The City of Chandigarh by Le Corbusier

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By Linda Taalman
Los Angeles architect Linda Taalman made a rare visit to Le Corbusier’s fraught masterpiece, the capitol complex of the city of Chandigarh. Here she offers her take on Corbu’s vision for a modern India.

Le Corbusier commenced work on the master plan of Chandigarh, India, in 1951. The city was intended to serve both as the administrative seat of the newly partitioned state of Punjab and as an architectural symbol of Jawaharlal Nehru’s nascent democracy, writ in the future-facing language of European modernism. Yet, decades later, his city plan remains unfinished: buildings like the High Court, Palace of Assembly, and Secrétariat need refurbishment, and some question whether the complex doesn’t work better as an architectural statement than as a functioning set of government buildings. Architect Linda Taalman reflects on Chandigarh, its future, and why, some 60 years later, it can feel like a ruin.

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Over 60 years ago, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru tapped the Swiss architect Le Corbusier to design the Indian city of Chandigarh, a new modern capital for the state of Punjab. The resulting Palace of Assembly is one of the architect’s great brutalist buildings.

It’s not easy to get into the capitol at Chandigarh. How did you manage it?

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Le Corbusier designed the immense Secrétariat building’s facade (138 feet tall and 833 feet long) to be cooled by a system of brise-soleils.

The complex is manned by armed guards and is only accessible to people who work there and for special tours like ours. Getting in required official signed letters that were reviewed at each checkpoint. Nicholas Roberts, my colleague at Woodbury University, received written permission with the assistance of the Chandigarh College of Architecture. We traveled with our guide, the planner and editor of The Emerging Asian City, Vinayak Bharne, and a dozen adventurous students from Woodbury.

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A 1951 drawing by Le Corbusier shows the Palace of Assembly and the High Court with the Himalayas in the distance.

How does the capitol relate to the rest of Chandigarh?

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The architect designed the now-iconic Open Hand monument, as a symbol of India’s non-alignment during the Cold War. Due to limited funds, the structure wasn’t put in place until 1985, and today it’s a far stronger symbol of Chandigarh itself than of Nehru’s foreign policy.

It’s removed from the city—separated by a wide road, a dense landscape of trees, and earth berms. The capitol complex isn’t even visible from downtown; after crossing through the security barrier, it rises up suddenly in front of you. The disconnect is enhanced now by fully grown trees. The everyday resident doesn’t even see it.

Is it showing its years?

The complex has aged quite gracefully; the monolithic concrete buildings seem to have hardly changed since the day the forms were removed. But, of course, half a century of monsoons have taken their toll on the surfaces where water was designed to spill from the gutters, and weeds and trees have crept in through the cracks. The rawness and monumentality of the place probably made the complex seem like a ruin from its first exposure to the elements. Its lack of urbanity enhances the feeling of it being a strange, isolated thing from another world—you feel it will be there for eternity.

Efforts have been made to place Chandigarh on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage sites. But further cooperation among preservationists, historians, and city officials is required to move forward. The question remains, though, as to whether the site should continue on the path of its original design by Le Corbusier or if the complex might better be adapted and transformed by its users. Alternative proposals for how to transform Chandigarh would be quite interesting to consider.

Does the capitol complex actually work as an administrative hub?

It seems as if the buildings might have never been used exactly as intended. Workers have continually altered the interiors by rearranging furniture and equipment. Although Le Corbusier’s architectural language of brise-soleils was designed to control the sunlight and heat gain, numerous window air-conditioning units have been added over the years, giving the complex a hacked quality and calling into question if the passive environmental design put in place by the master really works.

What is it like being there?

Chandigarh feels strangely empty. Its enormous plazas—which were intended to serve as active walking and assembly spaces between the structures—give the complex a feeling that we might be in an Antonioni film or that the world might have ended and these are the remains of an ancient civilization.