Chandigarh is perhaps the greatest architectural and design landmark in modern India. The story behind its creation is equally compelling, with a starring cast led by the towering personalities of Jawaharlal Nehru and Le Corbusier. Every great story has an underdog, the silent hero who shuns glory. In the case of Chandigarh, Pierre Jeanneret, an architect and a cousin of Le Corbusier, plays this part. A team of young Indian architects, bureaucrats, and designers make up the stellar supporting cast.
After the partition of India in 1947, the state of Punjab lost its capital Lahore to Pakistan. Nehru envisioned a new capital city for Punjab – a city that would become a showcase for modern India, and in Nehru’s own words, “unfettered by the traditions of the past, an expression of the nation’s faith in the future”.
After much deliberation, the site for the new capital was chosen 270 kilometers north of Delhi, in the plains at the foothills of the Himalayas. The land lay between two rivers and was fertile. Nehru formed a committee called the Chandigarh Capital Project in 1949 and entrusted the execution of his dream to P.N. Thapar, an Indian Civil Services officer, and P.L. Varma, Chief Engineer of Punjab. Initially American architects Albert Mayer and Mathew Nowicki were appointed to design the capital city. They did much of the groundwork and drew up the initial plan for the city, but tragedy struck soon after when Nowicki was killed in a plane crash near Cairo on 31 August, 1950, en route to the US. Mayer was shaken by the death of his younger partner and withdrew from the project.
Thapar and Varma then went on a four-week tour of Europe to meet and identify architects who could take up the Chandigarh Project. A French minister recommended the name of Le Corbusier, by then one of the most famous architects in the world. They met Le Corbusier in Paris in November 1950, and after initial skepticism on both sides, Corbusier agreed to take up the project. For Corbusier this was the perfect coda to his life – the chance to create an entire city based on the urban design philosophy and ideas he had developed throughout his life. He knew that he needed his erstwhile partner and cousin Pierre Jeanneret by his side to implement the project and convinced Jeanneret to accept the assignment. The British architect couple Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were included in the team for their knowledge of climate-based architecture. In February 1951, Corbusier and Jeanneret made their first trip to Chandigarh and their epic architectural adventure began. Over the next 15 years, Corbusier made trips to India twice a year, while Jeanneret stayed on in Chandigarh until 1965, executing Corbusier’s vision. By 1955, Jeanneret was appointed Chief Architect of Chandigarh. He designed several public buildings, housing complexes, offices, shopping complexes, and private residences during this time.
Corbusier and Jeanneret believed that furniture should reflect the same design philosophy as the buildings they created. Jeanneret designed unique site-specific furniture for almost all the public buildings in the new city, including the Secretariat, Legislative Assembly, High Court, Punjab University, General Hospital, and various government offices. This distinctive furniture has become much sought after worldwide, thanks to a renewal of interest in Corbusier and Jeanneret since the turn of the century.
Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret were supported by a team of talented young Indian architects and designers including M.N. Sharma, B. Doshi, Aditya Prakash, A.R. Prabawalkar, Jeet Malhotra, S.D. Sharma and Eulie Chowdury. Chandigarh was also fortunate to have brilliant and dedicated government officers who managed to keep the projects going despite the resource constraints of the new country. The role of Dr. M.S. Randhawa, an Indian Civil Services officer, botanist and art lover, who was appointed Chairman of the Chandigarh Committee in 1955 and subsequently became Commissioner of Chandigarh, was as important as anybody's in the creation of Chandigarh. He was responsible for all the landscaping and greenery in the city. He created the Chandigarh Museum, Architecture Museum, and Art Gallery to record the history of the emerging city. Archival documents and letters pertaining to the creation of Chandigarh are preserved today only because of Dr. Randhawa's efforts.
Nehru's vision thus slowly took shape over two decades, resulting in one of the finest urban spaces in the world. Chandigarh is not without its critics, who claim that Corbusier's urban principles are authoritarian and fascist. Admirer or critic, both will agree that Chandigarh is a fascinating city filled with unique architecture, furniture, and people.