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Capitol Complex: Here’s everything you need to know about Chandigarh’s UNESCO Heritage

For Le Corbusier, Chandigarh’s Sector 1 is where the master architect unleashed his creativity, setting up the city’s most awe-inspiring landmark – The Capitol Complex

chandigarh Updated: Apr 23, 2018 20:55 IST
Saurabh Duggal
A bird’s eye view of the Punjab and Haryana Vidhan Sabha at the Capitol Complex in Sector 1 of Chandigarh.
A bird’s eye view of the Punjab and Haryana Vidhan Sabha at the Capitol Complex in Sector 1 of Chandigarh.(Sanjeev Sharma/HT)

When Punjab was rent asunder by the British, the Radcliffe Line awarded Lahore to western Punjab, leaving the eastern part of the (Indian) state without a capital.

Keen to move on from the bitter memories of colonial rule and the wounds of partition, India’s first prime minister Jawahar Lal Nehru wanted a city his countrymen could identify as their own.

That was how the idea of Chandigarh was born and it was celebrated Swiss-French architect-designer Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, also known as Le Corbusier, who gave wings to Nehru’s dream.

The site for the new capital was chosen after an aerial survey in 1950 by PL Verma, then chief engineer, Punjab, who liked the plateau, then an agriculture area at the foot of the Himalayas.

Today Chandigarh has global appeal because of its association with Corbusier and is considered a paradise for architects from all over the world.For Corbusier, the city was a living being. The Capitol Complex was the head, the sectors formed the trunk, the city centre was the heart, with education as the left arm and industry as the right arm.

Sector 1

Corbusier’s work ensured a UNESCO Heritage Status for the Capitol Complex. Various sites from seven countries — France, Switzerland, Belgium, Germany, Argentina, Japan and India — were included in the nominations for the heritage list, indicative of the global reach of Corbusier’s works.

The three pillars of democracy – legislature, executive and judiciary – stand together at the Complex, forming a major portion of Sector 1. The other landmarks here are the Rajendra Park, the Sukhna Lake and the Chandigarh Club, which was earlier known as the Officer’s Club. The Rock Garden did not exist in the original plan and came into existence only in the mid-seventies.

The Capitol Complex Walk, which was initiated in April 2014, opens the gates for the public to ‘experience’ Corbusier’s architecture.

Sector 1 has no residential area even though the original Capitol Complex plan had one residential building – the governor’s palace, which did not materialise. Finally the Circuit house in Sector 6) designed by Corbusier’s cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, became the governor’s residence.

“The Capitol Complex is strategically located at the geographic and topographic ‘head’ of the city against the backdrop of the Shivalik Hills. Corbusier deliberately attempted to visually and physically detach the Complex from
the city, providing a calm site for the efficient functioning of the three pillars of democracy,” explains Deepika Gandhi, director of Le Corbusier Centre and Chandigarh Architecture Museum.

The complex also had a special significance for the displaced Punjab government (post partition) hoping to employ within its building nearly 18,000 employees, a significant portion of the 1.5 lakh population projected for the first phase of the city. Later, as city kept expanding towards the south with the completion of the second and third phase, its population grew to about 12 lakh.

The three buildings in the Capitol Complex – the secretariat, the assembly and the high court – face each other. The high court was the first building to be completed (March, 1955), followed by the secretariat (March 1958) and the assembly (March 1961).

The high court and the assembly are connected by a 400m elevated piazza and the unique design of the secretariat building gives one the impression of layers of concrete slabs. The 240m long and 50m high structure was the tallest structure in Punjab when it was built. “Despite the huge reinforced concrete buildings, sky elements and landscaping make Capitol Complex a treat for the eyes. It does not give one the impression of a concrete jungle,” says Pradeep Bhagat, former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture.

Did Corbusier make money for the work he did? Not much. He was appointed as architectural adviser with a 2,000 pound (Rs 1.80 lakh now) yearly salary and a 35 (Rs 3,200 now) pound daily allowance, plus furnished accommodation while he was in India.

Chandigarh was inaugurated on October 7, 1953, by then president Rajendra Prasad, and the 400-acre park near the Capitol Complex was named after him.

An aerial view of the Capitol Complex in 1960. The photograph was clicked from the Secretariat
Love for the lake

The south-eastern end of Sector 1 is locked by a manmade rain-fed lake. It was created by Corbusier and PL Verma in 1958 at a cost of Rs 1crore by damming the Sukhna rivulet.

The lake has huge emotional significance for the locals. Jeanneret’s ashes were immersed in the lake in 1967 as per his last wish.The lake project also comprised a Boat Club that came into existence in 1960 and was later renamed the Lake Club.

As part of the HC golden jubilee celebrations, a High Court Museum came into existence on March 18, 2006. It is one of the only museums in the country to remain open 365 days a year. Apart from documents of the Lahore Conspiracy case between then British government and Indian revolutionary Sukhdev Thapar, the museum has a signed copy of the Indian constitution and handcuffs worn by Nathuram Godse, Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin, along with other memorabilia.

Travelling back to the Nehru-Corbusier days, in a letter to Nehru, dated May 13, 1960, Corbusier wrote: “The construction of the ‘Capitol’ and its lateral elements has brought to Chandigarh such a marvellous landscape (lake and mountain) which no city in the world possesses. Let us not destroy it!”