Monday, May 28, 2007

Chandigarh: an experiment in Urban Planning

Our day in Chandigarh began with a wonderful gourmet breakfast, and the morning papers which were full of accounts of the previous day’s troubles. I won’t go into the cause of the disturbance, other than to say it was something that would never happen in Vancouver. We then met our driver for the day, only to discover that once again, the Tour Agency had screwed up, and this driver was being provided by the hotel at our cost. In the end, we set off anyway, and started with a tour of an Architectural Museum that was created solely to tell the story of Chandrigarh. I couldn’t help but think how wonderful it would be if at some time in the future, there is a similar place to tell the story of UniverCity!

Chandigarh is considered one of the most important urban planning experiments of the 20th Century. It was planned by the famous French architect and planner Le Corbusier as a new Capital City for the region, and a place to house thousands of refugees who had been uprooted from West Punjab following India’s independence from England. Although Le Corbusier developed plans for numerous planned cities, this is the only one that was ever implemented. I was surprised to learn that in fact, Le Corbusier was not the original planner selected for the town. Rather, the initial planning was started by an American firm led by Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki that had been personally selected by Nehru, the first Prime Minister. However, Nowicki was tragically killed in a plane crash, and the firm didn’t want to continue.

Le Corbusier’s plan is legendary, as our many of the buildings that he designed throughout the community. His plan is based on four key functions: living, working, circulation, and care of body and spirit. Most of his buildings incorporate strong geometric forms, and raw, exposed concrete. Sally thought that it looked like Arthur Erickson had been here! Many of the buildings are quite timeless in their designs, and one would never guess they were over 50 years old; unless you look closely at the concrete, (that wasn’t that well done in the first place), since it is disintegrating quite badly. (And Lee Gavel at SFU thinks he has problems keeping Erickson’s structures in good shape!)

As we drove around, our tour was greatly enhanced by the company of two young Swedish girls, (one an architectural student studying in Denmark), who we had met in the Architectural Museum. At the age of 24, Karin was on a pilgrimage to India to see some of the great architecture of the past. Somewhat ironically, in 1969 when I was 21, I made a similar trip to Sweden, which was considered a great centre of design at the time. Admittedly, I was also interested in other Swedish things at that age! So was my traveling mate, Eli Harari, who went on to create SanDisk. He eventually married a wonderful Swedish girl, and they are still together in Saratoga, California.

One of the day’s highlights was standing outside the government employees’ housing that was built as part of the first phase. As we were taking pictures, an older turbaned man came out of the townhouse and said to us (and I’m not making this up) “Hello, I’m a Canadian on holiday in India. Can I help you?” It turned out that he had been a government official for many years in Chandigarh, and although he now lived in Windsor Ontario, he and his family had been allowed to continue to rent the place. He invited us in, gave us a tour of his surprisingly large home, and would have kept us for the entire day, had we not finally excused ourselves. The design of his development was most impressive in terms of its contemporary aesthetic, and the manner in which the deep exterior walls managed to keep it quite cool inside.

While books have been written about Chandigarh and its overall approach to community planning, here are just a few of the highlights for me:

  • The city is built up from a series of rectangles, each 1200 by 800 metres, which are fully self sufficient with housing, shops, community and recreational facilities;
  • Careful consideration was given to the hierarchy of roads, so that only slow moving traffic goes through a sector; particular attention was given to pedestrians and cyclists;
  • Le Corbusier developed both a Statute for the Land, and an Edict to help guide the planning process, and help future residents understand the underlying principles of the community plan;
  • The landscaping was considered to be as important as the buildings; the Edict sets out requirements with respect to replacement planting to ensure that the original objectives can be achieved;
  • No personal statues shall ever be permitted. These were seen as representative of a by-gone era and not in keeping with the new spirit of art for the city; ‘commemoration of persons shall be confined to suitably placed bronze plaques’!
  • ‘The truthfulness of materials’ concrete, bricks, stone must be maintained for present and future buildings;
  • Only industrial activities powered by electricity were permitted, so as to avoid polluting the environment;
  • A man-made lake was to be considered as a gift from the creators to the residents, and to ensure its tranquility, there would be a perpetual ban on any noises;
  • Art was considered an integral part of the community design, and was to be provided throughout the community; and
  • Certain areas were designated as worthy of special architectural interest, and a central commercial area was to preserved as a pedestrian only zone.

While some parts of Chandigarh are falling into disrepair and need renovation, there are many new buildings. The overall impression was very different than that which we had seen elsewhere. We were particularly taken with some of the original and newer luxury housing areas, which included the kinds of homes one sees around the west side of Vancouver, including along Southwest Marine Drive. (Although some of it would cause Le Corbusier to turn over in his grave!)

Interestingly, Chandigarh was initially conceived as a city for 150,000 people. This estimate was then increased; however, today the city has exceeded all projections, and it is continuing to grow.

A few final observations. Signs on bus shelters around town encourage residents to grow more trees and to educate their children! The gardens are numerous and impressive, especially the ‘rock garden’ which is built in a most whimsical way with recycled materials, such as broken electrical outlets. The housing, especially the town houses are very well designed, with what we would consider ‘elaborate’ exterior wall construction, However, in the newspaper I saw an ad for a new development on the Chandigarh-Ludhiana Road in nearby Morinda. It features Victorian facades, similar to what one might find in San Francisco or parts of Abbotsford. I just hope Le Corbusier’s edicts will ensure this stuff never creeps into his city. And it is still ‘his’ city!

I am so delighted we were able to rearrange our schedule in order to spend a day here.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for the lovely was an interesting read! said...

One of Corbusiers stranger dealings is with the number 13. There is no block 13 in Chandigarh but strangely 2 laterally neighboring blocks when added can always be devided by 13. ie block 14 is next to 12 => 26/13=2. or 24 is next to 15 => 39/13=3
Check it out the map, it's mindboggling