprising numbered rectangular "superblocks" measuring 800m wide by 1,200m long, contrasts sharply with the chaotic feel of India's traditional urban destinations.

Dominated by Brutalist concrete architecture, Chandigarh is a place that is likely to alienate some new arrivals. But it's also a clean, green city and for anyone with an interest in modern architecture, it's a must-see. The city's domestic airport is currently being developed, and will soon have an international terminal. More pertinently, the launch this winter of BMI's new direct flights from Heathrow to Amritsar, just 200km away to the north-west of the Punjab region, puts the city within easier reach of UK tourists.

Following Indian Partition in 1947, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru professed a desire for a new state capital for Punjab and Haryana that would be "unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future". Le Corbusier was approached and, as part of a wave of purpose-built national capitals that includes Brasilia and Canberra, spent much of the 1950s bringing that vision to fruition, clearly enthused by the prospect of a huge blank canvas on which to project his theories of urban planning.

His cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the English architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were brought in to design numerous buildings under Le Corbusier's direction. He himself took charge of the Capitol Complex, the state administrative hub located in the northernmost "Sector 1", which represents the city's conceptual "head".

Original drawings and letters dating to the birth of "the City Beautiful" – as Chandigarh is sometimes known – are housed in the Le Corbusier Centre in Sector 19 and the city's Architecture Museum in Sector 10. But the real attraction for architecture buffs is the ability to tour the working buildings of the Capitol Complex and witness up close the extraordinary scale of Le Corbusier's vision.

To get inside, I had to navigate a series of administrative hurdles. The first stop was the tourism office above the bus station in Sector 17. Having previously experienced India's famous bureaucratic inertia, I feared a long delay. But a few minutes after presenting my passport I was handed a letter. In wording aimed at the security guard at the gates of the Capitol Complex, it outlined the usefulness to the city of cultural tourism and requested that I be allowed into Le Corbusier's Secretariat building.

As I left the tourism office I was met by Narinder Singh, a retired government worker who once met Le Corbusier. He now spends his days assisting tourists and takes seriously the city's motto "Open to give, open to receive", symbolised by Le Corbusier's Open Hand monument.

Narinder showed me the Le Corbusier-designed street pattern moulded into the city's cast-iron manhole covers which, he joked, doubles as a map of the city for lost tourists. (I later discovered that one of these had recently turned up in an auction house in New York, where it had sold for $21,000/£13,000.) After an auto-rickshaw ride to the Capitol Complex, I was required to show my paperwork to a couple of gun-toting security guards. Two further office administrators on different floors of the eight-storey Secretariat inspected my credentials before I was taken on to the roof. The view was superb but what really struck me was seeing Le Corbusier's design principles functioning in the wild, rather than as museum fodder as they are in Europe.

Amid the slowly crumbling concrete, iconic wooden V-chairs, designed by Jeanneret, are still used by humble civil servants and, at more than 50 years old, many have been thrown away or dumped on the roof to rot. More worryingly, some, like that manhole cover, have started to appear in US auction houses, where they sell for up to $12,000.

While it is illegal to export Indian antiques that are more than a century old, no such restrictions are in place on these modernist design treasures. The authorities are belatedly drawing up an inventory of "heritage" furniture before any more goes missing. It's certainly worth visiting Chandigarh before any more of these artefacts disappear.

After visiting the High Court building, complete with its stunning Le Corbusier-designed wall tapestries, I headed east to Chandigarh Rock Garden. This madcap maze of rocks and sculptures is a bizarre counterpoint to Le Corbusier's grid-pattern approach. Nek Chand, a local transport worker, started building the garden in secret in 1957 on a dump at the northern edge of the city. Amazingly, the city authorities were unaware of its existence until the early 1970s. Chand was subsequently given a team of 50 workers to complete it.

The Rock Garden confounded me with its playful layout of paths and water features, and its vast army of hand-made statues composed entirely of junk. After a morning absorbing Le Corbusier's functionalism, its mix of chaos and colour offered a welcome respite. If you're lucky, you might even see 85-year-old Chand pottering around.

While the sector-numbering system should make Chandigarh easy to navigate, it's actually quite easy to get lost in the maze of blocks that make up the city. The distances involved also tend to turn out vastly longer than they appear on the map. So finding dinner required hailing a rickshaw back to the main leisure and retail hub of Sector 17 – a practice best avoided at rush hour, when the city's myriad roundabouts clog with traffic.

I opted for tandoori chicken at the long-established Ghazal, a restaurant that serves some of the city's best food and draught beer by the mug. While Le Corbusier has stamped his modernist European vision on Chandigarh, I was pleased to find that the food, at least, remains pleasingly Punjabi.

 

Travel essentials

Getting there

BMI (0870 60 70 555; flybmi.co.uk) flies three times a week from Heathrow to Amritsar, with a stop in Almaty.

You can also travel via Delhi. Air India (020 8560 9996; airindia.in), British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com), Jet Airways (0808 101 1199; jetairways.com), Kingfisher (0800 047 0810; flykingfisher.com) and Virgin Atlantic (0844 874 7747; virgin-atlantic.com) fly daily from Heathrow to Delhi.

Connections from the Indian capital to Chandigarh are available on Kingfisher and Go Air (goair.in).

Alternatively, take the train. The Shatabdi Express (train number 2005) leaves New Delhi station daily at 5.15pm, arriving in Chandigarh at 8.45pm.

 

Staying there

Taj Chandigarh (00 91 172 6613000; tajhotels.com). Doubles start at INR 9,250 (£130), room only.

Hotel Shivalikview (00 91 172 270 0001; bit.ly/sdKCVS). Doubles start at INR 5,050 (£70), room only.

 

More information

British passport holders require a visa to visit India: see in.vfsglobal.co.uk for details of how to apply.

Chandigarh Tourism: chandigarhtourism.gov.in

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