Le Corbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Already acknowledged as one of the world’s greatest architects, Le Corbusier accepted a commission to design his most visionary, monumental, and complete urban plan in a harsh, underdeveloped region of India.

Summary of Event

In November, 1950, Le Corbusier was approached by two Indian officials, who proposed that he design Chandigarh—the new joint capital city of the states of Punjab and Haryana. Le Corbusier agreed, several months later (in 1951), to undertake what would prove to be his first complete urban plan. Earlier, a New York architectural firm had drafted a master plan for Chandigarh in line with other ambitious urban projects exalting newly won Indian independence, but Le Corbusier assumed overall responsibility for the city’s design with the presumption that significant changes were inevitable. His principal caveats about Chandigarh were that little money was available for the project, that construction logistics were primitive, and that the site itself was a forbidding one: a scorched level plain, with the Himalayas as a backdrop, subject not only to extreme heat but also to earthquakes, wind, and sandstorms. Chandigarh, India Urban planning;India Architecture;Le Corbusier[Lecorbusier] Architecture;Chandigarh [kw]Le Corbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh (1951-1963)[Lecorbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh] [kw]Chandigarh, Le Corbusier Designs and Builds (1951-1963)[Chandigarh, Lecorbusier Designs and Builds] Chandigarh, India Urban planning;India Architecture;Le Corbusier[Lecorbusier] Architecture;Chandigarh [g]South Asia;1951-1963: Le Corbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh[03420] [g]India;1951-1963: Le Corbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh[03420] [c]Architecture;1951-1963: Le Corbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh[03420] [c]Urban planning;1951-1963: Le Corbusier Designs and Builds Chandigarh[03420] Le Corbusier Jeanneret, Pierre Fry, Maxwell Drew, Jane Nehru, Jawaharlal

Famed for his radical, usually controversial single structures—the Villa Savoye, Stein, and Shodan, the Pessac housing settlement, the LaRoche and Jaoul houses, the Ronchamp Chapel and La Tourette monastery, and the Swiss and Brazilian pavilions for Paris’s University City—Le Corbusier had actively sought to design or redesign substantial sectors of existing cities. Among the many of his writings in which he had vigorously expressed this desire was La Ville radieuse Radiant City, The (Le Corbusier) (1933; The Radiant City, 1967). In this characteristically rhetorical and polemical work, he aimed to spread the doctrine that modern human lifestyles and values dictated that urbanism assume the fundamental role in machine-age civilization—and he lent his words substance. In years before and after this publication, Le Corbusier drafted many detailed proposals, accompanied by his building models, for the design, variously, of a “Contemporary City” in 1922 and for the redesign of Paris (his “Voisin Plan” of 1925), of Algiers (seven plans after 1930), of Stockholm, Moscow, Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and—representative of his larger scheme for Marseille—of the Marseille Block of apartments (1945-1952).

Le Corbusier’s lifetime of spinning variations of his grand urban theories—all complementary to his artistic and social philosophy—would probably have yielded few physical manifestations without the opportunities presented by Chandigarh. Either because his political views proved untimely or uncongenial to authorities, or because his early Purist and later Brutalist architectural styles offended the tastes of decision makers, none of his urban schemes—except for occasional buildings—had won general approval. In contrast, India, exuberantly independent in 1950 and eager to demonstrate its capacities for modernity, was warmly receptive to the radical and comprehensive architectural statement Le Corbusier offered. Equally important, Mahatma Gandhi’s spiritual heir, the already legendary Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, befriended and supported Le Corbusier and all that Chandigarh symbolized aesthetically and politically.

Based mainly in Paris, Le Corbusier assigned on-site supervision of the project’s execution to his cousin, friend, and collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret, while housing, markets, furnishings, and other details of the urban fabric were the responsibilities of two British architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Le Corbusier himself concentrated primarily upon Chandigarh’s capitol complex and on designing the new city’s monumental architecture. However, the city’s overall design was his as well. To the design, he applied his carefully articulated traffic system, which was future-oriented in the underdeveloped Punjab, and in terms of urban scaling, he invoked the well-tested principles of the “golden rectangle” (which called for the major attractions to be separated by distances of from 800 to 1,200 meters, a plan similar to that used in the design of Paris, for example) along with his own patented “Modulor” system to ensure retention of human dimensions amid monumentality.

Within the symbolically vital capitol sector, Le Corbusier focused upon the provincial government’s center, located in open land on the city’s northern extreme. There, the design of four structures preoccupied him: the High Court, the Legislative Assembly, the Secretariat, and the Governor’s Palace. Each building, in accord with Le Corbusier’s predilections, was constructed of rough, reinforced concrete (béton brut) conveying its own architectural statement. The Secretariat, the Assembly, and the High Court were framed against the distant Himalayas and were both spaced and mirrored by reflecting pools. Reportedly, architect Jane Drew further encouraged Le Corbusier to reaffirm his philosophy by constructing a series of additional monuments built within the capitol’s pedestrian area: a Museum of Knowledge, a Modulor and Harmonic Spiral, a Tower of Shade, and, as if to put his signature upon the whole, a Monument of the Open Hand.

Always the complete artist, Le Corbusier left his detailed imprimatur everywhere: in his sun breaks (brise-soleil), in his horn and open-hand motifs, in his bold use of pastel paints on the buildings, in his ingenious ventilating systems drawn from his Mediterranean experience, in his sometimes whimsical use of the Modulor, and in his personal design of interior tapestries, paintings, reliefs, and sculptures.

By 1963, two years before Le Corbusier’s death, Chandigarh had essentially assumed its planned urban form. Major structures and monuments of the capitol complex upon which Le Corbusier had concentrated were complete, as were their ancillary pedestrian ways, arterials, pools, and parks. So, too, was the low-rise central business district (all under four stories except for the post and telegraph building) and the variously stylized fabric of shops and housing that had been left to Pierre Jeanneret, Fry, and Drew.

Significance

Within two years of Chandigarh’s substantial completion, both Le Corbusier and Nehru were dead. Since then, architects, architectural historians, critics, informed laypersons, and, most important, large numbers of the Indian public—for whom the Punjab capital has become as important an aesthetic focus as the Taj Mahal—agree that Le Corbusier’s city, its failings acknowledged, stands as one of the world’s great architectural and philosophical landmarks. Built from scratch in a forbidding landscape, the monumental structures of its capitol complex achieve a uniqueness and a harmony that make their geometric cubes, pillars, sunbreaks, parasol roofs, and rough yet colorful concrete surfaces appear to be carved from wind and water. Inspiration—that of Le Corbusier and many others—integrated the functional and symbolic roles of these buildings and monuments with a designed urban fabric for a city of nearly half a million people.

Intellectually and artistically, the creation of Chandigarh had its most immediate impact upon Le Corbusier himself. If the city was eventually to become his masterpiece, its evocation was also the supreme challenge to his lifetime of urban theorizing and the keenest test of his ability to extrapolate lessons gleaned from his extraordinary knowledge, experience, and imagination. As the author of more than fifty books expounding and clarifying his perceptions, Le Corbusier was articulate about the grand problems presented by Chandigarh. He was not obliged, he explained, to transform or redesign a traditional walled Indian city of kings, princes, and nobles. Rather, he was faced with occupying a plain; he was confronted by a geometrical event and constrained to battle space.

While he believed that, in time, geometric designs and modern materials would prevail in architecture, Le Corbusier conceded that a reliance upon sensation would have to precede employment of the almost Cartesian logic and rationalism that had been hallmarks of his architecture and writings. By implication, such explanations underscore the fact that Le Corbusier intensively immersed himself only in the formulation of Chandigarh’s grand design and monumental aspects. As well-disposed critics have noted, he devoted little attention to understanding local cultural conditions and left it to the genius and skill of others to flesh out and join the city’s more mundane business center, shops, and housing to the sturdy skeleton that he provided.

Because of what he judged to be his inability to harmonize humanity and modern society even at Chandigarh, Le Corbusier regarded the city, by that criterion, a personal failure, though this reaction was in consonance with his consistently tragic view of the human condition. The international architectural community, however, despite reservations, evinced more positive reactions. It was favorably impressed generally by the modified, less harsh, and more “natural” Brutalism that Le Corbusier employed there.

A number of architects and architectural critics, such as Peter Blake, found words inadequate to describe the power of Chandigarh’s appearance and message, and many of Blake’s professional colleagues pronounced it one of the most stunning achievements of twentieth century building. For them, Le Corbusier brilliantly and effectively had treated Chandigarh’s monumental structures as primordial sculptures displayed against a neutral background. Architectural historians such as Norma Evenson have further noted that professionals perceived the massive plasticity of form and bold exposures of rough concrete that were among Le Corbusier’s hallmarks at Chandigarh as among the seminal influences in liberating postwar architecture from restrictions of the then-regnant International Style.

Nearly all qualified observers read in the city’s principal buildings and monuments, moreover, a remarkable synthesis of Le Corbusier’s aesthetics with the additions attributed to him in architecture’s semantic vocabulary: pilotis, brise-soleil, ondulatories, pie-shaped assembly, endless museum, béton brut, hyperbolic shells, parasol roofs, inexpressible space, undulating glass walls, Modulor designs, and so on. Critics also recognized that because Le Corbusier had long been such an enormous influence over his profession, much of the architectural vocabulary employed at Chandigarh was, by the 1950’s, already clichéd. There was likewise a general recognition that the masterpiece of spirit and structure at Chandigarh would preclude the construction of similar projects in the future. Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, in company with the masterworks of Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, had brought the heroic age of urban theorists and designers, and thus the modern architecture of which these men were the acknowledged masters, to an end.

Even Le Corbusier’s most ardent admirers drew lessons from his failures at Chandigarh. Some felt the rigorous Western theory applied to the Indian city’s development, in the process ignoring the vitality and visual interest of native life, was strikingly unimaginative and shockingly insensitive. A few felt that the whole scheme represented a misplaced “Garden City” project, although Le Corbusier decades earlier had repudiated such concepts. Some observers simply found the concentration of attention upon the capitol complex’s widely spaced monuments to be monotonous and regretted the lack of compaction.

Other critics complained that government buildings were too dispersed—too far apart for their personnel either to appreciate the other monuments around them or to communicate by walking, or even cycling, as was customary in the underdeveloped Punjab. Serious criticisms fell upon the city’s housing and residential sectors, with which Le Corbusier was scarcely involved. Criticisms of specific buildings, the stuff of professional architecture, were numerous: too much compaction in one area, failure to achieve a democratic ambience in another, contrasts that were too violent elsewhere, and impractical design and faulty workmanship in many spots. Both the praise and criticism of Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh comprehended the fact that Le Corbusier, in closing an era of urban monumentalism, still had helped provide a functional and structural framework for future cities, meanwhile giving humanity stirring buildings upon which to look. Chandigarh, India Urban planning;India Architecture;Le Corbusier[Lecorbusier] Architecture;Chandigarh

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banerji, Anupam. The Architecture of Corbusier and Kahn in the East: A Philosophical Inquiry. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2001. Analysis of the aesthetic and broader philosophical concerns revealed in the Asian work of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Blake, Peter. The Master Builders. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1960. A splendid work for placing Le Corbusier in context with Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, the twentieth century’s other two architectural giants. Blake, a respected architect and architectural writer, skillfully emphasizes Le Corbusier’s philosophy and principles in this readable, objective account. Numerous photos highlight the evolution of Le Corbusier’s work. No notes or bibliography, but a useful index. An authoritative synthesis and introduction to great architects.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Choay, Françoise. Le Corbusier. New York: George Braziller, 1960. A brief, incisive, readable introduction to Le Corbusier’s ideas and career by a noted French author who is an admiring critic of “Corbu.” Eighty-seven excellent plates, a useful summary chronology, select bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Evenson, Norma. Le Corbusier: The Machine and the Grand Design. New York: George Braziller, 1969. By a noted architectural historian and University of California professor. Evenson’s doctoral dissertation on Chandigarh was the first such study on Le Corbusier’s major works. Admiring but critical. Good chapter on Chandigarh, but deserves full reading. Plates, notes, bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gardiner, Stephen. Le Corbusier. New York: Viking Press, 1974. A chronological sketch of the development of Le Corbusier’s major themes and ideas. Good, if brief, material on Chandigarh. Twenty-three interesting plates, a biographical note, select bibliography, and useful index. Useful as an introductory background to Le Corbusier. Should be supplemented by Blake, Choay, Evenson, or Jencks.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Jencks, Charles. Le Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1973. Scholarly, authoritative, and readable. The author’s chronological approach places Le Corbusier in meaningful artistic and intellectual contexts while tracing his philosophical development. Scores of illuminating photos, sketches, and building plans. Informative notes and an excellent triple-columned index. An insightful analysis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Le Corbusier. The Radiant City. New York: Orion Press, 1967. The English translation of the 1933 French publication, this is an interesting insight into what proved to be Le Corbusier’s lifelong dreams about urbanism and urban design. Despite sometimes peculiar grammar, gives a sense of the grandeur of his ideas. Few aids for readers, but Le Corbusier’s view was that life was a losing struggle.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Prakash, Vikramaditya. Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002. Analysis of the political and ideological baggage attached to Le Corbusier’s project and the differing conceptions of India and modernity of European and Indian architects. Written by the son of one of the Indian architects who participated in Chandigarh’s design. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Serenyi, Peter, ed. Le Corbusier in Perspective. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1975. Twenty-six fine essays by twenty-two architects, urban planners, architectural historians, authors, and critics from the United States, Great Britain, and Europe. Excellent reading. Good scope in the entire collection. Thirty-two plates, a fine bibliography, biographical data, notes, and a useful index.

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