"It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you on the head and makes you think. You may not like it, but it has made you think, and imbibe new ideas." Jawaharlal Nehru's 1959 description of Chandigarh has as much resonance now as it did when independent India's first prime minister described the effect of the town plan completed by the modernist architect Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, known as Le Corbusier.
The Indian Punjab capital was a post-Partition response to the influx of refugees spilling over the newly formed border with Pakistan. Planned living aimed to house a displaced populace, in a style not seen anywhere else in the country. Le Corbusier's design offered not just a settlement, but also a lifestyle - functionality amid a modernist aesthetic. The blueprint vision had something of a Pyongyang-meets-Lewis-Carroll result that would not look out of place were Chandigarh to be conceived today. Wide concrete plazas crowned with space-age curved concrete structures, and minimalist angularity, typify Le Corbusier's design.
Initial plans by the pioneering American design pair Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki might have produced an entirely different metropolis, but after Nowicki's death in a plane crash and Mayer's subsequent resignation, Le Corbusier was drafted in to finish Chandigarh's design. Driven by a modernist utopian ideal, Le Corbusier aimed to create self-contained "super-blocks", where the Swiss-French architect's four outlying concepts of living, working, circulation and the care of body and spirit could be perfectly balanced.
The results can be seen across the town, from Chandigarh's high court buildings, which are dominated by a suspended concrete umbrella roof to its angular City Museum and Gallery, and the imposing Open Hand sculpture, which sits outside the primary-coloured secretariat buildings. Conceptually, a nomadic, modern and elegant approach was adopted, with Le Corbusier's love of human-scale dimensions resulting in pedestrian-friendly, low-density, low-rise architecture.
The unobtrusive geometry, and ban on fussy detail and human statues, immediately sets the city apart from the metropolitan chaos found in other Indian cities. The city's modern art vibe is continued by the work of a clutch of galleries, art colleges and local artists, by local architects continuing and developing modern structures that sit alongside Le Corbusier's initial vision, and by large-scale outdoor monuments such as Chandigarh's streamlined and minimalist war memorial site.
The City Museum charts the growth of Chandigarh as an artistic hub, from its ancient Harappan heritage when the area was a centre for pottery and sculpture production, to today's architectural growth and artistic tuition. Rani Mera studies art at the Chandigarh College of Art and says those who live in the city are aware of their heritage: "It is all around us, so of course we are going to be inspired. Everybody knows who Le Corbusier was and that it is his vision we live in today. So of course the city is going to produce more similar talent, and a love for modern art and architecture."
Mera adds: "You can't help loving the unique style here, especially if you've grown up with it. It's utterly different to another city or town so we of course continue that kind of art, and we study a lot of modern art, like graphics and painting, and new buildings, in college." The fallen-down-a-rabbit-hole experience that is Chandigarh's Rock Garden is perhaps the most prominent example of this, a fantastical, winding maze of waterfalls, rock cliffs, statues, tunnels and hidden pathways - made entirely from recycled industrial and household waste.
Glittering shards of china cover walls and floors with mosaics, and armies of small figurines made from glass stand guard along the garden's narrow alleyways. Startlingly Gaudi-esque, the garden would sit neatly alongside Barcelona's outdoor art, and is the work of just one man. A self-taught artist and sculptor, Nek Chand began the garden with scrap he collected on bicycle-rides around the city, and a hobby became an obsession that has produced one of India's most diverse and offbeat tourist attractions.
Chand is a man of few words who holds court in a pebble-lined office in the heart of the garden, where he quietly discusses continuing development in the garden with its visitors. "It is an extension of our modern planning," he says, "but it wasn't planned as such, in the same way. It was a gift from God, this talent, and when I developed this. I found the items and recycled them to create something new and different.
"So you can say it is modern art but it is also a way to preserve the city because the garden recycles the old and produces something new." Chand admits ongoing development is equally organic, but says the garden's existence is considered aesthetically significant. "For the future, there isn't a plan as such, just to keep developing the art that is here and adding to it. But we don't draw up ideas, we just decide as an area develops what should go there and how we use the items we collect. I don't know if it is important to Chandigarh, but as a centre of creativity though, the people who visit here appreciate it in terms of the artistic importance."
The Rock Garden carries its own preservation story. Chand's work lay undiscovered for more than 20 years while he slowly added to the evolving garden, until town planners discovered that his work had spread over acres of public land. Happily, the garden escaped destruction when officials realised the importance of what they had found. Artistic development, preservation and promotion are found in the unlikeliest corners of the city. Inmates at Chandigarh's Burail Jail work to clean and restore Corbusier furniture donated by the city's municipal institutions, selling on chairs and tables to the many local restaurants with Corbusier interiors.
India's most famous export is also finding its feet in India's quirkiest town, with Bollywood directors and producers flocking to the city to shoot their films against Chandigarh's unique backdrop. Vijay Kumar, who runs Chandigarh's severely named Bollywood Facilitation Cell, explains the rapid rise in interest in using the city as a base for filming. "It's almost perfect because of the range of locations here - there's a lake, nearby hills and clean streets, and, most importantly, some of the most modern and unusual architecture in India. It's an ideal place to film because it's so diverse.
"Plus, it is a huge economic boost for the town - it's a great advert because people love visiting places used in films, and Bollywood directors hire extras, dancers, cameramen and make-up artists from Chandigarh. So it brings a lot of money to the city." Nehru's 1959 appraisal of the city's ability to foster a new era of creativity and design could just as easily describe the continuing development of creativity and the modernist aesthetic in Chandigarh, and of Le Corbusier's focus on living as well as design.
"Above all, I like the creative approach - not being tied down to what has been done by our own forefathers but thinking in new terms, of light and air and ground and water and human beings."
Published: January 10, 2010 04:00 AM