What entered the rugged heart of City Beautiful
Chandigarh, the Beautiful City, where the influence of nature and the built environment is always within the reach of its residents, was imagined on a human scale by its town planner, Le Corbusier. He designed the city analogously to the human body where the city center represents the heart. About 65 years ago, the location of the city of Chandigarh was farmland steeped in mango trees. There were about 24 villages between the Sukhna and Patiala ki Rao streams. Sector 17, which is the heart of the city, filled with glitzy exhibition halls, was the location of Rurki Parao village. Mathew Nowicki, a Polish architect, produced the foreground of the city center, which included square and circular buildings separated from each other but connected to the network of walkways raised above street level.
However, the plan was never executed as Mathew Nowicki was disengaged from Project Chandigarh due to his untimely death in a plane crash.
Le Corbusier demarcated the location of the city center at the junction of two major arteries – the Madhya Marg (V2) and the Jan Path (V2), two major architectural axes of the city. With a total area of about 240 acres, the downtown area was divided into northern and southern areas. The main shopping square was designed with the idea of creating a “pedestrian paradise” taking inspiration from French squares. The mall has been planned around the crossroads (chowk) to showcase the essence of traditional Indian chowk characteristics, with four story buildings. The town hall, the central library, the regional post and telegraph headquarters, insurance offices and movie theaters were iconic buildings designed around the chowk. Jagat and Neelam Theater were for entertainment where Neelam Cinema was positioned in the central axis with commercial stores on either side to give it more prominence. According to the mandate given to Le Corbusier, a large part of the city center was supposed to be developed by private enterprise; therefore, the original plans for the commercial plots were larger than the actual plans. As they could not be sold to private owners, Le Corbusier then reduced the designs to smaller stores.
The V4 (shopping street) which meandered and cut each sector also crossed sector 17, dividing it into two parts; where the southern division was developed as the district administration center and the northern division was reserved for the city’s business, commerce, civic and entertainment areas. Historic photographs of rickshaws, bicycles, two-wheelers and buses flying along the V4 in front of the Neelam cinema are now a thing of the past as the V4 has been converted into a plaza with parking lots on either side to create an uninterrupted pedestrian paradise connecting the Neelam cinema to the bank square. The V4 vehicular street took its current location behind the Neelam cinema.
Prior to downtown development, while the rest of Chandigarh was under construction, Sector 22 served as a model sector. Connaught Place in Delhi was the previous CBD of India’s past, with concentric three-story buildings with a 12-foot-wide veranda. Downtown Chandigarh followed a similar scheme of providing a 12-foot-wide veranda.
Architect Maxwell Fry, one of the Chandigarh project team members, criticized the city center as “devoid of street-level activities and without trees.” The width of the pedestrian axes in the city center square is so wide that it loses its capacity for shelter and enclosure compared to the height of the four-storey buildings that surround it. Compared to Connaught Place in Delhi, where one strolls through concentric verandas with a filtered view, creating an element of surprise, downtown Chandigarh fails to provide such an exciting experience for users.
(Making of Chandigarh is part of the bi-monthly CCA student and faculty article series on the making of Chandigarh for the LCPJ Forum. Ar Vipendra Singh Thakur is Assistant Professor at Chandigarh College of Architecture and Vidhi Prakash is in second year by Mr Arch student.)