The struggle to save Chandigarh

A petition to save Chandigarh, Le Corbusier's modernist city in India, from being sold off bit-by-bit.

In the 1950s, the Indian city of Chandigarh was developed as a modernist miracle. Le Corbusier implemented and augmented a master plan set down by American architects Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki, and designed numerous civic landmarks including the Secretariat, High Court, Legislative Assembly, and the Museum of Knowledge.

Since then, what was slow-motion entropy through neglect has turned into a much more urgent situation due to recent evidence of wide-scale pillage. With the knowledge of—and in some cases, it is asserted, the complicity of—local ministries, furniture, light fixtures, and architectural drawings have been auctioned off in the international antiquities market. The news the city's iconic Corbusier-designed manhole covers were fetching upward of US $20,000 at auction in Europe and the United States raised alarms in international modernist preservation and Indian heritage circles.

Chandigarh manhole covers, designed by Le Corbusier, have found their way to auction for US$25,000. Photo by Flickr user Rossipaulo.
Chandigarh manhole covers, designed by Le Corbusier, have found their way to auction for US$25,000. Photo by Flickr user Rossipaulo.
International Herald Tribune design critic Alice Rawsthorn has begun a petition to save the city from further plunder. She writes that an effort led by Corbusier's lead assistant and later chief architect of the city, 87-year-old Manmohan Nath Sharma, is campaigning in earnest to preserve the city's architectural legacy. Combining forces with an international cadre of architects and art historians, and gaining steam through social media, the campaign is intended to press UNESCO to designate Chandigarh as a World Heritage Site and immediately take measures to prevent the further illegal removal of its public property. The campaigners believe that strong statements of international concern may succeed where local outcry has not.

This effort still faces challenges due to the fractured and bureaucratic nature of the local governmental departments, who occupy the majority of the modernist treasures in Chandigarh. Very recent good news about the effort is that the Punjab and Haryana High Court has issued notices have been issued to the city's Director of the Department of Tourism, and Commissioner of the Municipal Corporation to protect the original architectural materials. Further, the Union Territory of Chandigarh has just instructed its divisions to catalogue materials designed by Pierre Jeannerete and other architects working in the city in the 1950s and 60s.

Contribute your voice to the petition to save Chandigarh here.
Alan Rapp

Chandigarh Secretariat photo by Flickr user duncid, licensed through Creative Commons.

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