Monday, June 23, 2008

Pass the Courvosier: Chandigargh and the question of Indian modernity

“the past is the past: architecture in India is a modern course of study and, as such, another imported skill, part of someone else’s tradition.” V.S. Naipaul, India: A Wounded Civilisation

“Let this be a new town symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by traditions of the past…an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.” Nehru

“The curve is ruinous, difficult and dangerous, it is a paralysing thing. The straight line enters into all human history, into all human aims, into every human act.” Le Corbusier

Three clobbering gap-year girls are standing in the centre of Sector 17, Chandigargh’s downtown district. Their bags were - inexplicably - forbidden on the train, so now they are scrambling across town to catch the bus to Delhi. They know nothing of the place where they stand. “We’ll stay until the evening,” declares one of them, her sharp green eyes stinging from the sweat brought forth by the Punjabi son. A veteran of one day in this city, I offer up my recommendations, which they politely but unconvincingly promise to follow up.

Chandigargh is a new city, designed by one of the twentieth-century’s greatest architect-theorists, an attempt by a newly independent nation to free itself from the “existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions.” Anywhere else, it would be a major tourist attraction. For the average traveller to India, though, it is barely an afterthought, at best worthy of a quick stop-over between Delhi and the Himalayas. Why?

In most western countries, visitors try to avoid the poverty, to pretend that it does not exist. A traveller to New York does not seek out Brownsville, a pilgrim to Zion does not spend the night in Lod. Urban deprivation is of little interest: the tourist is looking for galleries and restaurants and clubs, but rarely reality. In India, ,this phenomenon also holds, although it manifests itself differently. The tourist seeks something ‘eternal’, something ‘spiritual’ and ‘unchanging’. Poverty is no hindrance to this; indeed it may be positively beneficial. But wealth, wealth is useless. Wealth must be ignored, denied.


The sword of partition fell most heavily on the Punjab, in the North-West of the subcontinent. The state was split down the middle, with the beloved state capital of Lahore allotted to Pakistan. For Indian eastern Punjab, a new capital had to be found. Nehru, an avowed secularist, thought it best to start from scratch, to build a new Indian city, “the first large expression of our creative genius, flowering on our newly earned freedom.”

Nehru was also convinced of the sanctity of Indian self-reliance, a principle that would dominate Indian economic policy (with disastrous consequences) until the 1990s. Strangely, though, he had no problem calling in a western team to design the new Punjabi capital, arguing that India did not have enough qualified architects of its own to complete the task. An American team (influenced by the Garden City movement) began the project, but when of them died in a plane crash, the others decided they couldn’t continue. In stepped the legendary Le Corbusier, enamoured by the opportunity to design a whole city, one that would be constructed according to his holistic theories of urban planning.

The mention of Le Corbusier to architecture enthusiasts quickly leads to reverential, hushed tones. To those in the know, Chandigargh is of far more interest than the Taj Mahal. I haven’t made it to the Taj yet, so am reluctant to comment. But as someone interested in contemporary India, I get the point. Chandigargh is indispensable for thinking about the country, a place which challenges all your assumptions about what India ‘is’ or ‘should be’.

At this point, I should confess that I wasn’t particularly taken by Le Corbusier;s flagship buildings in Chandigargh - the Secretariat, the Legislative Assembly, and the High Court. Perhaps it was the drab weather, the disappointment of discovering that the heavy rain was not a premature monsoon, but merely a tropical storm caused by cyclones over Pakistan. Or perhaps it was the soul-destroying bureaucracy, traipsing through the rain from building to building, in order to get a permit for a brief look around. Either way, the grey monoliths didn’t impress me much, particularly after nothing how drab and dirty and chaotic they were inside. If I’m missing the point, I encourage the architects to say so in the comments.

Of more interest was the city’s design, in particular the ethos behind it, explained in the fascinating city museum. As mentioned above, Le Corbusier was a theorist as much as an architect; he didn’t just endow Chandigargh with buildings, he left it with a constitution. “(i) Chandigargh is a city offering all amenities of life to the poorest of the poor of its citizens to lead a dignified life. (ii) Chandigargh is a government city with a precise goal and consequently a precise quality of inhabitants.” This was something radically new, a precisely planned Indian cit.

Le Corbusier organised the city according to four key principles: living, working, circulation, and care of body & spirit. Divided (sinisterly) into sectors, the city has wide avenues reminiscent of French boulevards, and massive stretches of parkland, a greater amount than I can recall seeing anywhere else. There is an artificial lake (for care of body & spirit, noch), and monuments dot the horizon, including the Open Hand, the city symbol. It is a rationally-planned, relatively clean city, a bourgeoisie outpost with delusions of grandeur.

If it wasn’t for the Indians, though, you’d never know you were in India, and this is why I don’t understand Nehru’s stance. Admittedly, I don’t know much about the country’s architects at the time of independence (Naipaul’s controversial quote at the top of the page alludes to a ruptured tradition), but surely there should have been greater domestic involvement in the project? As already mentioned, it seems particularly surprising in the context of Nehru’s virulent opposition to foreign interference in other spheres of Indian life. The rhetoric about freeing India from the shackles of the past seems overly harsh, not to mention unnationalistic; surely the point was to create a blend a between tradition and modernity? rather than rejecting either one.

What of Chandigargh today? Contemporary architects are, of course, a notoriously short-sighted lot, and the relative wealth of the city hasn’t prevented the ‘other’ India from shaping its image. At night, the workers from the village bed down on the covered sidewalks in front of the chic stores; by morning they are brewing up chai and baking chapatis, ready for a day’s work. Despite the space and the traffic lights (routinely ignored by rickshaw drivers), crossing the road is barely less terrifying than elsewhere, and - despite the emphasis on quality of life - there’s an unmistakable sense of decay about the place.

Perhaps it’s because there’s too much parkland, or perhaps it’s because Chandigargh seems old hat in comparison to the new satellite towns springing up as a result of India’s financial boom. Either way, it feels provincial, like some old Eastern European town. Not even trendy coffee shops or expensive restaurants can shake this feeling. But that doesn’t make it any less fascinating. It’s a first attempt at Indian modernity, forty years before financial liberalisation, the benchmark for other attempts which followed. The fact that it is of little interest to the average backpacker points to larger themes, ones I hope to pick up on further on up the road.


Hagay Hacohen said...

My Dear Alex,

The desire to built a "most modern city" in the third world is not, in itself, uniqe to India. Another example is Brasília. It's a bit sad most of these cities didn't make it as cities. But who knows what the future holds for Chandiargh?

Just as the third world was eager to take on the latest from the west so was the west eager to adopt the work of Hassan Fathy. For some odd reason his ideas on using rural solutions were seen as pure magic in the west and were not appealing to the Egyptians themselves. Who favoured modern housing and not his adobe style of building.

Take care and keep on writing!


Nancy said...

I haven't seen Chandigarh, but remember reading years ago an article about why it doesn't work. One of the things I remember was that in the houses, the women squatted on the floor to cut vegetables, so the kitchen counters were not used. (Which is true in my own Chennai kitchen, in fact -- modern western kitchens are fashionable now, but my cook still sits on the floor). I think the squares were too big and not well shaded, etc. There are a few architects like the late Laurie Baker who have tried to adapt their work to the culture and the weather, but most of them, even today, produce buildings which look like at best like spaceships come down to rest in an alien landscape.