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Le Corbusier and The Chandigarh Capital Project

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In the late 1940s, architect and urban planner, Le Corbusier, was hired by the Indian government to prepare the master plan for Chandigarh–a planned city near New Delhi. The development, envisioned as a modernist utopian metropolis, is still in use today although its idealistic concept has been adapted over time in more practical ways.

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In August 1947, India gained independence from the UK, but lost its capital of Lahore to Pakistan when new borders were drawn. In the face of this loss, India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, would found a new capital city, created by western architects to announce a modern, prosperous, independent India. It was Swiss-French architect and urban planner Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, known as Le Corbusier, who would rise to the challenge, taking on the role of Master Planner for The Chandigarh Capital Project.

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With inspiration for the master plan drawn from cities such as Paris, New Delhi and Beijing, Le Corbusier had distinctive ideas for Chandigarh.  He soon found, however, that his vision would be challenged by both local government and members of his own team. In particular, the housing designs, which departed from his plan of high-rises set in park space, dismayed him. His disappointment was somewhat bitterly reflected in his altered plans, such as the visual separation of the housing areas from the capital complex, over which he still had design control, by way of artificial hills. Nevertheless he continued his work on the project.

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The Governor’s Palace, originally meant to be the main attraction of the Capitol complex, is an example of the differing opinions of Le Corbusier and those around him. Prime Minister Nehru called the partially completed building “undemocratic,” and halted further construction. A huge sculpture atop the structure, of a hand melded with a dove, can still be seen today. It is both a beautiful symbol yet one which represents these conflicting ideas: Nehru had always argued that India could not afford the statue, and Le Corbusier insisted it be created.

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Despite his loss of enchantment for the project, or perhaps because of it, a distinct aesthetic evolved from Le Corbusier’s work on Chandigarh.  Using a combination of traditional Classical features and Indian design innovations, the buildings Le Corbusier created for this capital city are simple but powerful in concrete with undulating shapes, curvatures, and overhangs. The result was a Chandigarh which stood as a tribute to modernity, and the city is still lauded today by both the Indian and international architectural fields.

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