This month, guest contributor to the Provocative Places series Vinod Bhatia, Assistant Professor of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Panchkula (Haryana), explores the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh.
The Capitol Complex designed by Le Corbousier is situated in Chandigarh, the capital city shared by two Indian states, Punjab and Haryana. Le Corbousier was commissioned in the 1950’s by the Government of India to work and develop the master plan of a new capital city for Punjab, against the backdrop of partition that led to the transferring of Lahore to Pakistan, as the capital city of Punjab in pre-independence time. Historically, Chandigarh was India’s first planned city post-independence and the Capitol Complex one of Le Corbusier’s most ambitious projects.
The Capitol complex is an assemblage of three concrete buildings, symbolising the three pillars of democracy - the Assembly, Secretariat and High court along with four monuments including the Open Hand Monument, the Tower of Shadows, Geometric Hill and the Marty’s memorial. All the buildings are built from unfinished concrete with windows covered with large concrete sunshades. The master plan of Chandigarh became a manifestation of the design philosophy of Corbusier; centred around principles of modernism and the Capitol Complex became the site that reflects his experiments with space and material, turning them into reality.
Le Corbusier conceived the master plan of Chandigarh as analogous to the human body, with a clearly defined head (the Capitol Complex, Sector 1), heart (the City Centre Sector-17), lungs (the leisure valley, innumerable open spaces and sector greens), the intellect (the cultural and educational institutions), the circulatory system (the network of roads, the 7Vs) and the viscera (the Industrial Area).[i] This model was an attempt to theorise the architectural principles to the cosmic proportions. Corbusier used modular, a harmonic system based on human scale that became a pivotal unit in designing exterior spaces and the grid system which reflects the silhouette of a man with a raised arm. He experimented to establish the link between the mathematical relation between the human body and nature.
Much has been documented and debated on the subject of Corbusier, modernism and his role in designing the master plan of Chandigarh as part of modern architectural history. Chandigarh, developed by Corbusier while he was at the peak of his practice in the 1950's, was one of his most rewarding projects outside the European borders. His principles of city planning manifested on a metropolitan scale. The architectural project marked a departure from the existing traditions establishing a new architectural and urban space for the locals, far away from the notions of “the Indian way of life.” Chandigarh was referred to as the epitome of the modern city, as propagated by Jawahar Lal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister in his speech, “We cannot keep pace with the modern world, unless we adopt the latest techniques.”[ii] Chandigarh manifested the utopian spirit of nation building and Corbusier as its architect. Debates and critique surrounding Corbusier’s work emerged during the 1960’s and 1970’s when it was viewed as a symbol for the arrogance of Western planning ideology inflicted upon the Third World.[iii] Critics argued that the establishment of the physical form of the city was in terms of Western standards of social progress and economic growth, partly, if not totally, at the expense of the traditional way of life of those who had to live in the new environment.[iv]
A visit to the complex pushes the visitor to experience the magnanimity of space and scale of modernist interventions in architecture and urban planning. Its grandeur in scale and openness in space situate it at the threshold between the lush green forests of the Shivalik mountains on one side and thenorthern plains on the other. One of the most visible and impactful monuments in the entire complex is the open hand, which is the official emblem of Chandigarh. It stands tall to convey the message of ‘Open to give, open to receive’ reflecting upon the urge of India in the 1950's as a young nation state to forge its identity with the principles of modernity, both at global and local fronts.
Capitol Complex is one of the seventeen sites designed by Le Corbusier and spread over seven countries that were declared as protected by UNESCO during the World Heritage Convention held in Istanbul in 2016.
Standing against the harsh Indian weather conditions, the complex has stood the test of time, and problems like corrosion and water seepage have made the space vulnerable. Efforts are in process to address the need of restoration of the entire complex. Local administration, along with restoration architects and a team of experts, continuously put in the effort to conserve the built heritage.[v]
Capitol Complex embarks on a historical moment in the time and space reflecting Le Corbusier’s vision for an urban experience through design. This monument, well deserved to be protected for future generations, is an important part of the design heritage of modern times. As stated in UNESCO’s charter, “The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier represents a masterpiece of human creative genius, providing an outstanding response to certain fundamental architectural and social challenges of the 20th century.”
Vinod Bhatia, is a Design Postgraduate from NIFT, New Delhi. He has keen interest in Visual Culture studies and Design history. He has worked on projects like Khalsa Heritage Centre, Anandpur Sahib (Punjab) and Nizams of Hyderabad. Currently he is employed as an Assistant Professor of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Panchkula (Haryana).
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