CHANDIGARH — As this city comes into view on the descent over the Himalayan plains, the first impression is unlike any other in India. There is a grid. There is order.
Mumbai sprawls in wonderful chaos. A patchwork of slums is marbled into the fringes of New Delhi. But the 47 sectors of Chandigarh, consisting of blocks of 800 by 1,200 meters (or 875 by 1,312 yards) are an intentional act of urban planning.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of the newly independent India, ordered up a new provincial capital for the Punjab state after Lahore was lost to Pakistan in the 1947 partition. He envisioned an entirely modern metropolis to mark India’s entry into the modern world and a clean break from Britain’s colonial rule.
Nehru first chose a US team led by architects and planners Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki. But after Nowicki died in a plane crash, Nehru turned to the Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, a leader in 20th-century modern architecture, who jumped at the chance to design a city from scratch.
Le Corbusier, currently the subject of a major exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, had proposed a new paradigm for cities, beginning in Paris in the 1920s, followed by Sao Paulo, Rio de Janiero, Algiers, and other locations. But none had come to fruition. Chandigarh, he wrote to his wife, would be the crowning achievement of his life.
More than 50 years later, The Beautiful City, as it is known, has become an essential stop for devotees of mid-century urban planning and architecture. Planned for about 300,000, now home to 1 million throughout the metropolitan area about 124 miles north of New Delhi, Chandigarh has been considered for UNESCO designation as a world heritage site.
But it is not an easy place to visit.
The Capitol Complex, with three signature Le Corbusier buildings — the Secretariat housing administrative government offices, the Parliament building with its billowing concrete parasol, and the High Court — is cordoned off and ringed by machine gun nests. The tight security, because of the nearness of the tense India-Pakistan border and the disputed Kashmir region, has made it all but impossible to fulfill Le Corbusier’s vision for a gathering place to be filled with people — like Boston’s City Hall Plaza on steroids — designed for celebrations and activity.
Architectural pilgrims must provide identification to enter the complex at the tourism office adjacent to police headquarters in Sector 9. They must then take the permission slip for additional approval in a distinctly Indian bureaucratic process at the Secretariat. Cameras must be handed over inside the Parliament building.
Although it takes some effort, walking around the complex, with the foothills of the Himalayas in the hazy distance, provides a powerful sense of what Le Corbusier had in mind — from the reflecting pools, albeit drained when legislators are not in session, to the Open Hand monument, symbolizing the promise of the fledgling democracy. The High Court, with its wavy, curving facades, seems a precursor to Frank Gehry.
The rest of the city is easier to navigate, although it must be done by car or taxi. That was the idea of Chandigarh, after all, when planned in the 1950s. As in the new towns and suburban communities such as Reston, Va., or the Woodlands in Texas, the assumption of the suburban era was that everybody would get around on four wheels.
Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret laid out the long blocks of the vast grid and strictly separated the uses: residential buildings, a commercial center, a medical and university complex, and a central park and recreation area oriented around a vast manmade lake. It’s a trip back in time, to the equivalent of a 1970s Maryland suburb.
An essential stop is the Le Corbusier Centre, on the site of the project headquarters in Sector 19, where the history of the city is documented in photographs, exhibits, and models, and includes some wonderful examples of the original modern furniture that Le Corbusier and Jeanneret designed for the government offices. Also worth visiting is the Chandigarh Architecture Museum, near the Chandigarh Museum and Art Gallery, in Sector 10.
The idea of actually planning a city is unique in India, where the major cities are expected to double populations of 20 million or more in the decades ahead. The task from 1951 to 1965, the city’s period of major construction, was primarily to organize the massive upheaval of resettlement, in what India refers to as the tragedy of partition. Guided by Le Corbusier, it was an experiment in thinking big.
Chandigarh’s charms, however, manifest in places where activity is concentrated at a smaller, more human scale. The manmade Suknha Lake, with an elegant beach club and grounds, is reminiscent of the best of Robert Moses’s municipal pools and playgrounds in New York. Sector 17, where Le Corbusier built the first rows of townhomes for government workers, is a cozy district anchored by a cinema. The homes are clean and spacious, many of them with yards and little carports in the back, not unlike a New Urbanist development like Kentlands in Maryland. The commercial center, essentially one of the world’s first outdoor malls, is filled with people.
There’s a wonderful branding throughout Chandigarh that reflects the unity and coherence of a city planned all at once, and the promise of utopia. Tidy maps of the sectors appear near most of the rotaries that link the superblocks, complete with a “you are here” dot. The manhole covers are imprinted with the grid of the city — even the doorhandles are distinctive — prompting thieves to try to make off with both custom items to sell on eBay.
One additional attraction that Le Corbusier didn’t plan is the Rock Garden, a labyrinth of pathways, ponds and waterfalls, and marvelous sculpture displays made of recycled ceramic, begun by a government worker, Nek Chand, who started creating the park in his spare time. The Rock Garden is a major destination for tourists and Indians alike; Westerners should not be surprised to be asked to pose for pictures, a coveted prize for a local family outing.
Chandigarh is a living experiment, and certainly not on the mainstream tourist itineraries. Yet it is a destination, not only for architecture pilgrims, but for anyone interested in a different way of living in dizzying, chaotic India.
Anthony Flint can be reached at email@example.com.