Chandigarh: India's modernist marvel

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

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

News
people
News
A survey carried out by Sainsbury's Finance found 20% of new university students have never washed their own clothes, while 14% cannot even boil an egg
science...and the results are not as pointless as that sounds
News
politicsIs David Cameron trying to prove he's down with the kids?
News
Dominique Alderweireld, also known as Dodo de Saumure, is the owner of a string of brothels in Belgium
newsPhilip Sweeney gets the inside track on France's trial of the year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Cumberbatch was speaking on US television when he made the comment (Getty)
people
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge, Travis Barker and Mark Hoppus of Blink-182 pictured in 2011.
musicBassist Mark Hoppus and drummer Travis Barker say Tom Delonge is 'disrespectful and ungrateful'
Sport
football
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'
tvBroadchurch series 2, episode 4, review - contains spoilers
Sport
cyclingDisgraced cycling star says people will soon forgive his actions
News
Britain's Prince Philip attends a Garden Party at Buckingham Palace in London
people
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran will play three sell-out gigs at Wembley Stadium in July
music
News
i100
News
Lena Dunham posing for an official portrait at Sundance 2015
people
Arts and Entertainment
Under the skin: Sarah Kane in May 1998
theatreThe story behind a new season of Sarah Kane plays
Arts and Entertainment
Preening: Johnny Depp in 'Mortdecai'
filmMortdecai becomes actor's fifth consecutive box office bomb
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Group Sales Manager - Field Based

    £21000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Located on the stunning Sandban...

    Recruitment Genius: Tour Drivers - UK & European

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity to join a is a...

    Old Royal Naval College: ORNC Visitor Experience Volunteer

    Unpaid voluntary work: Old Royal Naval College: Join our team of friendly volu...

    Recruitment Genius: Customer Service / Sales Assistant

    £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This airport parking organisation are looking...

    Day In a Page

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea