Chandigarh: The Most Perfect City in the World?

from the nearby Himalayan foothills, our bus passes
through sprawling flatlands and rice fields zig-zagged with paths.
As we draw closer to the city, the meandering streets of the rest
of the country are slowly replaced by broad boulevards that run in
straight lines, each meeting at a perfectly perpendicular angle
with its neighbouring street. The city’s grid-like road structure
more closely resembles American blocks than the snaking alleyways
of the towns that surround it.

Chandigarh was India’s first planned city. Designed by the
Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier, it was commissioned in 1950 by
India’s first post-Independence Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Punjab and Haryana province had lost their previous capital,
Lahore, after it was partitioned into Pakistan.
Chandigarh was to be the forward thinking replacement: a “dream
city” symbolic of a new, independent India. It is seen today as one
of the greatest architectural experiments of the last century, and
one of the few planned cities that “actually works”.

The recent resurgence of interest in mid-century design has seen
a revived appreciation for
brutalist architecture
, a movement characterised by its use of
concrete, raw, clean lines and cuboid structures. However, as many
fans of the style look to European buildings as examples, such as
the Barbican Centre, Trellick Tower and Sheffield’s Park Hill
complex, it is Chandigarh that showcases one of the most extensive
examples of brutalist architecture. Importantly, the city also
embodies brutalism’s aim to link architecture with social issues
and public well-being; to the belief that urban planning can create
happier and more cohesive social structures.

Our taxi driver speeds around the organised, ordered roads of
the city. He explains to us that it is divided into sectors: Sector
17 is the city’s retail centre, while “going to Sector 25” has
become a euphemism for dying, as the crematorium is located there.
Compared to road maps of Delhi or
other large Indian cities, Chandigarh’s block design is
meticulously planned. Each sector is the same size and the roads
that link them flow perfectly around the uniform buildings. It is a
green city, with large swathes of grass incorporated within the
grid layout: “the whole city is a park”, Le Corbusier writes. The
central plaza is pedestrianised, the buildings around the main
square all designed to the same dimensions.

Le Corbusier took these strict dimensions, which guide the
layout of Chandigarh, directly from the proportions of the human
body. Based on the measurements of a six-foot tall man, he deduced
the “golden ratio” – approximately 1:61 – which was the total
height of the figure with his arm outstretched in relation to the
height of the navel. This ratio guides the layout of the plaza, and
the dimensions of the buildings in relation to it. Le Corbusier
believed it would put the human body at the centre of design,
creating a more symbiotic relationship between building and body,
as the former mirrored the dimensions of the latter. It is
Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex where Corbusier’s vision of the golden
ratio reaches its desired perfection. The complex is a government
compound located in Sector 1 of the city; it is the clearest
manifestation of Corbusier’s design, the buildings here most
emblematic of his modernist signature. The layout of the buildings,
as well as the positioning of the lakes and statues in between
them, all echo the ratio dimensions exactly.

We visit the complex at sunset. As the sun goes down, an orange
light seeps over the city and bounces off the raw concrete edges of
the government buildings. We walk past the High Court, a striking
building comprised of cuboid concrete grids. Offering a contrast to
the grey structure, three central pillars are painted red, yellow
and green. From here you can see the Palace Assembly, where eight
columns support a large sweeping flick of concrete that comes up
from the building’s roof. The open front of the Assembly frames a
view of the nearby Himalayas. Described as the “modernist
acropolis: Corbusier transforms concrete – a symbol of the everyday
– into regal, arresting palace-like structures. It is a masterclass
in brutalism’s belief in the transformative power of tough, raw
materials and structures to take on subtle, unexpected beauty.

Chandigarh is an unexpected diamond; an exciting counterpoint to
India’s other major cities. Intriguing and beautiful, it brings you
as close as you can get to one of the last century’s greatest