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Panoramic view from the Chandigarh Secretariat.

Report on the City Beautiful

The Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier.

The Legislative Assembly in Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier.

I remember the first time I heard about Chandigarh, the planned capital of the Indian states of Punjab and Haryana. It was during my first sojourn in India, after I had already spent several months exploring the country. It was a long and boring Saturday afternoon, and I was looking at the Rough Guide to India. I came across the city map of Chandigarh, which has perfectly rectangular, uniformly-sized blocks. I thought: Huh? I was used to seeing Indian cities that had been laid out haphazardly, so how did Chandigarh get to be built on a grid?

As I learned later, Chandigarh was built after Partition to replace Lahore, the traditional capital of Punjab, which was now in Pakistan. (At this time, Punjab and Haryana were a single state.) Prime Minister Nehru was in favor of building a totally modern capital for Punjab, to represent India’s arrival on the world stage as a modern nation. The individual who gets most of the credit for designing Chandigarh was the Swiss-born architect and prophet of modernism Le Corbusier. In reality, Le Corbusier was not the sole creator of Chandigarh, as he modified a town plan worked out earlier by the American architect Albert Mayer. The first phase of Le Corbusier’s plan, which ended up getting built with some further modifications, called for twenty-nine numbered sectors separated by huge landscaped boulevards. The state government buildings are in the Capitol Complex in Sector 1, and the main commercial district is Sector 17. Northeast of the city, in Sector 6, is a large city park centered around Sukhna Lake, an artificial lake impounded by a long embankment.

The town plan of Chandigarh, as portrayed in the city museum.

The town plan of Chandigarh, as portrayed in the city museum.

Paddleboats on Sukhna Lake.

Paddleboats on Sukhna Lake.

Chandigarh has gained a certain notoriety for its unusual town plan. The scale of the city makes it impossible to get anywhere by walking. The population density is too low to support a metro, and the city buses run infrequently. More than anywhere else in India, the people of Chandigarh have to rely on private automobiles to get around their city. In fact, Chandigarh is the only place in India that has more registered motor vehicles than people. (This includes scooters and motorbikes as well as cars.) The shopping center at Sector 17 is so large and sparse that it is never crowded and bustling like the commercial districts of other Indian cities. James C. Scott devoted a couple of pages to Chandigarh in his seminal critique of authoritarian high-modernism, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (1998). He included a black-and-white photo of Sector 17, which looks like a massive concrete wasteland with a few tiny human figures standing in it.

My attempt at recreating the photograph of Sector 17 in Scott's Seeing Like a State.

My attempt at recreating the photograph of Sector 17 in Scott’s Seeing Like a State.

Five years after first learning about Chandigarh, I have finally gotten a chance to visit the city. I could not draw any definitive conclusions about Chandigarh from a few short days there, but I did see enough to conclude that dire reports of the city’s poor planning and un-Indianness are exaggerated. While I do agree that it was foolish to make the city as big and spread-out as it is, it is still unmistakably an Indian city. Although private cars and motorbikes dominate the roads, there are also plenty of cycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, bicycles, and even horse carts. Sector 17 is a little bigger than it needs to be, but I feel that the austere photograph in Scott’s book misrepresents the place. It was likely taken early in the city’s life, before the place had had a chance to mature. In 2015, the shops around Sector 17 have brightly printed signs above them, like shops everywhere else in India. Far from being a concrete wasteland, the plaza in the middle of Sector 17 now has pipal trees and park benches in it.

A pipal tree in Sector 17, Chandigarh.

A pipal tree in Sector 17, Chandigarh.

Chandigarh is certainly unusual, but it is not exceptional in India. Planned towns in the Indian subcontinent date back to antiquity. Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, two archaeological sites in present-day Pakistan, are the remains of two nearly identical cities built more than three thousand years ago. Although we know nothing about Harappan society, it is clear that they had a strong and centralized government that was able to enforce the town plan. Texts from later Indian antiquity describe the ideal city as a large square subdivided into square blocks, with the king’s palace in the central block. It is not clear whether such a city was actually constructed in antiquity, although the builders of Jaipur did follow the ancient guidelines when they laid out their city in the early eighteenth century.

The arrival of British colonists brought European-style town planning to India. Some Indian towns still have cantonment areas laid out in perfect grids for the British who once occupied them. Since independence, extensions of many existing Indian cities have been built on lines similar to Chandigarh. For example, Dwarka Sub-City in Delhi National Capital Territory was laid out by the Delhi Development Authority. (Other cities have similar agencies overseeing their expansions.) Dwarka is not built on a perfect grid, but it is built sector-by-sector with large streets separating the sectors. It does not seem to be a very efficient use of space. The Delhi Metro runs through Dwarka, but much of the sub-city is not convenient to the metro. The housing societies are built for people who own their own cars.

Apart from the scale, the most significant difference between Chandigarh and Dwarka is the underlying motive for construction. From start to finish, Chandigarh is infused with modernist ideology; it declares that India has arrived as a modern nation. Dwarka, on the other hand, is just a place for middle-class people to live.

Chandigarh's Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier but not constructed until 1985.

Chandigarh’s Open Hand Monument, designed by Le Corbusier but not constructed until 1985.

Behind the Manhole Cover

Indian-made manhole cover in the Alabama steel belt.

Indian-made manhole cover in the Alabama steel belt.

If you live in an American city or town, the odds are good that one or more 250-lb pieces of India are not far from where you live or work. Unless you work for a public utility, or have a technical inclination (like me), it is not likely that you would have noticed this imported item. But if you walk around your city and look at the manhole covers, it is almost inevitable that you will come across at least one bearing the words “INDIA” or “MADE IN INDIA.” Almost all of the other manhole covers you are likely to see are from the United States. It makes sense to see American manhole covers in the country where they were made. But what are all of those Indian covers doing here?

The answer to this question lies in decisions made by India’s planners after the country attained independence in 1947. India has a long mettalurgical tradition, but it was not until the early twentieth century that steel manufacturing in India began on a large scale at a plant built on western industrial lines. The first modern steel mill in India was Tata Iron and Steel Company (TISCO) in Jamshedpur, a private undertaking established in 1907. Another private steel plant opened before independence, the Indian Iron and Steel Company (ISCO).

After independence, India’s planners deemed steel a strategic asset that should be under state control. The TISCO and ISCO plants remained under private ownership, but subsequent plants built in the early independence period were public enterprises. A primary motivation for expanding the Indian steel industry was import-substitution. Buying imported steel drained India’s foreign exchange reserves. It would be better, the planners reasoned, to import a mill and then produce steel domestically.

With technical and economic assistance from the Soviet Union, West Germany, and the United Kingdom, the Indian government set up large steel mills in the iron and coal belt of eastern India. The Indian government requested aid from the United States to set up a fourth public-sector mill at Bokaro, but the US Congress opposed loans to a public-sector industry that might compete with private industry. Ultimately, the USSR assisted the construction of the Bokaro plant as well.

With the public-sector mills in operation, India’s steel-producing capacity was vastly expanded, but the original problem of dwindling foreign exchange reserves persisted. The solution was exporting Indian iron and steel products. Manhole covers could be cast cheaply in labor-intensive foundries, and then shipped abroad while still realizing a profit. In this way, an industry that had originally been expanded for the purpose of import-substitution became increasingly oriented toward exports. Indian foundries even make customized covers for large American cities, such as this one in Manhattan:

manhole-cover_nyc

The irony here is that the high-quality iron manhole covers are produced mainly for export. The municipal corporations of many Indian cities have found it to be much more cost-effective to use reinforced concrete manhole covers.

Concrete manhole covers in India.

Concrete manhole covers in India.

Links

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Wasting Well on the High Line

New York City’s High Line is the most unusual park I have seen. The park occupies an abandoned rail bed in lower Manhattan. Reuse of redundant industrial spaces—what Kevin Lynch called “wasting well”—is not uncommon in cities in the deindustrializing West. What is unusual is that the park’s rail line is elevated above street level. It was originally built in the 1930s to remove dangerous freight trains from Manhattan’s crowded streets. Traffic on the line declined during the 1960s, and the last train ran on it in 1980. During its decades of disuse and abandonment, the rail bed grew over with wild vegetation. Threatened with demolition, the line was saved by a group known as Friends of the High Line, which successfully lobbied to have the abandoned structure converted into a park. The first phase of the High Line Park opened in 2009.

The High Line’s conversion into a park did not obscure the place’s past lives as a functioning rail line or a derelict structure. As far as possible, the redevelopers left the original rails in place, or reinstalled them. In some places, the rails run alongside the park’s paved pathway. Elsewhere, the rails have been integrated directly into the pavement.

View of High Line Park.

View of High Line Park.

Rails integrated into the pavement.

Rails integrated into the pavement.

The park’s landscaping emphasizes the post-industrial nature of the site. Trees grow between the ties of the abandoned tracks.

Trees growing through the rails.

Trees growing through the rails.

The current southern end of the High Line ends abruptly where the remainder of the original line was chopped off to make room for new development. The park’s developers left the cut open, allowing a glimpse of the heavy steel structure that was strong enough to hold freight trains above the street.

The southern terminus of the High Line.

The southern terminus of the High Line.

The substructure of the High Line.

The substructure of the High Line.

Since the early period of the republic, Americans have had a reputation for always wanting to throw away the old in favor of the new. This reputation is not undeserved. Americans built much of their industrial infrastructure cheaply, in the belief that something new and better would have come along by the time their infrastructure wore out. In the mid-nineteenth century, when the British were making railway viaducts out of stone so they would last forever, the Americans were making theirs out of wood, which was cheap but not durable. The ruins of abandoned rail lines can be seen all over the country, especially in places such as the mountain West where they have not been replaced by new development.1

In the latter half of the twentieth century, some Americans finally started to realize that the Old, as well as the New, has use and value. The High Line Park is one example of the Old being put to a creative and interesting New use.

  1. Arnold Pacey contrasts the nineteenth-century British interest in monumentality and permanence with the contemporary American obsession with newness in The Maze of Ingenuity: Ideas and Idealism in the Development of Technology, 2nd ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), 209-15. []

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