The story of Chandigarh was shaped as much by Urmila Eulie Chowdhury as it is the work of Le Corbusier. From its brick and mortar foundations, to its modernist buildings and seemingly whimsical structures, these were constructs of the famous architect before they were brought to life on Chowdhury’s drafting table.
Chowdhury was not only an exceptionally talented architect; she was also an extraordinary woman. Together, this made her one of India’s pioneering women architects and a trail-blazer in the male-dominated world of mid-20th century India.
She spent much of her life in Chandigarh, starting out as part of Le Corbusier’s core team in the 1950s, and later continuing to design, plan and mould the city. She even contributed to its cultural fabric.
Chowdhury’s career was built on multicultural experiences in her early years. She was born on 4th October 1923, in Shahjahanpur, Uttar Pradesh but since her father was a career diplomat, she became a truly global citizen. She schooled in Japan; studied architecture and music in Sydney, Australia; and even picked up a diploma in ceramics in New Jersey, in the United States (US).
After working in the US for a while, life took a remarkable turn for Eulie. In 1951, she got an opportunity to design the new city of Chandigarh and, most importantly, to work with celebrated Swiss-French architect and urban planner Le Corbusier.
A pioneer of modernist architecture, Le Corbusier had been invited by Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to, quite literally, create a city at the foothills of the Shivalik Hills, one that would serve as the capital of the state of Punjab. Defined by an architectural style known as ‘modernism’, Chandigarh would become one of Le Corbusier’s greatest works. Assisting him in the project were his cousin and architect Pierre Jeanneret, and British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry.
During the first phase of the Chandigarh project, from 1951-63, Chowdhury worked on the High Court building, the first structure to be designed by Le Corbusier. She also helped with drawings of Geometric Hill, Tower of Shadows and Martyrs Memorial, some of the iconic structures of the city. Being fluent in French, she became Le Corbusier’s interpreter and even handled his correspondence with Nehru. Incidentally, this was also when she married Jugal Kishore Chowdhury, a consulting architect with the Punjab government.
Her time with Le Corbusier and his team was like a springboard for Chowdhury. After Phase I of the Chandigarh project, she did a stint as Principal of the Delhi School of Architecture and Planning, and then taught at the Chandigarh College of Architecture.
Chowdhury rejoined the Chandigarh project from 1968-70, when she designed ministerial bungalows, government housing, schools and her two flagship projects, the Government Polytechnic College for Women in Chandigarh (regarded as one of the best examples of early modern architecture) and the Government Home Science College.
– Outside Chandigarh, she built railway stations, hostel buildings, cotton spinning mills, fire stations and rural hospitals. She also headed the design team of the Talwara township in Punjab and planned the city centres of Amritsar and Mohali.
On her architectural style, architect and author Madhavi Desai in her book Women Architects and Modernism in India: Narratives and Contemporary Practices (2016) writes, “Chowdhury generally followed Le Corbusier’s concepts and scale in her building designs, exemplifying the principles of geometric compositions and honesty of materials. She also developed her own distinct modernist design vocabulary. She believed in simplicity and boldness as well as economy and workability.”
One of Chowdhury’s most interesting architectural achievements was the wooden furniture she created. It was an adaptation of designs originally created by Pierre Jeanneret, cousin and collaborator of Le Corbusier. Her furniture populated government offices and institutions in Chandigarh, such as the Capitol Complex, Gandhi Bhavan, and the Guest House and Library of Punjab University. It was low-cost furniture, squat and modular, and modified to suit the Indian physique.
Chowdhury never stopped breaking new ground. She was the first woman Chief Architect of Chandigarh, and Haryana. She was also the first Indian woman to become an elected fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, London, and the Indian Institute of Architects.
Eulie Chowdhury was a fiery, no-nonsense person and, Madhavi says in her book, her “students were in so much awe of her and were so mesmerized by her that they could not ask questions”. It was tough staying at the top in a field dominated by men and Chowdhury never let her guard down, so working with her was as inspiring as it was daunting.
– Her junior colleagues claim that when they had something to discuss, they would have to send across a ‘request slip’ and wait to be summoned at Chowdhury’s convenience so that it didn’t distract her from her work!
Chowdhury’s deep love for Chandigarh went beyond urban planning and she made some important cultural contributions. She was a painter and even exhibited her work. She was instrumental in setting up the Chandigarh Amateur Dramatic Society and, in 1983, became the first president of the Alliance Francaise in Chandigarh because she was apparently the ‘most French person’ one could find in the city!
Eulie Chowdhury died on 20th September 1995 in her beloved Chandigarh. Her incredible career paved the way for other women architects in India, but it is in the City Beautiful that she is most cherished.
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