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Le Corbusier’s utopian city Chandigarh, and its faded glory, captured in photos

A new book shows the modernist utopia today, after decades of adaptation and decay

Chandigarh architecture India
The Punjab Legislative Assembly chamber
All images by Shaun Fynn

Good times rarely last, a cliche that’s particularly apt for architectural utopias and planned cities. Originally envisioned as a new metropolis in 1950, Chandigarh, a capital complex built by the Indian government to house half a million residents, has become both a fading monument to modernism and an important part of the legacy of French architect Le Corbusier, who prepared its master plan.

Over more than a half-century of expansion, growth, and time, it’s also become a lived-in, modern Indian metropolis, a fascinating example of mid-century architectural vision meeting contemporary urban realities and improvisation. In his new book. Chandigarh Revealed (Princeton Architectural Press), photographer, designer, and writer Shaun Fynn examines the reality of the planned city, creating a photographic profile that shows how “the patina of time” has shaped the city in unforeseen ways.

“The rich legacy of Indian culture has emerged in the adaptation and decoration of buildings, and has imposed its own visual code,” Fynn writes.

Chandigarh India Architecture
A view across the plaza of the Capitol Complex toward the Assembly, with the MArtyrs’ Monument in the foreground

Located in the Himalayan foothills of northwest India, Chandigarh came about due to the confluence of post-colonial politics and architectural vision. Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sought to build a new capital after the 1947 Partition split the Indian state of Punjab, leaving the former capital of Lahore in Pakistani territory. Nehru and the Indian government first commissioned architect Matthew Nowicki and urban planner Albert Mayer to create a blueprint for a shining new city, but Nowicki’s tragic death in a plane crash led to a search for a replacement. Le Corbusier accepted the commission, in part to have the space and budget to properly test his theories on architecture and urban planning, and worked with a team of other architects including his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, who stayed on site through the design and construction phases (Corbu would only visit a few times each year).

Chandigarh Architecture India
The auditorium of Neelam Cinema, Sector 17, designed by Aditya Prakash, 1961

Much like Brasilia, the Brazilian capital designer by Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa, Chandigarh communicated a powerful vision of modernity. The 15,000-acre complex of government buildings, housing, parks, and recreation facilities that has since become a UNESCO Heritage site, renowned as one the few planned cities that, to a certain degree, actually works. While many associate Chandigarh with Le Corbusier’s design for the Capitol Complex, including the Vidhan Sabha (Legislative Assembly) and High Court, the surrounding building and residences have since grown and adapted. More than one million people now live within the original city and countless layers of expansion, and, due to Corbusier’s planning system, Les Sept Voies de Circulation, which included plenty of green spaces and cycle paths, it’s one of the country’s greenest cities.

MN Sharma, one of the Indian architects who helped work on the project, told The Financial Times that “it was the greatest experiment in the contemporary history of planning and architecture. And this experiment of Chandigarh was where Le Corbusier put all of his previous experience.”

Chandigarh Architecture India
A residence decorated for Diwali, House Type 5-J, Sector 16, designed by Pierre Jeanneret in 1956

But despite the recognition, time, climate, and neglect (many structures are abandoned or incomplete) have taken their toll, as Fynn’s photos show. Chandigarh Revealed expertly captures the impact on the complex, as well as the chaotic adaptations and adjustments made by contemporary Indian residents. Images of small businesses setting up shop inside concrete buildings meant for government offices, children clustered in playgrounds, or Modernist residences lit up for the Diwali holiday prove that even the most artistic and best-laid plans need to make room for the complexity and chance of urban development.

Chandigarh Architecture India
Interior view of the access ramp to the legislative Assmebly
Chandigarh India Architecture
A lecture room in the Government College of Architecture
Chandigarh Architecture India
The front facade of the High Court, with brise-soleils under the parasol-like roof