The first thing visitors to Chandigarh notice are its roads. They are wide, open, clean and even have landscaped roundabouts. The second most obvious difference is the city’s layout, which is divided into sector blocks. It is clear from the beginning that this city is different to every other Indian city and perhaps any city.
The Capitol Complex is only a small part of the city, providing the city with symbols. But lying in front of the complex lies the real, living Chandigarh city. The architects did not merely create a city plan but designed all the houses for all the different income groups of government officials and other occupants. This is where the largest challenge came in as the climate and local culture were completely foreign to the architects. The husband-wife team of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were responsible for most of Chandigarh’s house designs. In their three years as resident architects (they were not invited to stay past their contract due to differences with other city officials), the architects managed to house twenty thousand people. An incredible achievement.
There are many parts to Chandigarh but I will focus on the sectors and scale, housing and the city’s alien appearance.
The sectors blocks were designed in reference to LC’s view of a city having four basic functions: living, working, circulation and care of the body and spirit. Chandigarh was the first city in India to be designed for cars and its main circulation roads are separate to the sectors. This was seen as a cure to the congestion that LC saw in Indian and other cities. The sectors then contain everything residents need for living, eg. shops, medical care, schools etc. Care of the body and spirit was through green spaces scattered throughout the city and with larger park areas along the main circulation roads, including Leisure Valley. These were mostly done well, with a Landscape Advisory Committee created at the very beginning of the project in 1953. Residents are very proud of their green city. But like the Capitol Complex the scale of the city is wrong and the city is far from being pedestrian friendly. Public transport is crowded, confusing and infrequent. The city has doubled and spread into satellite cities but within the architects’ city, there still remains several undefined spaces. Green parks are great but not when there are so many that some remain empty patches of grass while there is a lack of housing.
The task of designing housing for so many different styles of living in a completely foreign culture seems too daunting for many to even consider, but these modernists were out to change the world and illustrate better ways of living. The designers had to find a balance between the aesthetics and the functional, the climate and the material, economy and maintenance and all within the smallest budget! Even before climate, budget was probably the most influential aspect in housing design. For example, the size of windows was small as glass was expensive. Window and door frames were also all uniform so as to make it cheaper through the use of mass production. Shade structures were the best response to the climate, as well as orientation, although due to the strict city grid, some houses were made to face the wrong way and were climatically ineffective from the beginning. At the time Chandigarh’s houses were considered very modern with running water and a fully water-borne sewage system. The architects carefully planned around the Indian culture of the 50s, for residents who spent most of their time on the roof or veranda. But times change and todays residents prefer to spend the day inside watching television rather than sitting on a roof. Now, rather than the houses being too untraditional, the biggest criticism is that the houses are not modern enough! The climate of Chandigarh has also become hotter, so their budget attempts at climate control are now completely ineffective and air conditioners are now used in most homes.
Chandigarh is definitely not the India that most international tourists seek, the roads are wide and would not be described as chaotic, the markets are similar to any other cities modern malls, there are barely any street vendors and the colours, smells (good and bad) are missing. It has been called sterile and un-Indian. The best response to this criticism is by an Indian architect, who claims that, “such people simply wanted us to be picturesque…they did not see the Indian-ness both of this experiment and of its realisation”.
Nothing this adventurous or large can be without heavy criticism, or could possibly be undertaken to this extreme in any other country than in India. The next post will explore the future of Chandigarh.