The symbol of America

The White House, the official residence of the President of USA, symbolises the power of the world’s sole superpower. Nishka Rathi writes about this great mansion by the Potomac.

White house

THE White House is a historical monument that has been housing the most prominent and influential world leaders – the Presidents of the US. It was conceived as a palace and though it was finally built on a smaller scale its influence on world history has always been significant.

The White House is more than just a residence for the President of USA. Through the last century, the high strobe limelight of world power shifted from Great Britain to the United States of America. On the world stage the voice of USA is heard and White House seems to have come equipped with a sound box – news reports stating “the White House said…..” have endowed it with a voice of its own.

White House started off as a residence for the head of a newly-independent country and has witnessed innumerable changes, not only in its power, but its architectural history as well.

The starting point

Washington, DC, is one of the world’s few planned cities. It started out as a sleepy little village with only a few buildings. But it was fated to become the capital of the newly-independent country and the seat of its government.

George Washington, the first American President, lived in three houses at that time. The first two were in New York City and the third was in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Finally, Washington decided on a patch of land on the Potomac River. The land was on the border of the North and the South and so would please both sides without disappointing either. Incredible as it sounds but in 1790, there were no western states.

George Washington named the land the District of Columbia, in honour of Christopher Columbus.

Benjamin Banneker and Andrew Ellicott made maps of the land and Pierre Charles L’Enfant decided where to put the roads. The architect of the White House was chosen in a design competition. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson submitted one proposal anonymously – it was not approved. James Hoban, an Irish American, was named as the architect.

L’Enfant’s 1791 plan had a grandiose scheme for the President’s House. He envisioned a vast palace, a house five times the size of the one that would eventually be built.

Hoban’s design was not quite as spectacular as Washington wanted it so the first President specified some changes. He widened the windows from a nine-bay facade to an 11-bay façade. He further added a grand reception room, elegant pilasters (rectangular columns that are attached to a wall and that is used for decoration or support), window hoods, and stone swags of oak leaves and flowers.

Despite being the moving force behind the place, George Washington, never lived in the White House. In 1800, when the White House was almost finished, America’s second president, John Adams moved in. His wife Abigail never liked the cold rooms and the unfinished feel. She also insisted that the laundry be dried inside the house as it ‘was not seemly’ that it be aired in public.


Why is it called the White House?

White House was formerly known as the Executive Mansion or the President’s House. The building was not white earlier; it was first made so with lime-based whitewash in 1798 to protect the porous stone from freezing. As the practice continued it earned the nickname the White House till 1901, when Theodore Roosevelt made it official.

The White House reflects classical inspiration sources especially from the Palladian style. Hoban is said to have been inspired by the upper floors of Leinster House in Dublin, which later became the seat of the Oireachtas (the Irish parliament). Several other Georgian-era Irish country houses have been suggested as sources of inspiration for the overall floor plan and the bow-fronted south front. These are cited in the official White House guide, and in White House Historical Association publications.

The principal façade of the White House, the north front, is of three floors and eleven bays. The ground floor is hidden by a raised carriage ramp and parapet, and gives the appearance of two floors.

The windows of the four bays flanking the portico, at first-floor level, have alternating pointed and segmented pediments, while at second-floor level the pediments are flat.


The mansion’s southern façade is a combination of the Palladian and neoclassical styles of architecture. It is of three floors. The ground floor is in the Palladian fashion. At the centre of the façade is a neoclassical projecting bow of three bays. The more modern third floor is hidden by a balustraded parapet.

The War of 1812 between the US and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland saw the burning of the White House.

President James Madison’s personal server, the slave Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness to it. He later purchased his freedom from the widow Dolley Madison. He published his memoir in 1865, wherein he described how he saved certain paintings and valuables from being destroyed in the fire. In 2009, President Barack Obama held a ceremony at the White House to honour Jennings.

Extensions and alterations

There have been many alterations and extensions to the original plan of the White House. Due to crowding within the executive mansion, President Theodore Roosevelt moved all the offices to the West Wing in 1901. Then President William Howard Taft expanded the West Wing and created the first Oval Office. The third-floor attic was converted to living quarters in 1927.

Under President Harry S. Truman the interior rooms were completely dismantled and a new internal load-bearing steel frame constructed inside the walls.

Today, the White House Complex includes the Executive Residence, West Wing, East Wing, the Eisenhower Executive Office Building—the former State Department, which now houses offices for the President’s staff and the Vice President—and Blair House, a guest residence.

The White House is at least two centuries old and in the tradition of all old houses has collected a fair dusting of spirits along with antiques. Even Winston Churchill was not spared the sight of the ghost of Abraham Lincoln. He refused to sleep in the Lincoln bedroom ever again. Well, his reaction was considerably better than that of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands. She fell into a dead faint when she heard a knock on the door and opened it to find Lincoln standing there.

The ghost of Dolley Madison, wife of James Madison, also appears in the Rose Garden, which she planted. There is a ghost of President Andrew Jackson too.


Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of President John F. Kennedy oversaw the last major extensive and historic redecoration of the house. Different periods of the early republic and world history were selected as a theme for each room: the Federal style for the Green Room, French Empire for the Blue Room, American Empire for the Red Room, Louis XVI for the Yellow Oval Room, and Victorian for the president’s study, renamed the Treaty Room.

Since the Kennedy restoration, every presidential family has made some changes to the private quarters of the White House, provided the changes are approved by the Committee for the Preservation of the White House.

The White House is not only a residence it houses the memories and aspirations of a nation. Its design and façade are now as much a symbol of USA as the star spangled banner.

The majestic – Aga Khan Palace

Pune’s Aga Khan Palace, where Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, secretary Mahadev Desai and even Sarojini Desai were jailed by the British rulers, is a beautiful monument where one can experience the struggles undergone by our leaders just before they won the country its Independence.

IN the 19th century, two prominent structures came up in Pune (then known as Poona). One was the Yerwada central jail, built by the British colonial rulers in 1871 on a sprawling, 500-acre campus, and the other the Aga Khan Palace, built 20 years later on a 20-acre plot, less than two km from the jail.

For a while though in the 20th century, the Aga Khan Palace, also served as a jail, where the British rulers imprisoned Mahatma Gandhi, his wife Kasturba, secretary Mahadev Desai and Sarojini Naidu. After Independence, the Aga Khan palace became a historic monument, while Yerwada jail continues to house over 3,500 prisoners – making it one of the largest jails in South Asia – including celebrities such as Bollywood star Sanjay Dutt.

The Aga Khan Palace was built by Sultan Mohammed Shah Aga Khan III, the 48th spiritual head of the Khoja Ismaili sect, in 1871, primarily to provide relief for the poor who were badly hit by a famine. He hired a thousand workers to build the palace at a cost of Rs1.2 million.

The high-security Yerwada jail, however, gained notoriety after the colonial rulers sent Mahatma Gandhi to its barracks during the 1930s.

Later, they also imprisoned Jawaharlal Nehru, Netaji Subhash Bose and Bal Gangadhar Tilak at Yerwada central jail. Interestingly, about 45 years later, when former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared the Emergency, she despatched many of the then opposition leaders – including BJP leader and former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee – to Yerwada.

But when the British authorities arrested Gandhi in 1942 after he launched the Quit India Movement, better sense prevailed on them and they relocated him and the others to the palace. Gandhi spent almost two years at the Aga Khan Palace before the British officials decided to release him, fearing that he too would succumb to illness there.


National monument

In 1969, in Gandhi’s centenary year, Aga Khan IV donated the palace to the people of India as a mark of respect to the Father of the Nation. The Archaeological Survey of India declared it as a national monument, especially as Gandhi’s ashes are also kept there, about 10 years ago.

Both Kasturba Gandhi and Mahadev Desai also died in the palace and their samadhis are located within the complex on the banks of the Mula river.

The sprawling palace complex is located on Ahmednagar road and is a spectacular building with vast open space in the front. It was built in the Italian style – with arches and spacious lawns – though it was also influenced by Islamic architecture.


Featuring five large halls, it has a built-up area of 28,000 sq metres. The ground plus two-storeyed building is surrounded by a 2.5-metre wide corridor. Today, the palace serves as the headquarters of the Gandhi National Memorial Society and features several exhibits, including the personal belongings of the Mahatma.

The Aga Khan Palace, which is also a museum, archives several photographs and portraits relating to Gandhi and major leaders of the freedom movement. Some of the rooms, especially those occupied by Gandhi, are out of bound for visitors, who can,
however, see it from outside.

Though Gandhi was detained at the palace for less than two years, it had a major role during the crucial period leading to Independence. In fact, when the late filmmaker Richard Attenborough decided to make his film Gandhi, he shot large portions of it at the Aga Khan Palace. The shooting was spread over 10 days and Attenborough had to convince the trustees of the Gandhi National Memorial Society about the genuineness of his desire to make a true film on the Indian leader.

While the majestic building and the palace grounds attract a lot of visitors every day, the Aga Khan Palace seems to have been over-shadowed by new developments occurring on Nagar road, one of the most happening places in Pune.

Several office towers, residential colonies, shopping malls, star hotels and other new buildings have come up along the road. Nagar road, which was formerly a narrow, two-lane road, has now been widened and localities along the artery – including Kalyani Nagar and Viman Nagar – have become posh areas.

Property prices have consequently shot up in this area. But the Aga Khan Palace retains its own charm and a visit to the monument is a wonderful experience, which hundreds of visitors continue to enjoy.


Chandigarh, with its straight roads and rectangular blocks, green boulevards and landmark architecture, a modern city that lets you breathe. It stands testimony to Le Corbusier’s preference for light, space and greenery. Almost 62 years after it was built, India’s first planned city tries hard to retain its semblance as a model city.


1947 was a mixed year. India gained independence. It also experienced one of the most traumatic migrations in the modern world. Lahore was lost and a new capital was needed for the state of Punjab.

The idea of building a modern city from scratch took root with Pandit Nehru as its strongest proponent. He declaimed, “Let this new town be symbolic of the freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past……an expression of the nation’s faith in the future.”

India’s old cities were beset by problems.


Le Corbusier breathed life into the concept of the city as a living, breathing organism. To create such an organism with Chandigarh, he used the purity of geometric forms and his preference for the classic equilibrium of rectangles is visible.

Chandigarh is rectangular with a cross axis in the middle, reflecting the functional precepts that he envisioned in the Athens Charter. Chandigarh had separate areas for ‘working’, ‘living’ and ‘care for body and spirit’, connected by a well developed road system to ensure ‘circulation’.

The Capitol group was the head, the commercial center was the heart, the industrial areas were the hands. The parklands and museums formed the intellectual center; the city civic center in the central market formed the stomach while the veins and nerves were the roads, the water and the electricity. Corbusier also made allowance for the growth of the ‘organism’.

The plan incorporated his principles of light, space and greenery.

The City Plan


The residential areas were numerically divided into sectors. Covering an area of 800*1200 mts, they were ‘containers of family life’ – self-contained and bound by fast traffic roads. each sector has shops, schools, place of worship and parks. The population of a sector varies between 3000 and 20000, depending upon the sizes of the plots. every sector is introvert in character and permits only 4 vehicular entries into its interior.

everything is inter-connected. The shopping street of each sector is linked to the shopping street of the adjoining sectors. Together, they form one long, continuous ribbon like a shopping street.

“It works,” says resident Ikroop Kacker in answer to a question on the city’s feel, “the city provides the basics of what is convenient for living – structured transportation, water, plumbing, drainage. Yes, people can complain about lack of character but for the people migrating from the villages of Punjab in the 60s and 70s, it provided a clean organized environment, democratic access to public utilities, board avenues and green space. The sectors and the feel is not Indian, but the city functions well.”

The Architects

Albert Mayer an American architect and town planner promised to play his part and he almost did till destiny intervened. Mayer provided the basic master plan and the detailed scheme of one superblock but the sudden death of his assistant, Matthew Nowicki derailed his plans and made it difficult for him to create a city single-handedly.

Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris, better known as Le Corbusier was convinced with great difficulty to come on board as architectural advisor, his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the husband wife duo of Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were all signed on as senior architects.

Although other architects were involved, it is Le Corbusier whose dominant personality and characteristic boldness shows itself in the planning of Chandigarh.


The Roads

The roads in Chandigarh are wellbehaved. Le Corbusier called them the Les Sept Voies de Circulation, or
the 7Vs. The 7Vs divided the roads into categories like the arterial roads (high-capacity urban roads), major boulevards (large roads, usually running through the city), access roads (provide access to a specific destination, as to a main highway or a major road), pedestrian paths and even cycle tracks.

All this attention to detail ensured that the roads of Chandigarh are neat, clean, unfettered by hawkers and devoid of teeming pedestrians. Some say they lack the flavor of Indian-ness. It begs a question, are chaos and unregulated traffic the stamp of an Indian city? one dour shop assistant replied, “the buildings are big and the roads are wide, the air is clean but it makes me feel alone.” Is the vision too grand for our sensibilities?

Le Corbusier preferred a systematic approach – “the curved path is for the pack animals” he was fond of saying. The paths in the sectors and their uniformity means residents can never get lost. Shreya Kapoor, a former resident says, “ I grew up in this city but as a child these facts remained unknown to me till last year, when I went to visit a friend who had now shifted to a different sector. My father was able to guide me to the right part of the sector just on the basis of the house number – unimaginable in Mumbai where I now reside and almost all Indian cities.”

The Capitol

Genius is rarely modest. ravi Kalia, author of Chandigarh, The Making of a Modern City reveals that Le Corbusier was a dominant personality with an almost egocentric view. And so he dared to boldly demolish old ideas. There is nothing subtle about his architecture, it is modern, strikingly different and absolutely in-your-face!! The Capitol is clearly marked with Le Corbusier’s stamp with its magnificent buildings of the High Court, Legislative Assembly and Secretariat framed by the backdrop of Shivalik mountain range.

Corbusier used the humble, cheap, dun-grey colored rCC (reinforced Cement Concrete) to create his masterpieces – as if to prove that architectural beauty doesn’t depend on the material, but on the architect’s vision. For a developing nation with almost empty coffers at that time, it was a revelation, although it made the buildings drab for many – their harsh geometric shapes heightened the feeling of monoliths.


The High Court

The glorious outward sweep of the upper roof symbolizes protection and justice to the people. The three vertical piers, rising 60 feet from the floor are painted in bright colors. They form the grand entrance to the building. The façade is a gigantic egg-crate screen the building was its own backdrop. It was a staggering display of modern architecture in its time.

The Legislative Assembly

It is aligned on the axis of the Capitol. The most significant aspect of the building is the coverage of the legislative chambers, by a pyramidal prism in the case of the Council Chambers and a sculptural hyperbolic paraboloid on the House of Assembly.

The Secretariat

Its shape resembles Le Corbusier’s Housing Units, called Unités. The façade is a light grid and it has a massive sculptural element at one end, pierced by small windows, that houses a series of internal ramps.

The Open Hand

This is a wind-rotated mobile, which is both a dove and an open hand. It symbolizes the thought- “open to give, open to receive.’. It became the symbol of Chandigarh.

The Capitol Complex was to be the showcase of Le Corbusier’s architectural vision “the Capitol will be a splendid park, with mountains, trees, flowers and architecture. It is dedicated to the pedestrian: man his own master, on foot, walking and living without fear.”

The vision was never fully realized, despite the awe-inspiring buildings. one of the main reasons is that the area is not open to the public and tourists require multiple passes to visit. Neither was Le Corbusier’s vision of creating parks and pathways achieved. So the grand buildings of the complex stand desolately on concrete floors interspersed with weeds and are seen only by government officials. Greenery and movement were the two things that would have made this concrete masterpiece come alive.

Houses of Chandigarh

Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry’s work involved integrating schools, family planning and health clinics, open-air swimming baths and open-air theatres with the housing.

All the houses had sanitary facilities and good water supply. The cheaper housing was all of the terrace type. It allowed the occupants to have larger rooms. Public open space was provided for all low-income housing. House rentals were graded so that no more than a tenth of the man’s income went on rent. The keeping of buffaloes and cows was banned in the houses. Flat roofs kept in mind the Indian custom of sleeping on roofs in hot, summer months. For lovers of a certain kind of India, these uniform row houses seem boring and almost bleak, but they provided a new population of many refugees with an ease of living in a minimal budget. Modern India needed new thought for its houses.


The problems in old cities:

• Open drains
• Electricity and water shortage
• Chaotic roads
• Lack of open spaces

Chandigarh’s modern promise:

• Closed drainage
• Running water, electricity in all houses
• Wide open and planned roads created for cars
• Sector layout
• Landscaped green areas and roundabouts
• Planned areas for work, play and living


Chandigarh also takes care of its residents’ body and spirit. It is also a Garden City and boasts of myriad landscaped leisure spaces.

Leisure VaLLey: A sprawling, green space extending North-east to SouthWest, it was conceived by Le Corbusier as the lungs of the city.

rose Garden, Botanical Garden, Smriti Upvan, Habiscus Garden, Topiary Park, Terrace garden, Fitness Trails and Shanti Kunj are among the 12 parks that make up Leisure valley.

The rose Garden has a large variety of roses and a large fountain to relax the soul.

sukhna Lake: It is a large man-made water body conceived by Le Corbusier on the North-east face of the city and a major recreation spot. It is fed by water from the catchment area of the seasonal rivulets on the foothills of the Shivaliks. Mrs. Yashdeep Sharma, a city resident, loves Chandigarh for the feel these places provide, “Nothing can compare to this city’s impeccable cleanliness, well laid infrastructure, luscious parks and gardens, the serenity of the Sukha Lake, the amazing sculpturing of the rock Garden……The city is welcoming to anyone from anywhere. I just love being here.”

The rock Garden: It is one of the early creations of rebellion in this staid, planned city. Nek Chand, a government official started the garden secretly in 1957. Chand collected materials from demolition sites around the city and recycled them into his own vision of the divine kingdom of Sukrani. He chose a gorge in a forest near Sukhna Lake for his work. The gorge had been designated as a land conservancy, hence Chand’s work was illegal, but he was able to hide it for eighteen years, extending it into a 12-acre complex of interlinked courtyards. Public intervention saved it from being demolished and in 1976 the park was inaugurated as a public space.

It is full of surprises and winding passages that twist into amazing spaces- beautiful-colored walls made of broken plates, tree monsters lined up against a wall, high up on the terrace, stands a mysterious looking dwelling or maybe it’s a temple to some obscure deity, giant sculptures of wondrous beasts and people. All made of broken bangles, ceramic plates, electrical fittings and anything he could get his hand on!


Le Corbusier’s plan was for a city of 1,50,000, but the population now is close to 10,00,000. In the recent past, two satellite townships of Panchkula and Ajitsingh Nagar have come up and also suburbs like Zirakpur, Mullanpur and Pinjore. With a vast surge in population, the city is now stretched to its limits. Vehicular traffic has increased, so have traffic jams in this once traffic-perfect city. Many of its loved roundabouts that marked the motorways have now been depleted into more sensible traffic signals.

Unauthorized rehri (hawker) market colonies and squatter colonies have also encroached upon spaces.

Maj. Gen. Grewal, a city resident views the changes thus, “it is still one of the best organized cities in the country. However, things are changing rapidly. Traffic conditions are increasingly becoming chaotic. Chandigarh is not geared for expansion in terms of space and facilities.” realizing the problems, an expert heritage committee was formed to preserve Chandigarh and a Chandigarh Master Plan 2031 was created. Mrs. Sumit Kaur, former Chief Architect, Chandigarh explains, “going by current trends, by 2031 the population would be around 21 lakh, but the city would accommodate only 16 lakhs the rest would be accommodated by the interstate regions. Heritage status of grade 1,2 and 3 will be accorded to certain areas with grade 1 being the most stringent with heritage rules. The Capitol Complex will be grade 1. Sectors 1-30 would retain the look of Corbusier Chandigarh while the sectors beyond would allow high rise apartments and more.”

Chandigarh is trying to find a way out of an age-old problem- the living together of old values and new ideas.

A disappointment

Chandigarh boasts of good architecture but to people who view it first from the airport will be forgiven if they think that they have landed in a small village with basic facilities. The architecture of the airport leaves a lot to be desired. A new international airport is under construction and one hopes that it evokes the glory of Chandigarh’s open spaces and organization.