Cast in concrete: The significance of Chandigarh's architecture

Cast in concrete: The significance of Chandigarh's architecture

Thursday September 14, 2017,

7 min Read

One of the most important urban planning experiments of the 20th century, Le Corbusier's Chandigarh is an Indian city unlike any other.

A resident of Chandigarh since 2003, it took me 14 years to take a closer look at Chandigarh’s architecture. Chandigarh is a city of post-independent India, a symbol of freedom and modernism dreamed by then Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. After the Partition of Punjab between India and Pakistan in 1947, India-occupied Punjab required a new capital, which led to the idea of Chandigarh. Three architects - Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew - led by Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier were appointed. There were two Indian architects M.N. Sharma and Aditya Prakash who were also associated with the project.

Le Corbusier was a pseudonym for Charles-Edouard Jeanneret, one he used to establish his belief in the possibility of reinvention of oneself. Corbusier was a revolutionary architect of his time and led the “Purist” movement in the field of arts and architecture. The movement urged artists and architects to build objects and buildings in their basic forms, devoid of many details.

Corbusier was a keen admirer of concrete and steel, symbols of modernism in his eyes. Seventeen of his projects in seven countries have been declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites, including Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex. Corbusier worked on Chandigarh till his death in 1965.

The city was built to house 5 lakh people intitially, but houses over 12 lakh residents today. The primary feature of the city is its division into a grid, where each grid represents a sector, self-sufficient and able to function as a city. High-rise structures were ruled out at the planning stage, a rule that is followed till now. While Sectors 1-30 were designed to be low density sectors, built across an area of 9,000 acres and supposed to carry a population of 1,50,000 people, Sectors 31-47 were spread over an area of 6,000 acres and built to accommodate 3,50,000 people.

Even as the administration grapples with the question of allowing construction of high-rise structures due to the influx of people into the city, the fact remains that Le Corbusier's starkly simple design is what gives Chndigarh its character. This photo essay is an attempt to understand the significance of Chandigarh’s design and look beyond the excessive use of concrete across prominent buildings in the city.

The Legislative Assembly

The assembly building houses the rooms where parliament sessions are held. Photography is prohibited inside the building. The facade is a series of symmetrical boxes, in keeping with Corbusier’s principle of designing the facade free from the structural function of the building. The secretariat’s roof offers a clear view of the assembly building, with the Himalayas forming a picturesque background. The Open Hand is visible in the distance.
The assembly’s rooftop opens up to two light sources: a tilted pyramid and a hyperbolic dome. The light sources have now been covered and artificial sources of light have been installed. The pyramid represents the Haryana assembly and the dome represents the Punjab assembly. The two structures are proof of the plastic potential of concrete. The hyperboloid is just 15 cm thick.
A corridor situated on the right hand side of the Legislative Assembly.


The War Memorial

As one proceeds towards the Legislative Assembly, the silhouette in the picture above, one comes across the Martyr’s Memorial on the right, which was built to commemorate the martyrs of the Partition.

The Tower of Shadows

“The sun must penetrate every dwelling several hours a day even during the season when sunlight is most scarce. Society will no longer tolerate a situation where entire families are cut off from the sun and thus doomed to declining health,” Le Corbusier wrote this in article 26 of the Athens Charter titled, “A minimum number of hours of exposure to the sun must be determined for each dwelling.”
The Tower of Shadow’s northern side.
The Tower of Shadow is built on an area of 15.5 square metres with concrete panels on three sides that act as point breakers for the sun’s light. It is a metaphor representing Corbusier’s idea about the sun’s influence on a man’s daily life. “To introduce the sun is the new and most imperative duty of the architect," Le Corbusier said.

Gandhi Bhawan

The Gandhi Bhawan is a landmark site at Punjab University and was designed by Corbusier’s cousin, Pierre Jeanneret. It serves as an auditorium and also houses books on Mahatma Gandhi. Pierre was involved in the planning of the city for 17 years after he took up the project and was primarily responsible for designing the Punjab University campus.
The Gandhi Bhawan is surrounded by a trench, supposed to be filled with water on three sides. However, there was no water in the trench when this photo was taken.

The Secretariat

The Secretariat is a 10-storeyed building and opened in 1958. It houses the offices of ministers and is flanked by ramps on either side. The circulation of over 6,000 employees is aided by a system of elevators and a spiral staircase. The building is an intimidating and tall structure in an otherwise dwarf setting, and so was constructed in a slightly sunken area. Concrete has been used in the form of vertical and horizontal brise-soleil, an architectural feature that reduces heat gain in buildings by deflecting sunlight.
The ramps flank the Secretariat on either sides and aid employees' movement across the 10 floors.

The Open Hand

The Open Hand was installed in 1985, 20 years after Corbusier’s death. It stands at a height of 85 feet, sprouting from an excavated trench. It is symbolic of the message: “open to give and open to receive.”  
The amphitheatre beneath the Open Hand.

The High Court

The view of the Capitol Complex and the High Court (Palace of Justice) from the roof of the Secretariat. The court’s construction was completed in 1955 and it houses nine law courts, of which eight are double-tiered and one is three-tiered. The Tower of Shadows is visible on the lower left side of the photograph. In July 2016, the complex was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The spaces between the upper and lower roofs of the High Court allow for limited entry of sunlight, keeping the interiors cool. Glass windows run horizontally throughout the length of the structure, and are symbolic of the transparent nature of the law.

The Government Press

Government Press, Chandigarh, handles the printing work of the governments of Punjab, Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, and is a service department. 
The facade of the building is all glass, with spaces for windows.

Neelam Theatre

The Neelam Theatre was one of the three cinemas built in Corbusier’s time. The construction was completed in early 1950s. Although it has faced the brunt of numerous multiplexes in the city, it continues to screen films. It is situated in Sector 17, amid other shops.
View from the side.

Sector 17

Sector 17, the heart of the city, is a commercial centre and the only non-residential sector in Chandigarh. The entire complex is flanked by four-storeyed concrete structures, showcasing Corbusier’s typical “brutalist” style of architecture that entails heavy use of raw concrete.


Rotaries or roundabouts were embedded into the planning of the city by Corbusier to aid circulation of traffic. Even today, Chandigarh residents don’t have to face long commutes due to congestion. However, some roundabouts that faced heavy flows of traffic have now been replaced with traffic lights. Pictured above is the Matka Chowk, the point of intersection between four sectors. Note the position of the red bus in the photograph.
The red bus from the previous picture has now reached point B after taking a 3/4th round of the roundabout.

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