Think of the awe inspiring stepwells of Gujarat, the sublime Taj Mahal and the iconic Sun Temple of Konark. Now, think of the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh (if you are able to conjure an image or two!). Remind yourself that they are all World Heritage Sites. But how can anything so recent and ‘modern’ be ‘heritage’? In a civilization as ancient and rich as ours – overflowing with jewels of natural, cultural and architectural splendour where does a humble group of buildings in concrete stand? And even if we, in Chandigarh, do take immense pride in them, why would they be of any significance to someone living in Ethiopia or England? These and many such questions reveal the archaic concept of heritage that we all still carry while the concept of modern heritage and its universal significance are yet to sink in.
The Capitol is important because great architecture is never just about buildings and spaces and goes beyond mere aesthetics and functions to embody the ethos, values and vision of a populace at any given point of time. This unique ensemble celebrates the spirit of exaltation, power and permanence experienced by India on acquiring the prerogative of self-governance after a long and bitter struggle for freedom. The Capitol Complex is thus not just a testimony to Le Corbusier’s creative and philosophical genius but also a manifestation of the foresight, grit and perseverance of a group of Indians possessed by the dream of a new modern nation. And for those reasons it is our heritage while in inspiring many others like us all around the world, its value becomes universal — transcending national and temporal boundaries.
The complete complex consists of the assembly, the high court and the secretariat buildings — celebrating the three pillars of democracy — legislature, judiciary and executive and four monuments articulating the plaza are the Open Hand, Martyrs’ Monument, Geometric Hill and Tower of Shadows.
The ensemble has an ‘outstanding global influence’ being an important landmark in the progression of modern architecture and thought the world over. Here we were able to create secular, modern forms ‘unfettered by the past’ to create a nationalist idiom that was also unique to the world creating a transnational globalised work of art.
The spirit of true democracy is clearly seen in the truthfulness of materials and honesty of expression of the structures, seamlessly blending the forward-looking ideas of Jawaharlal Nehru with the austerity and simplicity advocated by Mahatma Gandhi.
At the same time these iconic creations ably addressed mundane yet critical aspects like services, climate control, structure, acoustics, rain water harvesting and even barrier free circulation. A case in point is the construction of the thin hyperboloid shell of the immense column-free, circular Assembly Hall was a landmark technical achievement and would be hard to replicate even today. One is constantly surprised by the meticulous planning, intelligent detailing and high quality execution of the structures which speaks volumes about the dedication of the engineers, contractors and even untrained labour.
On a philosophical level the complex celebrates the sacred Man-Cosmos relationship — an aspect reflected in the very planning of the buildings and their interrelationship with the Shivalik hills beyond. Intangible concepts of democracy and egalitarian society are reflected in the absence of plinths and barriers where the common man is in fact the hero. If we could only understand the true meaning of the Open Hand or decode the many symbols and details worshiping nature and the sun here, we would indeed understand why Chandigarh’s heritage is a universally appreciated ‘world heritage’ that will continue to be relevant for years to come.
Unesco defines World Heritage as “the designation for places on Earth that are of outstanding universal value to humanity and as such, have been inscribed on the World Heritage List to be protected for future generations to appreciate and enjoy”. But the question remains-how can a jungle in Africa, a Taj Mahal in India or the Acropolis of Athens be of significance to the entire world? The answer is that each world heritage sites is an important milestone in or manifestation of the astounding journey of mankind through the ages to the present day and is thus deemed to be of significance, to all the people of the world-irrespective of its physical location.