An architect & a City!

Vikramaditya Prakash
Bloomsbury, India
Rs 599/-

Chandigarh is known to be one of the most well-planned cities of independent of India. And, also the first planned city. Soon after India got freed from British rule, the then Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru wanted a new capital for Punjab state, as its original capital ( Lahore) had gone to Pakistan.
Those who have visited Chandigarh, love its open expanse, clinically divided residential sectors, it’s large open green areas, city centre and museum complex, to just name a few. Very few cities in India, or in the world, are famously known with their architects. After Delhi (Edwin Lutyens), it is Chandigarh which is instantly known for its creator – Frenchman Le Corbusier ( a pseudonym) the world-renowned urbanist and planner.
This little book, though titled ‘Architectural Guide’, is actually a precise introduction of the beautiful city as seen by the author who is a well-known architect in his own stride. I have always believed Chandigarh was the first ‘Smart City’ that was built much before such a concept was introduced anywhere.
The best part of the book is that it has included pictures of some of the best public buildings of the city along with their detailed drawings and small perspective plans to provide readers with much more insights of the particular structure. Normally what happens in our cities that the ordinary citizens, or even students of architecture do not much bother about important buildings and the men who conceived the same. In a way, they remain aloof from their own city and its history. Such a book, thus, enlightens them and virtually opens up their third eye that should notice the smaller details of cement-brick-mortar structures which they see daily while going out to offices or market places or to a friend’s house.
In this way, Bloomsbury Publishers have done a good job of launching a series of ‘Indian Architectural Travel Guides’ focusing on cities in the manner which Prakash has written. Of course, I have so far been able to lay hand on only this book. They have brought out similar books on Ahmedabad, Jaipur, Varanasi, Delhi and Old Goa.
So the author tells us the curious story of how Corbusier came into the picture at the last moment to design the city. He was not the first choice of Punjab Government officials. Upon reading initial pages of this book, the reader gets to know how fast official decisions used to be taken in those days by bureaucrats even in hunting foreign architects.
The draft agenda to create the city as “Garden City”–christened ‘ Chandigarh’ because of a temple close by–was prepared by AL Fletcher, Kerala cadre Indian Civil Services Officer on special duty to the Punjab Government. Based on his readings of the post-war English New Towns around London and the writings of Ebenezer Howard and Lewis Mumford, Fletcher proposed that the new capital should be a small administrative town nestled in a green landscape. P N Thapar ( also ICS) as the chief administrator and P L Verma, as the chief engineer, were entrusted with the task of realising this vision in 1949. Due to some differences among them, Fletcher left the project but Verma and Thapar remained devoted to the cause of Chandigarh to the very end of their lives. The author tells us about American planner Albert Mayer who was working with Nehru in Uttar Pradesh on the task of creating ‘Modern Villages’. “His background in the United States, however, was as a Garden City-influenced town planner which was of course also the profile that had been developed for the new city of Chandigarh by AL Fletcher. And so naturally, Nehru asked Mayer to prepare master plan for Chandigarh.”
Although, Mayer was essentially obsessed with his rural development schemes at this time, he accepted the Chandigarh job. The prestige associated with the project would have been an attraction, in particular for the New York-based colleagues that he brought with him to work on the plan-Lewis Mumford and Clarence Stein amongst them-who were in competition with European modernists led by Le Corbusier. The author adds since the team was largely made of planners with little building design experience, Matthew Nowicki, a stylish and talented young Polish architect, was brought in by them as junior partner to design the signature buildings of state and to help outline the housing and other public buildings.
Unfortunately, Nowicki died in August 1950 in an air crash in Egypt. To keep the project momentum going, Thapar and Verma immediately set off for Europe to look for a replacement for Nowicki and found it in the London-based husband-wife team of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew. Fry and Drew had been working in Africa that time in climates similar to those in north India and had developed a specialisation in ‘tropical architecture’. But Drew suggested the name of
Le Corbusier to Thapar and Verma whose offer Corbusier had refused earlier. But Drew persuaded them to let her accompany them down to Paris to ask him again. The world-famous modernist of that time was interested to design signature buildings for the State of Punjab but was not keen to shift his base to Chandigarh from Paris to work as a salaried employee of the Punjab government. According to the book, a way out was found and his cousin and former partner Pierre Jeanneret was asked to take up the contract. Corbusier agreed to coordinate with Jeanneret from Paris. That is how he, Fry and Drew moved to Chandigarh on a three-year renewable contract as salaried employees and Corbusier ( Charles-Edouard Jeanneret was his original name) was appointed by Thapar and Verma as the architectural advisor to Punjab government to design the first planned city after independence.
The author enlightens readers by saying that the idea of the top bureaucrats to insist on moving the foreign architects to India was to help train a body of Indian architects and planners in that process, for the future. That was the vision of Indian bureaucrats some 70 years ago. Sadly, we rarely find this element of long term vision for India, in today’s bureaucracy!
MN Sharma, Anant R Prabhawalkar, Aditya Prakash, JS Dethe, Jeet Lal Malhotra, BP Mathur were among those Indian planners and architects who got trained in city planning under the tutelage of the four-five top foreign architects, led by Corbusier. Their contributions (and creations) to the city have also been acknowledged by including their names in the small book-cum-guide.
The city, inaugurated in 1966, was planned in two phases–Sectors 1 to 30 in the first phase, (a total of 29 sectors as sector 13 and 14 were merged to make room for an extra-large sector for the university) and second phase of 31-47 sectors started in 1970. Based on Corbusier’s basic concept diagram, the master plan was developed by Jeanneret, Fry and Drew with Indian architects Dethe, Lamba and Prabhawalkar in toe.
Corbusier’s core plan consisted of the government buildings ( Assembly, High Court, Secretariat), fourteen categories of housing based on the salary and rank of the employee–starting with the Governor and ending in the peons- a university, a museum complex, a library and several technical training institutes. To this, the infrastructural facilities and commercial properties were added as the planners felt they were necessary to complete it as an administrative town.
In 1954, Fry and Drew left Chandigarh as their contracts were not renewed but Jeanneret stayed on as chief architect of the city and adopted Chandigarh as his home. Corbusier visited Chandigarh 23 times from Paris, though he was not paid for the second of the trips.
The author has given many itineraries in the sufficiently illustrated book for curious visitors to see the city sector-wise, through his architectural eyes. “I have tried to communicate the architectural culture of this city (Chandigarh) that once was,” he says.
I feel this is a good book for architectural students and planners as well as laymen who are interested in the history of cities, such as Chandigarh.

No Comments Yet

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.