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Designs for Power

Three Western visions on the Indian subcontinent

Jun 23, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 39 • By PAULA DEITZ
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The new city was divided into a grid of sectors, each one providing local services and amenities to the neighborhood: markets, schools, health facilities, and parks. Sector 17 is the town center, including hotels and other commercial buildings of limited height, facing north to profit from the cross breezes. In a walk through the streets of Sector 22, the two-room terrace houses with linked façades and walled front gardens may have been modest, but they provided homes near open parks in a neighborly environment—not unlike the villages where some of these families might have lived. 

Built in the 1950s and ’60s, Sector One is the Capitol Complex, and nothing could be developed between it and the mountain ranges to the north. In creating a tropical architecture, Le Corbusier’s dramatic reinforced concrete forms are calculated to protect the interiors from heat and sunlight. In every case, the grandeur of the buildings is enlivened with accents from his personal palette and his mural-sized tapestries, woven in Kashmir and with scattered symbols that lend a magnificence along with acoustical qualities to the legislative chambers and courtrooms.

The Capitol Complex is composed of three buildings on a vast plaza with reflecting pools. A planned fourth, the Governor’s Palace, was originally sited at midpoint but was forbidden by Nehru, who was against the glorification practices of previous regimes. Although there are plans to re-create this building in a slightly altered form as a Museum of Knowledge, nothing has yet materialized. But rising from a square contemplation pit at the edge of the complex is the famous symbol of Chandigarh, the welcome Open Hand revolving in the wind.

What a privilege to live every day in Chandigarh—if only to view in various gradations of light that massive curved porch over the Palace of Assembly, advancing like the horns of the taureau in Le Corbusier’s iconography. With the cooling, tower-like, hyperbolic drum—and the glass-sided pyramid intended to bring shafts of light from the roof to the assembly rooms—this building possesses the soaring forms that instantly uplift the spirit. The High Court’s parasol roof, supported by colorful pylons, soars as well, and the syncopated pattern of brises soleils on the Secretariat façade delineates interior functions, from ministerial offices to those of general workers. Inside, systems of colorful ramps lead to the rooftops, where once there were planted terraces.  

Looking back on experiencing all these structures within their particular societies, I thought again of the Kahn building that prompted this pilgrimage. I had asked Shamsul Wares whether, as a frequent visitor to the National Assembly building, he had become accustomed to its innovative forms. “Actually,” he responded, “it is like attending a Shakespeare play; each time you leave with a new message.” 

Paula Deitz is editor of the Hudson Review

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