One morning in the summer of 1950, a letter arrived at 35 rue de Sèvres (Le Corbusier Paris agency), from the government of the Indian region of Panjab. The brief document announced plans for a mission, in which two men of rank were to visit Europe in search of a team of architects far a completely new capital city.
India, a British territory since the second half of the seventeenth century, had gained its independence from England in 1947. With the partition that year of the former British colony into India and Pakistan, Panjab, a province in the north, was divided: its eastern part remained in India, while its western part became West Pakistan (…). Since Lahore, the historic capital of Panjab, was now in West Pakistan, the Indian section needed a government headquarters of its own.
It was decided that Simla, the former summer capital of the British regime, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling, was too isolated and too close to the new border to assume this function. The site chosen instead was slighdy south (…). 230 kms north of New Delhi (…).
By the time, Le Corbusier was approached, the new project already had a cumbersome history. Initially, an American, Albert Mayer, had been selected to be the overall planner of Chandigarh (…).
The Siberia-born Matthew Nowicki was to be responsible for the architectural design (…). Mayer proposed that Indian government officials travel to Europe and America to get ideas for the look of the buildings – a suggestion that quickly upset people in a country trying to escape the shackles of western imperialism.
Then, on August 31, 1950, Nowicki was returning from Chandigarh when his TWA Constellation crashed near Cairo. lt was a moment when the exchange rate between rupees and American dollars was particularly unfavorable to the Indians. Looking for an excuse to drop Mayer, the government used Nowicki’s death as a reason to consider changing teams. This was when P. M. Thapar, the administrative head of the capital project, and P. L. Varma, the chief engineer of Panjab, were dispatched on the four-week trip to the United Kingdom, Holland, Switzerland, Germany, ltaly, Sweden, Belgium, and Paris.
The Indian delegates were seeking a new architect willing to move to India for three years and accept an annual salary of not more than three thousand pounds, or about $50,000 today (…).
Eugène Claudius-Petit, the French minister of reconstruction and urbanization, whom Le Corbusier had met while crossing to America in 1946, had recommended the architect – in spite of his notoriously difficult personality and the unlikelihood that he would agree to their terms.
It was a cold and gray November day when Thapar and Varma, both nurtured on warm sunshine, entered the offices at 35 rue de Sèvres. The sixty-three-year-old Le Corbusier did not greet them enthusiastically.
The dapper architect immediately told the two emissaries that he would not consider relocating and that their new city would have to be designed in the heart of the very old city of Paris.
Even before coming face-to-face with Le Corbusier’s imperiousness, Thapar and Varma had other reasons to be skeptical (…); they had already visited l’Unité d’Habitation in Marseille and doubted the value of its underlying ideas for India (…).
In London, the two officiaIs met the husband-and-wife team of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Beverly Drew, both members of CIAM. They asked Fry and Drew to take on the task of implementing Mayer’s basic ideas. However, Thapar and Varma, for aIl their trepidation and misgivings, had also seen the fantastic potential of Le Corbusier’s inventive design sense and groundbreaking urbanism for their project. They asked Fry how he would feel about working with Le Corbusier and making it a team effort. The Englishman replied, «Honour and glory for you, and an unpredictable portion of misery for me.» (…)