THE GREAT DEBATE: Le Corbusier's Chandigarh

Designed by the legendary French-Swiss architect over half a century ago, the modern Indian city is still a hot topic.


Words by: Spoorthi Satheesh


The Capitol Complex, Chandigarh; photo courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier

© F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020



Like so many planned cities of the past, Le Corbusier’s visionary Chandigarh has taken on the patina of time; yet, “necessary evils” such as the need for expansion and adaptation to a modern era have led to a good degree of transformation since the city was originally constructed. What’s fascinating though is that while Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh is considered a great experiment in the history of contemporary architecture and urban planning, it was built on a foundation of controversy.

Le Corbusier's master plan; photo courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020



The new capital city for the Indian state of Punjab was conceived by the first elected prime minister of the country, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, to serve as a model for modern India. He dreamed of a city “free from the existing encumbrances of old towns and traditions.” At the time, India had just broken free from colonial rule and was facing a challenging partition. Therefore, when Nehru invited the foreigner Le Corbusier to imagine it, a difficult question was presented: Was the country prepared to have this city, intended as an expression of its faith in the future, to be built by an “outsider”?

Portrait of Le Corbusier; photo courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020



Le Corbusier's sketch and the resulting Open Hand Monument, which stands as a symbol to the people of Chandigarh and the world. Its significance: “the hand to give and the hand to take; peace and prosperity, and the unity of mankind.”

photos courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020



Le Corbusier’s design for Chandigarh is praised as a masterwork so many years later, not only due to its effective interplay between aesthetics and climate sensitivity, but also for the genius urban planning. The city was organized into “sectors” - each a self-sustaining community inclusive of everything its dwellers needed. India’s harsh climate was considered, leading Le Corbusier to incorporate purposeful features like “breakers” used for sun control. Regardless of social class, everything from monumental government buildings to low-cost residential housing was treated with equal care. These facets heavily influenced both Chandigarh’s character and functionality.


The Secretariat building, Capitol Complex, Chandigarh

photo by Jay Chatterjee, Dean emeritus of DAAP, University of Cincinnati; courtesy of the University of Cincinnati's Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning Library's digital archives



A closeup of The Secretariat demonstrates the use of concrete to form vertical and horizontal brise-soleil, or “sun-breakers”; photo courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020



Palace of the Assembly, Capitol Complex, Chandigarh; photo by Jay Chatterjee, Dean emeritus of DAAP, University of Cincinnati; courtesy of the University of Cincinnati's Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning Library's digital archives


However, traditional Indian architecture came with “baggage” in terms of historical significance and multicultural influences. Humayun’s Tomb, with its Chahr Bagh (an Indo-Persian quadrilateral garden) has stood since the year 1570 and was the first garden tomb to be built on the Indian subcontinent during the Mughal era. Its evident Islamic features –domes, arches, and ornamentation – inspired the renowned Taj Mahal. Le Corbusier was put to the test in terms of honoring the cultural context and heritage of India.

Humayun’s Tomb, New Delhi, India; photo courtesy of Fondation Le Corbusier © F.L.C. / ADAGP, Paris / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York 2020



Through the years, Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh has received both criticism and acclaim. It is also interesting to note how Indian architecture was perceived globally during the years of Chandigarh’s inception. (Generally, the Taj Majal was what was they saw in their mind's eye.) When Japanese-American architect Minuro Yamasaki journeyed to India for the 1954 World Agricultural Fair - where he created his now-famous pavilion, with golden domes meant to impart an “Indian flavor,” Yamasaki described the Chandigarh High Court as both “absolutely magnificent” [from a distance] but “crude and overpowering” [as one comes closer].

The High Court, Capitol Complex, Chandigarh; photo by Jay Chatterjee, Dean emeritus of DAAP, University of Cincinnati; courtesy of the University of Cincinnati's Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning Library's digital archives


Nevertheless, many credit Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh as the birthplace of modern architecture in India, and it has since served as a global inspiration to many.


Love it or leave it, Le Corbusier's vision of Chandigarh, and how it came into being, is most definitely a conversation-starter.


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