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15/08 – 16/08 – Chandigarh: Corbusier’s vision for India

June 4, 2012

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So, finally after 9 months and three days since I returned from my cycle to Delhi, I finally have time to finish off the last three weeks of the blog and lay it to rest.

The last entry I made was for the 14th August, where I had just cycled into Chandigarh, after two days of being on my own in India having parted ways with Julian. The weather was searing and I was sunburned and drenched from the sporadic downpours that so well typified this monsoon season that we had the inevitability of ending up in, timing our trip as we did.

Chandigarh was near top of my list of places to visit on this trip, as it holds a huge significance to me in the form of its creator, Le Corbusier. Revolutionary at the time, The newly independent Indian power wanted to create a new city that was suggestive of a modern and contemporary growth for India. They searched far and wide for a European architect who could envision a new Indian urbanism manifest in the form of a garden city that were taking shape in Europe and the USA. Corbusier had a vision for a city of layers, divided up into precincts, that would reduce traffic congestion and improve living standards. His vision for a machine city for living was prototyped here, and it has equal significance in its success or failure to implement this type of urbanism into a chaotic system of India.

The first thing that struck me, and in hindsight it of course makes perfect sense, was the general level of affluence and middle class-ness about the place. All the houses in the precincts were neatly lined in pre determined rows. This western model inevitably meant they were expensive and catered for the bracket of India that considered themselves of a higher class than the rest.

I found the huge highway avenues that divided the precincts daunting and dull. Being straight lines this was inevitable, but they were peculiarly hard to navigate – fences lining the centre of the streets meant turning was impossible, and signposts in the city were only showing the directions of other districts – all of which were numbered. According to the map, precinct 23 was the centre, but it wasn’t next to 22 or 24 in the way I was headed. By the time I found it via many directions from locals, there was nothing there but expensive restaurants and equally expensive hotels. I was told I wouldn’t be able to find anything below 500 rupees for a night.

The price of accommodation didn’t help, and neither did the relentless rain on my first day (not that it mattered, as everything was shut for Indian Independence Day anyway) So I spent the entire first day pretty much riding rickshaws in the rain, sitting in underground internet cafes and eating KFC (which I justified as a social experiment – I was intrigued to see how far the wealthier classes of India would go to have a slice of Western Culture), drinking beer in my room and not actually doing anything.

I did have some time though to make some (rather naive) judgements on what I had seen of the city so far. Suffice to say, I wasn’t impressed. A machine for living, at the scale of a city, in an environment such as India, surely was doomed to failure before ground was broken. This totalitarian idea of Utopia cannot be applied here. The sectors are islands, the highways that criss cross the city are un passable monstrosities. I didn’t feel comfortable or able to move around without a car. I felt as if I would be marooned to my sector if I lived there.

Of course the next day, after my visit to the museum, I realised the intention of the highways – to reduce traffic and noise in the sectors themselves, thus giving a more pleasant living environment. The sectors were well planned, with lots of green space that cut through the overall master plan, framing the mountains to the north.

But still the city was dominated by these highways. The sidewalks, where there are any, are in muddy decline. Often you have to walk in the road, and there are few places to turn off or around, forcing poor rickshaw drivers a long way in the wrong direction before they can correct themselves into the appropriate cycle lane (of which there are plenty, pretty much unheard of anywhere else in India!)

The city seems to be at the mercy of the fence, depicting where you cant go. Such rules and control at urban scale has simply little effect than annoyance in India. People don’t follow the plan, but when the plan is unavoidable, it just makes for frustration and isolation. India simply isn’t ready for a city like this. I don’t think anyone is. The sporadic and spontaneous nature and beauty of sprawl and growth has been limited to highways and sectors that are equally unlivable.

I ventured up to the Capital Hill complex to see Corb’s specialities of Chandigarh – the Municipality and City Hall buildings. These were fantastic – a bustling concentration of administrative life that was contained in a typically Corbusian monolith, with a backdrop of overgrown jungle and monkeys. I managed to blag my way on to the roof, where lazy guards sat around drinking whiskey and watching out over the complex with sniper rifles. They offered for me to look down the barrel and made mock shooting noises. Didn’t feel me with confidence when I got off the roof.

Being an architectural tourist is exhausting. There was so much red tape to navigate in order to get into the municipality building, and just for a few photos. I didn’t like it. I didn’t like sitting around in Chandigarh much at all. I felt like I was waiting for something. Is this how it will be for the next three weeks? Cycle one day, wait two days, cycle two days, wait three days? Maybe in this time I can get to Kathmandu…. UHOH.

I planted the seed in my head, and before I knew it I was in the Air India office in Chandigarh changing my flights so I could cycle to Kathmandu.

Before I knew it it was done. I had changed my flights, giving me 15 days to cycle 1,500km to Kathmandu. 100km a day, no rest, or 120km a day and getting to Kathmandu a day early. It would be a tough ride, but I knew I could do it, and I was buzzing. So much so that as soon as the flight was confirmed, I was out the door and hitting the road hard east.


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