Planned Capital Cities of India: Chandigarh and Gandhi Nagar

When India gained independence in 1947, the division of the subcontinent severely affected Punjab which lost its capital (Lahore) to Pakistan. With his zeal and visionary – almost dreaming- character, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru thought of building a new capital city. The minds of Politicians and Administrators steeped in the subjugation of the British for 150 years could only look towards the west to find a ‘White’ man to design the capital. We followed the same concept in framing our constitution which is based on the British model, while the American model which had gained independence also from British could have been a more appropriate model that should have been followed.

Their first choice of Albert Myer as Town Planner and Peter Nowicki a Polish Architect, as a team was; in retrospect, very good. The plans drawn up by the team, particularly the housing clusters showed a very sensitive mind which tried to capture the spirit of town planning and architecture in the arid climatic zone of India. Unfortunately Nowicki died in an air crash and later Le Corbusier managed to secure the commission to plan Chandigarh.

It is my personal opinion that Le Corbusier was a Sculptor of excellence but certainly not a “Functional” Architect and by no count a town planner. His buildings in Chandigarh and all over the world are an evidence of the sculptural qualities of his buildings. I recollect a conversation with a practicing attorney in the High Court building at Chandigarh. He was quite sarcastically critical of the design of the high court building claiming that he had to use an umbrella to go from one court room to another within the building when the sun beat fiercely or rain poured down! The building is very monumental but hardly functional!

Chandigarh town plan is static, devoid of any Indian character in the design of residential areas. Houses are just concrete boxes. It is “truly” a monument to Indian independence but far alienated from its people as all monuments are. Later Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew showed better sensitivity and understanding of Indian life styles and the ‘ethos’ while designing housing clusters and layouts for residential areas. The lowest level of employees of Government are located farthest from the Secretariat and government offices, and one has to stay there to experience the fierce heat for those who peddled on their bicycles to go to work! Each level of govt. employees are grouped separately in separate ‘sectors’ and the hierarchy is accentuated more in line with the imperial British rule rather than a true democracy that India aspired for.

I

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Chandigarh Master Plan: Imperial/Colonial heritage of seat of Government at the Apex

I feel that all these shortcomings were avoided in Gandhi Nagar. Mix of populace from different income groups and governmental hierarchy in a single sector which has both government and private housing and has at least 3 types of hierarchical housing mixed together were done. The housing clusters follow the “street” concept of the Gujarat cities leading to a far greater social cohesion than ever in Chandigarh. That, to my mind, is the real success of the town plan and architecture, it truly represents the Indian (more specifically, “Gujarat”) character.

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Ravi Kalia seems to consider planning of Gandhinagar not worthy of any notice just because it was planned by government employed town planners! He does not attempt to objectively assess the merits of both Chandigarh & Gandhinagar. There is an undertone that practicing Architects and Planners are superior to employed ones! In fact, the real difference between employed and private practicing Architects is more a matter of temperament than merit! Architects who do not have the knack to do “business” prefer to go in for employment. However.

If you look at the plan of the Gandhinagar, you will find that it is deeply rooted in the planning tradition of Gujarat. After having planned the government housing clusters on the basis of the “Pole” (narrow street) pattern of old Gujarat towns I had conducted a social survey of neighbourhood and community relationships in these clusters and it was gratifying to find from

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Chandigarh Residential Sector plan; Regimented Grouping of plots/houses around central open spaces

the results that the feeling of neighbourliness and interpersonal relationships was much better than in the western concept of grouping houses around a square open space which was followed in Chandigarh.

Not many people in India remember that Gandhi was a Gujarati! He was a national figure. People of Gujarat of course take pride in his origins. We did make a conscious effort to build into the fabric of the city his principles of equality and conscious interaction between people from all strata-economic, social, religious and professions. The planning of each Sector where at least three hierarchical categories of plots for general public or government employees were “mixed” together is an example. We had to be however practical and try and “mix” social and economic categories that could get along with each other and not be idealistic by trying to put together the highest and the lowest. But this is a distinctive character of the city as against the “Ghetto” like clusters created by Le Corbusier.

In terms of ideas, we tried to follow our traditions, cultural heritage and the teachings of Gandhi. But at the same time, we adopted the state of the art building materials and technology. So one can find concrete pyramidal roof over classrooms in the design of primary schools

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Gandhinagar Residential Sector Plan: Informal street pattern of houses typical of Gujarat towns near Ahmedabad) because traditionally the beginning of education was in the home of “Guru” staying in a hut with pyramidal roof of bamboo and straw. There are many such examples where we have combined the Indian thought but interpreted it in the language of modern materials, construction systems and functionality of design. Every building in Gandhinagar is highly “functional” specifically and deliberately designed to fulfill the function for its existence. These are not masterpieces that carry the personal “stamp” of the architect.

The planning team there was very “slavish” about the ideas of the “Master”.

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Informal ‘streets of houses’ typical of Gujarat heritage

I will therefore say with confidence that the town planning of Gandhinagar is a logical and conscious synthesis of our town planning heritage and the design of buildings and the urban design of the various complexes is a result of attention to functionality of buildings rather than their external appearance and impact.

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