The Secretariat in Chandigarh: a government’s monument

Le Corbusier was commissioned to build a new city in the hot plains of northern India. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was imagining it as a statement of a modern and progressive India. One of the monumental buildings of the new capitol named Chandigarh is the Secretariat, housing the ministries of two the states Harayana and Punjab.

The government headquarters and administration buildings of the state of Haryana and Punjab make up three main buildings on the so called Capital Complex: The Parliament, the High Court and the largest of the three, the Secretariat, finalised in 1958. Once you see the entire construction from far, which is only possible from its back side, as well as when you stand immediately  in front of it, the enormous concrete structure remains impressive: It’s a statement of power, a monument much more than an government administration’s office block.

 

It’s almost 250 metres long and raises up eight floors onto a roof terrace, with  a small modernist pavilion structure on top of it. Parts of the roof are these days used as a flower garden. Though in the summer heat, it’s difficult to grow anything.

chandigarh_rooftop_secretariat_gardenThe eight floors can be accessed by large elevators. However, there are also two massive ramps, which serve actually as emergency exit, but are used frequently by the government employees to switch floors. The ramp’s colourful inside sets it strikingly apart from the uniform concrete of the rest of the building. While constructed, they also served as transport routes for the material, as there were no cranes of that size at that time.

chandigarH-secretariat_chat_rampeOn a visit to the building in June 2019, which I had missed as a massive downpour of rain had confined us to the Tower of Shadows on a previous tour, a friendly guard took us all they way to the roof terrace as well as the ramp to go back down. The view onto the parliament building and the high court show the enormous dimensions of the entire capitol complex – a capitol speaking of grandeur, ready to impress its visitors by size.

chandigarh_view_towardshighcourtEven though today’s city planning might keep up with many of Le Corbusier’s ideas like the exceptional greenery with parks and alleys inside the city, the large tarmac areas, the spread and the concrete would not work well with the increasingly hot climate and the badly needed solutions suitable for a more environmental friendly and sustainable architecture.

Chandigarh’s Capitol Complex is a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2016 and can be visited on guided tours. It’s definitely worth going also to the Chandigarh Architecture Museum, which is an interesting sight on its own, referring to an exhibition pavilion Le Corbusier had built in Zurich in the sixties. The museum tells in master plans, historic photos, furniture and exhibits the history of the city’s planning after the independence of India, as the former capital of Punjab, Lahore, was located in Pakistan after the partition in 1947.

Interestingly for Swiss nationals, there is plenty of references to Switzerland, like the photos of Le Corbusier’s cousin Pierre Jeanneret, who spent large parts of his life overseeing the construction of the new capitol. Even the architect’s offices can still be visited in the city and are preserved to this day.

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