A Brief History of Chandigarh

Located close to the foothills of the Sivalik range of the Himalayas in Punjab, India, Chandigarh was one of the 20th century's most daring experiments in urban planning and modern architecture.

The history of Chandigarh begins in 1947 in the wake of India's decolonization. The partition of British India would result in Lahore being ceded to Pakistan. Consequently, this left the Indian region of East Punjab without a capital city. As a result, a Modernist capital city–Chandigarh–was envisoned on a site located 240 kilometers north of New Delhi.

The site of the future Chandigarh, 1951. Photo: CCA. ARCH264635

The geography of present day Chandigarh is characterized by sloping terrain situated close to the foothills of the Sivalik range. In addition, two Seasonal rivers flow on each side of the city's boundaries, roughly 7-8 kilometers apart.

Furthermore, the city's geographical location is 30.7333° N, 76.7794° E, with an altitude that varies from 304.8 to 365.76 meters above sea level.


A Modernist Utopian City

The Republic of India's First Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Photo: Indian National Congress. 

Independent India's first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, announced the founding principles of the visionary Modernist city by saying:

"Let this be a new town, symbolic of freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past and an expression of the nation's faith in the future."

As a result of Nehru's vision, Chandigarh would play an integral role in introducing Modernist Design to post-colonial India and in the important architectural history of Chandigarh.


Choosing the Site for Chandigarh

A village near the site selected for Chandigarh. Photo: CCA. ARCH264682, 1951.

The Government of Punjab formed a committee in 1948 chaired by Chief Engineer Parmeshwari Lal Varma. Varma and the committee would assess the existing towns in the State of Punjab to determine a suitable location for the new capital City of Chandigarh. However, none of the locations surveyed by the committee met the criteria.

For reasons such as geopolitical vulnerability, water availability, accessibility, and the inability to cope with a significant arrival of refugees - another site was needed. Therefore, the committee identified Chandigarh's site in 1948 due to its central location within Punjab, its proximity to India's capital city, New Delhi, and its access to fresh water. 

In addition, the plentiful water and fertile land surrounding Chandigarh's proposed site were suitable for agriculture. Firstly, this would sustain Chandigarh's future population growth and provide employment. Secondly, it would lead city planners to incorporate urban greening initiatives and landscape architecture in Chandigarh's design.

Most importantly, Chandigarh's land gradient enables natural drainage to prevent flooding - making the site safe for human habitation. 

Planning the City of Chandigarh 

Topographical model showing the first phase of the master plan for Chandigarh, India. Photo: CCA. ARCH264677, 1951. 

The American Firm, M/s. Mayer, Whittlessay, and Glass were first commissioned in 1950 to draft the Master Plan for Chandigarh. As a result, Albert Mayer and Mathew Nowicki developed a fan-shaped Master Plan and drew conceptual sketches of a "superblock"design. The superblock concept consisted of self–sufficient neighborhood units built along curvilinear roads.

Sketch perspective of housing for Linear City, Chandigarh, India. Photo: Aditya Prakash fonds, 1947-2008. 

Each block featured unique rows of "cluster housing", community markets, and centrally located open spaces in the urban design. Sadly, Nowicki lost his life in a plane accident - this led Mayer to abandon the project, and left the city without a Chief Architect. 


A Planned City with no Chief Architect 

History-of-Chandigarh History-of-Chandigarh History-of-Chandigarh History-of-Chandigarh
Le Corbusier Pierre Jeanneret Maxwell Fry Jane B. Drew 


Chandigarh was left without a Chief Architect, prompting government officials to search for Meyer's replacement. Finally, the work was assigned to a team of architects led by Swiss-French Architect Charles Eduard Jeanneret, commonly referred to as Le Corbusier, in 1951. Futhermore,  three senior architects, Maxwell Fry, his wife Jane B Drew, and Corbusier's cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, assisted Le Corbusier in Chandigarh's construction.


Le Corbusier with the Chandigarh team of Indian architects and urban planners. Photo: Pinterest. 

A team of young Indian architects and planners supported the Senior Architects: Manmohan Nath Sharma, A. R. Prabhawalkar, Urmila Eulie Chowdhury, J.S. Dethe, B.P. Mathur, Aditya Prakash, and N.S. Lanbha. 
The initial encounter with the site had a profound impact on both Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, who were captivated by the serenity of the area’s farmland and the majesty of its natural surroundings.
Two days after their arrival, Le Corbusier wrote to Yvonne, his wife: “We’re on the site of our city, under a splendid sky, in the midst of a timeless countryside.”

Chandigarh: A City on the Rise

View of the Assembly under construction, Capitol Complex, Sector 1, Chandigarh, India. Photo: CCA. ARCH265497, 1955.

Le Corbusier developed Chandigarh's Master Plan, and designed the cities iconic UNSECO World Heritage listed "Capitol Complex." In addition, he established the architectural control and design of the city's construction.

The three Senior Architects responsible for designing housing for Punjab's civil servants, schools, shopping centers, and hospitals–Maxwell Fry and Jane B. Drew–dedicated three years to the project before leaving.

Pierre Jeanneret, who became the Chief Architect and Town Planning Adviser to the Government of Punjab, returned to his hometown of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1965. M.N. Sharma took over from Pierre Jeanneret as the first Indian Chief Architect of the Project. 

After reorganizing the State of Punjab in 1966 and establishing The Union Territory of Chandigarh, Pierre Jeanneret was appointed as Administrative Secretary of the Department of Architecture in the Chandigarh Administration.

To this day, the History of Chandigarh and the historically significant buildings designed by these architects are landmarks in Chandigarh and are admired by Modernist Architecture enthusiasts worldwide. 


Pierre Jeanneret and the Chandigarh Collection

Pierre Jeanneret's designed furniture in administrative office. Photo: Pinterest.

Pierre Jeanneret would also become renowned for the Chandigarh Collection. The Mid-Century Modernist furniture designed by Pierre with the input of local Indian craftsmen. 

Pierre Jeanneret, together with local carpenters, weavers, designers, and other artisans, would begin experimenting with locally sourced materials and developing techniques and architectural expression that still represented India.

He mixed contemporary European design with the traditions of Indian craftsmanship to create radically modernist furniture designs. The furniture was well ahead of its time and is often referred to today as the Chandigarh Collection. 


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