When studying Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, the other names that pop up are Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew. Seldom is the name of Urmila Eulie Chowdhury, the first qualified woman architect of India, mentioned. Isn’t it suggestive that the roll call of Corbusier’s Indian protégés with whom we are all acquainted is entirely male; and that Chowdhury’s name doesn’t bear instant recall?
She belonged to a time when India had just achieved Independence and was finding its footing. It was a time when society rarely allowed women to work, let alone in a male-dominated field like architecture. Her transgression against the established societal boundaries of a typical ‘home-maker’ makes her special.
Being a part of a liberal and an elite family, Eulie completed her studies in Japan, Sydney, and New Jersey. She was a polymath: She had studied architecture and music in Sydney and ceramics in New Jersey.
After working for a few years in the United States, she returned to India as a multicultural and cosmopolitan woman. She joined the dream team of Le Corbusier that propelled her into bringing to life India’s most ambitious modernist project. Jane Drew and Urmila Chowdhury were the only female architects on the team. After Jane left, though being the only female architect left on the team with a decidedly male character, Eulie maintained an iron facade and didn’t condone any behavior by her colleagues that discriminated against her based on her gender.
Eulie was involved in the making of Chandigarh, right from the planning of its brick and mortar to seeing it become India’s first planned modern city. Beginning with the High Court, the first building Le Corbusier designed, Eulie helped to prepare detailed drawings for Capitol Complex, Geometric Hill, Tower of Shadows, and the Martyrs Memorial, all of which today are exemplary monuments of contemporary architecture. Since Eulie was fluent in French, she became the go-to person for Corbusier, whose English was weak. Later, she would manage his correspondence with Prime Minister Nehru, after he had returned to France.
In addition to designing various schools and Ministerial residences together with Pierre Jeanneret, she also contributed to the development of wooden furniture for the city’s government offices. She designed and readapted the proportions of the Modular man for Indians and especially for an average Indian woman. She was awarded a gold medal by the President for her low-cost furniture design. Her attempt to address the issue of gender-sensitive furniture design demands its due credit.
Eulie Chowdhury managed to design housing projects, state institutions, and other structures that established her as a leader in the field amid difficulties in persuading the government to award commissions for large-scale projects for women. Prominent among these are Government Polytechnic College for Women, Home Science College, Multi-storied Government Housing, Government Schools.
The architecture for the Hostel Block of the Government Home Science College, Chandigarh, constructed in 1961, is impressive: the columns creating classical stillness balance and match the dynamic juxtaposition of the balconies. Her sensitivity to context is evident in the planning of this College, where the building responds to the site.
Cost, climate, and space limitation were the major constraints in the Government housing project. These complexities were ably tackled through the astute use of material, construction techniques, and strategic planning. Her design sensibilities can be seen in the use of functional elements like the staircases as sculptural components.
The Government Polytechnic College for Women in Chandigarh designed by her is an example of the early modernist expression, showcasing the play of brickwork and concrete. Her buildings portray her fascination with brick as a material on the external faces, occasionally punctuated by plastered and white-washed surfaces.
In the design of Ministerial houses too, Eulie uses the play between materials like stone, brick, and white plaster to enhance the elevation. The chimney acts as a sculptural element and highlights the skyline.
Trained in the West, early modernist aesthetics and utopian aspirations influenced her. Madhavi Desai in her book ‘Women Architects and Modernism in India: Narratives and Contemporary Practices’ 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”.
Her talents forayed into the fields of writing and teaching as well. For a brief while, she was the Director of the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. During which, she officially translated Le Corbusier’s, ‘The Three Human Establishments’. Later she authored the book, ‘Those were the days’ reminiscing the times they worked together. She was also a regular contributor to important professional journals, magazines, and newspapers.
She broke many male bastions by holding important administrative positions: Senior Architect for Chandigarh, Chief Architect of Haryana, Chief Architect of Chandigarh, and Punjab. Under her administration, young architects were able to hone and refine a vision of how architecture can explore the notions of modernity, cultural identity, and social equity.
To keep the relation between Chandigarh and France alive, Eulie was handed over the responsibility to establish the Alliance Francaise de Chandigarh, of which she became the first president. She is credited to introduce theatre in Chandigarh by forming Chandigarh Amateur Dramatic Society where English plays were staged. Finding her niche in arts, she held her exhibitions in the city where her paintings were displayed. A fellow of the Indian Institute of Architects, she also became the first Indian woman to be elected as a fellow of the R.I.B.A.
Known as the ‘Grand Dame of Modern Architecture’, Eulie Chowdhury was the perfect example of a modern woman, handling home and work with equal aplomb. But while her work enriched the vocabulary of Chandigarh’s architecture and cultural sphere, her contributions haven’t been suitably acknowledged.