Understanding the Project of Chandigarh: A Reflection on High-Modernist Thinking

In this paper, I attempt to understand the role of personal bias with regards to urban planning. Le Corbusier’s architectural ideology has been briefly contextualised in the political realm of high modernism.


The new city (Chandigarh) was to represent India’s bold break from its colonial past, while being its first attempt to create something that would allow Indian values to develop afresh in a free nation.

‘High-modernism’ is a concept that stresses on scientific and technological prowess as a means to achieving the ideals of human development, one that is devoid of local traditions. While not wrong, scientific temperament can ,through high-modern ideology, reach imperialistic tendencies accompanied by a mentality of hegemonic planning (Scott 1998). Planned cities are one way to understand how high-modernism gets implemented. In this context, Chandigarh, the planned capital city of Punjab and Haryana, has a rich history.

The Ultimate Urban Project

After finalising the location for what is present-day Chandigarh Tricity, the construction of Punjab’s new capital and India’s first post-independence urban project began in early 1950s. The new city was to represent India’s bold break from its colonial past, while being its first attempt to create something that would allow Indian values to develop afresh in a free nation. Chandigarh bore a lot of pressure in terms of setting an urban-political tradition. For the local people, its establishment was to help overcome the trauma of partition and the loss of Lahore that Punjabis felt deeply (Kalia 1998).

Jawaharlal Nehru, as the first Prime Minister of India, was eager to steer the country towards urbanisation. He was quite fond of the Chandigarh project and was involved in the planning process throughout. He comments,

“I have welcomed very greatly one experiment in India, Chandigarh. It is the biggest example in India of experimental architecture. It hits you in the head and makes you think… I like the creative approach, not being tied down to what has been done by our forefathers but thinking in new terms, of light and air and ground and water and human beings.” (GOI 1964)

A romantic for Indian traditions, he was also profoundly mesmerised by everything modern and scientific. His approach was defined by a rebellion against a culture that, according to him, was holding people in ignorance and superstition (Kalia 1998; Khosla 2015). Even though there was considerable agitation that occurred against the project, with Nehru’s eagerness to modernise, it continued anyway despite displacing several villages.

Le Corbusier
(Source: Getty Images)

Le Corbusier’s Architectural Ideology

Albert Mayer, an American architect, was first chosen as the principal architect for planning Chandigarh. Only after his eventual fall-out with the Punjab government were Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew appointed as the final planners (Kalia 1998; Scott 1998). The final planners adopted Mayer’s ideas, but with a makeover which was solely initiated by Le Corbusier. Since he introduced his plans after facing years of failure in completing other projects, Chandigarh became Le Corbusier’s redemption in a crude sense.

The French architect was a revolutionary in modern architecture. His views, though extreme, were influential and representative of the deep logic implicit in high-modernism (Scott 1998). He was obsessed with order and functional segregation. His original ideas stem from the disruption in culture that he experienced during the Industrial Age (1910s). Everywhere he travelled, he only saw the old artisan ways being replaced by science and technology. The new world of geometric forms amused him and became his language to deal with challenges. For him, the city was man’s ‘grip’ upon and a human operation directed against nature (Kalia 1998). One can say that Le Corbusier tried to regain control over the loss felt during industrialisation by mastering the techniques of industrialisation itself. He strongly believed that nature and architecture should never be mixed (Kalia 1998).

On the part of the need for urbanisation, Nehru was impressed with Le Corbusier’s ideas. Both of them shared a disregard for western liberalism and believed in the scope of modernising as the ultimate tool of increasing human development. Le Corbusier seemingly fulfilled Nehru’s political aim of suppressing India’s colonial consciousness and representing her latent optimism through the modernist ideals of this new city (Bharne 2011). His high-modernist objectivity, however, resulted in a deeply inconsiderate understanding of people’s desires. He failed to even account for what the future residents of Chandigarh wanted (Scott 1998). Instead, he was interested in something grander. James Scott has, thus, rightly called him a visionary planner of planetary ambitions.

Le Corbusier envisioned the ‘sector’ system, wherein each sector was conceptualized as a self-sufficient community with its own school, parks, market, etc. This changed the concept of neighbourhood in India. The practice of joint families was questioned and phased out. Even the culture of keeping cattle departed from Chandigarh. The residents of Chandigarh underwent a huge change in their traditional values and beliefs. But, the convenience of basic amenities brought in by modern housing were motivators enough for the residents to readily accept this shift in their value systems (Gupta 1975).

This conception of the organism-based organisation and structuring can be attributed to a perpetuation of the caste system (Kalia 1998).

Social Implications of Corbusier’s Planning

Albert Mayer had envisioned a plan where the Capitol was to be at the “head” of the city, followed by the City Centre in its “heart”. Additionally, the Industrial Area and Panjab University on the east-west axis respectively were envisioned as the “limbs”. This conception of the organism-based organisation and structuring can be attributed to a perpetuation of the caste system (Kalia 1998). The contention is that the Capitol consisting of the Secretariat and the High Court holds more importance for the city than any other institution. Hence, it must be placed at the “top”, which is the northernmost point. It is this process of assigning significance that is similar to the way various castes are assigned their value. Kshatriyas matter more than Shudras because of being created from Brahma’s thighs which are “above” Brahma’s feet which is the origin for the Shudras. Le Corbusier too believed in the city as the organism of life. This structure was consequently incorporated into deciding the housing structure as well. The residential arrangement of government employees was divided into 13 categories; lower the rank, smaller the house. Here too, the senior-most government officials reside in the northern half of the city till date, while the so-called lower class employees’ residences are placed in the southern half. This internalised hierarchy created a new brand of ghettos (Gupta 1975). The distinctive house styles of each category and their numbering made the wealth of the inhabitants immediately obvious. The density and undesirability increase as one moves from the “head” to the “feet” (Gethin 1973).

This turn of events in history and the structuring of the city has severe present-day consequences. Presently, the southern half of Chandigarh comprises of the “smaller” houses with narrower lanes compared to the northern half where most of the “elite” live.

This turn of events in history and the structuring of the city has severe present-day consequences. Presently, the southern half of Chandigarh comprises of the “smaller” houses with narrower lanes compared to the northern half where most of the “elite” live. In times of severe water supply shortage, the southern sectors are made to bear all the brunt, since they are either the last to receive water or do not receive it at all to ensure that the northern sectors do not face problems. It is the structure of the construction which makes this process of directing water supply to the northern half systematically easier for the administration also. The planners were simply unaware of the mammoth social implications of their work. Chandigarh’s inability to initiate social change can be largely attributed to the planners being detached from local and social aspirations (Khosla 2015).

The Master Plan by Le Corbusier and his team was not dynamic enough to synchronise with the changes that post-colonial India would undergo. Chandigarh itself went through turbulent times that resulted in overall neglect towards the city by the administration. The linguistic reorganisation of states in 1966 resulted in Chandigarh becoming a Union Territory. Thus, it was officially placed under the Centre’s control. Stuck in a never-ending battle of authority between Punjab and Haryana, it also faced a militancy period as the Khalistan Struggle reached its peak in the late 1970s.

Due to the structural set up of the city, Chandigarh could not give solace to people in times of crisis (Bharne 2011). Le Corbusier’s planning created a city that had designated places for citizens to go to for interactions among themselves. The new concept of neighbourhood through the sector system made people feel restricted to their surroundings. Chandigarh faced crises within two decades of inception, the people were probably still adjusting to the new system of modern living while dealing with their social reality at the same time. This is precisely where the lack of consideration of India’s socio-economic status by Le Corbusier comes in as a result of high-modernist thinking. Simply planning the new city, while disregarding its socio-economic problems, made it incapable of keeping up with crisis situations. Recovery from the crises would be so intense that energy or resources would be lost by the time the point of adhering to a plan made thirty years ago came.

In Conclusion

Arrogance in planning arises when from the beginning of the plan, the goal becomes to create some ideal state of human development (Gethin 1973). Through this pursuit of a model society on the lines of high-modernism, when combined with the ability – given their access to resources – of the elite to initiate effective change, Le Corbusier has ended up influencing the livelihoods of generations of people in Chandigarh. Solely through a single person’s ideas and the access to resources to translate those ideas into reality, Le Corbusier has created a whole city with “artistic, political and anthropological problems” (Bharne 2011). Chandigarh has now reached the point where it is an amusing city to visit for Indians as well as foreigners due to its stark difference with other Indian cities. It resembles a “foreign” aspect, unrelatable for non-localites, while also being commonplace for locals, who have managed to create their own brand for Chandigarh. Le Corbusier’s attempt to not mix nature and architecture along with his stress on grandiosity merged with a disregard for local aspirations forms the basis for this unique brand to exist.

Mehak Sidhu’s background is in political science, economics, and media studies. She is interested in the intersection of policymaking and the private life of people. In her free time, she enjoys reading and photography. You can reach her at mehak@nls.ac.in.


Bharne, Vinayak. 2011. ‘Le Corbusier’s Ruin: The Changing Face of Chandigarh’s Capitol’. Journal of Architectural Education 64 (2): 99-112

Gethin, Christopher. 1973. ‘Chandigarh: A Memorial to Arrogance’. Built Environment 2 (5): 291-294.

Government of India. 1964. Jawaharlal Nehru’s Speeches: September 1957- April 1963, Vol. 4. New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

Gupta, Sehdev. 1975. ‘A Study of Sociological Issues in Chandigarh’. Ekistics 39 (235): 411-416

Kalia, Ravi. 1987. Chandigarh: The Making of an Indian City. 1998. Delhi: Oxford University Press

Khosla, Romi. 2015. ‘The New Metropolis: Nehru and the Aftermath’. Social Scientist 43 (3/4): 11-32

Scott, James. 1998. ‘The High-Modernist City: An Experiment and Critique’, in James Scott: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1998, pp. 103-147

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