The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, November 3, 2002

Exploring Corbusier Chandigarh conundrums
Rajnish Wattas

Chandigarh's Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India.
by Vikramaditya Prakash Mapin. Pages 167. Price not mentioned.

Chandigarh's Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial IndiaWHAT'S Chandigarh's identity? Is it an Indian city, a modern Indian city or a Western-Desi hybrid? These are some of the questions often debated in the architectural academia or in the spirited cocktail circles of the city.

For the serious seeker, there is no one truth. Chandigarh is a palimpsest of so many desires and designs; that the task of unpeeling the layers is like solving a jigsaw puzzle. The only unquestioned fact is that it is a heroic act; dreamed of by visionaries and built with concrete 'grit.'

No wonder this enigma of modern India's urbanism continues to engage architectural historians, researchers and critics to mine its rich archival quarries. After the first 'monumental' treatise by Norma Evenson a Yale historian in the early 1960s, there have been some limited publications, social histories or touristy books, but nothing substantial. Then came the famous 1999 International Chandigarh Conference, when some painstaking, meticulous works of documenting Chandigarh were published. It also saw the setting up of the City Museum. As the first architectural history museum of the country, it showcased the rarest of original drawings, documents and archives pertaining to the making of Chandigarh. This proved to be a veritable goldmine both for the curious citizen and the future 'gold-diggers' to research on.


However, what was badly missing till now was a critical and insightful work on the alchemy of various cultural and architectural fusions that sketched the city's blue-prints. Vikramaditya Prakash's Chandigarh's Le Corbusier is thus an excellent work that fills this huge void. His primary stance is that in the creation of Chandigarh, "contradictory conceptions of the modern and Indian civilization clashed and coalesced in a process that highlights the fact that architecture and aesthetics cannot be separated from ideological claims and political implications."

Combining the hawk's eye of a critic with the fluidity of excellent prose, Parkash makes the book almost an unputdownable architectural 'thriller' where you keep awaiting the next scene in the theatre of decolonisation. It questions the very tenets of 'modernism' as touted routinely by historians. Prakash contends, "if Orientalism was a discourse of the Orient, by and for the Occident; nationalism was its stepsister, a mimicry of the Occident, by and for the post-colony."

The book is structured in an innovative way comprising six major chapters titled: Introduction, The Master Plan, The Capitol Complex, the Capitol buildings, With Open Hands, and an Afterword. Each chapter is preceded by a warm, personal memoir of the author being a child of Chandigarh; viewing the city of his birth as a detached dissector of its body and soul.

Prakash looks at the birthing of Chandigarh neither as a celebration of Nehru nor of Corbusier but an exploration of the architect's aesthetic process, along with the hidden desires of all those involved with the project.

Of great fascination in the book is the interpretation of the impact of the Capitol Complex of the city and its comparison with Lutyen's Central Vista in New Delhi. While both the complexes aimed at being the 'heads' of their respective cities, Corbusier's complex is a parody of its avowed objective, tucked away from the city, camouflaged by artificial mounds and hills designed by him. Thus, the symbolic 'head' relates more to the bucolic surroundings of the adjoining villages than the grid-iron city that it commands.

Much to the chagrin of 'Corbu' devotees that the city abounds with, Prakash writes, "In the visible distance, the Capitol by contrast remains unvisited, save by architects on pilgrimage. Vast and abstract, daunting and puzzling, completely open yet spectacularly opaque to comprehension, the Capitol, compared to the bustling Rock Garden, has the appearance, in Curtis's memorable words, "of a colossal, grave, and dignified ruin."

His observations on the evolution of the beautiful, sculptural form of the Assembly might be equally disturbing. "In the sequential development of the Assembly, the incorporation of the hyperbolic paraboloid is sudden, almost violent and somewhat hilarious ... The perverse humour lies in the sense that they grow like a pregnancy that suddenly erupts through the stomach when it can no longer be denied."

Besides tracing in great detail the inspirations, theories and influences that lie behind the architectural concepts of the Assembly and the High Court buildings, Prakash also unravels the ideology behind Corbusier's famous painting on the Enamelled Door of the Assembly - cryptic in its alien abstractions to most viewers, including architects.

One full chapter is devoted to the Open Hand which has now been adopted as the official symbol of the city. It provides superb insights and research into its historic and political conception; as one of Corbusier's magnificent obsessions, which only found realization at last in Chandigarh and that too as late as 1985.

One may or may not agree with all of Prakash's assiduously built arguments, interpretations and conclusions; but no one will dispute his scholarship and the freshness of analysis as applied to the laboratory of Chandigarh.

Though a very comprehensive work; what one finds missing in this book are details on the Secretariat building in the chapter on the Capitol and, most glaringly, the Master Plan as it functions today. An evaluation of the city, as a palpable, human entity leaving asides the quandaries of its labels and 'identity crisis' is what is required. For, history only gives us hallowed hindsights. What Chandigarh needs today is the road ahead.

Although meticulously researched with detailed credits and notes, Prakash keeps referring to the 'City Museum' as "Chandigarh Museum," which is a different building altogether, housing art objects. Dr. Vikramaditya Prakash, thank you for immortalising the city of your parentage; but please house it in the right museum!

The book elegantly printed with exquisite illustrations and text, bound in hard cover has a catchy dust jacket - reproducing the Swiss 10 Franc note with silhouettes of the Secretariat and a portrait of Corbu - provoking one to question again, whose city is Chandigarh anyway- Indian, French or Swiss? Perhaps in its universalism lies its territory.

Is Chandigarh's Le Corbuier an academic overkill, spiked with spicy semantics and memorable metaphors or a hard knock on same harsh truths? Certainly not the former. In fact, its provocative and compelling prose, redeems tomes on history of architecture, from turning into big yawns, read only by the academic elite or esoteric snobs.