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Chandigarh The Epitome of Indian Modernity

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  • Pages: 6
  • Word count: 1279
  • Category: Utopia

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Chandigarh, a beautiful city and a union territory that lies in the foothills of the Himalayas, serves as the capital of the two neighboring cities of Punjab and Haryana. Chandigarh is a signature city planned by twentieth century’s renowned architect, Le Corbusier. After the terrifying outbreak of violence, India’s then Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the aftermath of partition, wanted a city that breaks free of all the complications to enter a new paradigm of modern era. This is when the city of Chandigarh was originated as an epitome of Indian modernity.
Birth of Chandigarh raises many questions of being “not Indian”. Is Chandigarh a “foreign country” that resulted in a perplexed encounter with the realities of India? Did the ‘natives’ feel a sense of belonging in the city or was the sense of modernism a little too far-fetched for them?

City for Future

Considering the influence of history in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and Nehru’s faith to liberate the essence of past as a symbol of the postcolonial Chandigarh demands elucidation. Symbolism was a big question as a part of modern Chandigarh. Were people ready to accept the transition from traditional to modern? Was it forced upon? As one of the richest cities in contemporary India, Chandigarh represented an experience towards freedom as a promise of modernity. At an inaugural ceremony of Chandigarh, Nehru declared: “Let this be a new city, unfettered by the traditions of past, a symbol of nation’s faith in the future”. The modernistic approach to every element of the masterplan aimed for a disciplined utopia. Nehru wanted to eradicate poverty by encouraging modern cites and industries. This new city was not envisioned for reminiscing the past, but for looking forward towards freedom, intermingled with modernity.

His belief was that antiquity, with its immense pressure of tradition, restricted India’s growth. The firm idea of rejecting traditions made him recruit the Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, known for his minimalist styles and straight-line designs. However, the choice of Le Corbusier as the chief architect and planner was made when Albert Mayer withdrew from the project. As a result, though both wanted to create a city that is modern, their ideologies of “modern” were quite different. As mentioned by Vikramaditya Prakash in his book, Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier – The struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India, “While Le Corbusier’s modernism was reminiscent of a weak and primeval India, Nehru’s modernism aspired to an immoderate liberalization for the chains of poverty and primitivism.

Raising a basic question of Chandigarh’s modern development, this paper will focus on the struggles faced because of oscillating misunderstandings of visions. It will also address the desperate and ill-timed attempt to create a well arranged urban masterplan by analyzing Le Corbusier’s approach of city planning and its principles for design language, struggling ahead of its time, in the post-colonial conditions of India. I would argue that despite being India’s one of the most celebrated city, there is a bigger picture of complexity involved in the planning of Chandigarh, realized when imagination was challenged by reality
Arrival of the Master Piece: Le Corbusier at work

A Master Plan is only successful if the vision of the administrators follows a humanistic approach and have a certain character that is adaptive to change. Chandigarh was a city designed to provide individual rights and equal living standards to all inhabitants. In February 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru and Le Corbusier came together to create a city that holds democratic socialism as a pillar for its standing. The master plan of the city, redrawn by Le-Corbusier, was mostly based upon the original plan of Albert Mayer. Le Corbusier, along with Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, as senior architects, together was in-charge of Chandigarh’s planning.

The master plan was imagined to be a fairytale, promising fundamental amenities even to the humblest of its citizens, for having an elevated lifestyle. What Le Corbusier wanted was a surreal experience with adequate materials, spiritual and moral nourishment that brings the community together, safe from the traffic and surrounded by nature. This ideal life dreamed for the five million inhabitants living in the real part of the city, was developed in two different phases. The key of this modern urbanism was these ventilated zones of working and living space, known as SECTORS. These sectors attempted to address both minor and major aspects of the plan varying from the fundamental needs of the citizens to the bigger picture of networking the city through transport and services. The so-called efficient system of traffic and transportation weaving the entire city together, were governed by the rule of 7Vs:

  • V1: arterial roads that connect one city to another,
  • V2: urban, city roads,
  • V3: vehicular road surrounding a sector,
  • V4: shopping street of a sector,
  • V5: distribution road meandering through a sector,
  • V6: residential road,
  • V7: pedestrian path6, changed by adding
  • V8: cycle track, to suit the specific needs of the city.

The sectors were designed with a sense of enclosure with no entrances opening directly to the main urban city roads.

Le Corbusier’s masterplan changed the shape of the city from a leaf (as designed by Albert Mayer) to a rectangle. This resulted in the prominently visible reduction of the size of the city during the course of this process. A drawing comparing the land use of both the plans displayed a reduction of 1,528 acres, significantly increasing the city’s density by 20 percent. This resulted in gradual increase in the population. New residential sector’s density was increased, and smaller 1-2 storey apartments were built. The construction stopped in 1990, but the growing population didn’t. As a result, quite a few villages were built on the outskirts as a provision for the rest of the population. Meanwhile, the housing cost steadily kept increasing due to Le Corbusier’s property regulations. There was no denying that the city as planned by Le Corbusier was failing to meet the standards it had set for itself. What was meant to be a beacon of hope and development, a ray of sunshine over the chaos, was slowly but surely accelerating towards a chaotic mess which was anything but certainly a fault of its creators.

Chandigarh’s Landscape design

A city that is claimed to be bestowed with a marvelous legacy of landscape and greenery, ironically suffered with number of problems. Not only this, the master plan did lack the rhythm between the built and landscape, that, as a result, did not complimented each other, in terms of functionality.

Green spaces in Chandigarh were deeply emphasized and became the most important part of the masterplan. The landscape design of the city was conceived by retaining the original topography. However, the conservation of this green heritage became a major concern because of the steadily accelerating development in the nineteenth century. With the increasing population, encroachment of these beautiful but unattended spaces became a major issue. The country started having a scarcity of resources in the wake of partition. In addition, the sense of belongingness associated with these open spaces started to fade. The unkempt look of green belts presented a poor image of the city. The resources of building materials, paucity of economic resources, no mutual decision making of the administrators, this happened when partition happened, within a decade the urban growth increased, population management

What I believe Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru wanted from Chandigarh was only a microscopic view of his vision for the country. However, this vision was either misinterpreted or applied in a manner that would benefit nobody, let alone a city or a country. It is impractical to have put the aspirations of building a city representing a new, reformed, modern nation on the shoulders of one city, that was still dusting off the ruins of the war.

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