Chandigarh is 50 and young!
THE golden jubilee of City Beautiful brings back so many memories of the time when we were young architects, and the very special significance that Chandigarh held for us. In those days, we would come like pilgrims at least once a year to visit this city, from all over the country-- in fact, from all over the world. Now and then, (only occasionally, and if one was particularly fortunate) you got to meet Le Corbusier himself. And yet we were lucky to be somewhat distanced from Corb. In retrospect it would seem that this distancing was as crucial to one's development as was the exposure. Through the combination of the two, one had the opportunity to learn some of the most fundamental lessons of architecture. For this, I will always be deeply grateful to Corbusier, and to this city.
What did we learn from Corb? I think there were at least three areas in which his impact was crucial. The first was the extraordinary power of his architectural language. This language of Corb's was the easiest lesson of all to learn, and so it influenced architects all over the globe. Yet it was perhaps the most unnecessary--and dangerous--lesson of all. In fact, his language is so compelling, it takes one many years to climb out of the box-- and does one ever manage to get out of it completely? Yet the very experience of borrowing his language was invaluable. It allowed one to experience, even if only vicariously, that electrifying combination of intellectual rigour and emotional intensity that is the quintessence of Corb. Later, while struggling with your own work, you could recall the expressionistic power of his architecture --the decibel level, so to speak--as a kind of benchmark against which you could understand how far you still had to travel.
Corb could achieve this intensity because he was willing to take great risks. For instance, consider the High Court, which was the first building to be constructed in the Capitol Complex. In 1955, I was a young student, just back from my studies in the USA. From the very little which had been published in architectural journals, I had a general idea of the plan: four boxes for the courtrooms and a fifth double-height one for the Chief Justice's Court. It seemed fairly comprehensible--but it did not prepare you in any way for what you did see when you actually got there: the huge parasol roof, the giant ramp, etc. And the biggest knock-out of all: the great front wall of the courts, rising up in a huge sweep, like a hovering tidal wave about to crash over you. How did Corb ever think of this wall? "Genius in Art" said Cocteau, "consists in knowing how to take risks. When all your friends tell you: 'Stop, it's perfect' - that's when the true artist begins".
Another example of this ability to take high risks is of course the Governor's Palace. Now it is always possible to design a house for a VIP - but how do you conceive an abode whose very shape and form proclaims: I am a Governor's Palace! It is indeed tragic that this, the fourth component of the Capitol Complex, has never been built - and we are indeed fortunate that this Conference has managed to construct a full-scale dummy, of cloth and bamboo. This mock-up is a vivid demonstration of the pivotal role that the building plays in the composition of the Capitol Complex, setting up the main cross-axis that addresses the city itself. It also is a surprise how affordable its construction would be-- it is no bigger than the average cinema hall (of which scores are being built every year, all over India). Perhaps the building itself should be used for some other purpose--as for instance, a State Guest House, or (following the symbolism of the other three buildings in the Capitol Complex) as the abode of that increasingly important player in a functioning democracy, viz the Fourth Estate. But, somehow or the other, we must find ways to build what is the kingpin in the whole composition, and a truly astounding piece of architecture.
But to get back to the lessons we learnt from Corb. The second stems from his astute awareness of the consecutive projects that make up one's life. Architects are not like poets or painters. We rarely get to choose precisely the problem we will tackle next. And once we start designing the new project, we can seldom back out. In contrast: the artist, who if he does not like the painting he is working on, just turns it to face the wall--and starts on another canvas, perhaps on a completely different subject. But in our case, to start a new project, is to become part of a socio-economic process we cannot halt. There are no second guesses--which is why Corb's work is so amazing. Each project in those 8 volumes of the Oeuvre Complet is like a consecutive step in a great broken-field run--you know, those amazing feats in football or hockey where someone takes the ball down the entire length of the field to score. You realise perfectly well that the whole feat has been ad libbed-- and yet when you see the replay in slow motion, it looks as though at every moment the player knew exactly where he was going to place his foot next.
It is indeed an extraordinary achievement. How on earth did Corb manage this? Probably, I suspect, because he made sure that the next step was not dictated by the size of the project involved, but by its relevance to his overall goal. Thus La Tourette is just a small hostel for some monks 50 kilometres outside Lyons - which itself is a provincial city. Yet the world beat a path to its door. So also, Ronchamps-which is a minuscule chapel in a quite inaccessible location. That's a great lesson indeed for young architects: Architecture has nothing to do with size of the project. Today, when the biggest names in the profession are battling for the largest commissions, it's quite weird to think back to a time when we could actually distinguish quality from quantity--a fundamental principle that even Ayn Rand got so terribly wrong in the final denouement of The Fountainhead.
The third lesson we learnt from Corbusier concerned one's attitude to the client. Now Corb must have been quite a different kind of person at the beginning of his career--as witnessed in all the shameless flattery he showered on potential clients, ("O, ye Captains of Industry" etc.), all really just cries for new commissions. But by the time he came to India, the captains of industry had all failed to turn up--and so he seems to have changed his attitude to the one so perceptively described by Charles Jencks in his book: Corbusier and the Tragic View of Architecture. This new attitude, perhaps precipitated by his isolation during World War II, was quite a turnaround. In essence he said: 'No one is ever going to understand me; but I shall press on, regardless.' Now taken on board at the wrong moment, such advice might well ruin a brilliant career (as I suspect it might have in the case of Utzon and his quarrel over the Sydney Opera House, a situation in which, ironically enough, the architect seems to have held almost all the cards). But it engenders exactly the kind of courage needed by young architects, just starting out practice. It stiffens one's spine. It blocks out any danger of selling out to the big developers. It makes one believe in architecture.
There were of course many other aspects of the impact Chandigarh had on us during that extraordinary decade, from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. Suddenly, India was centrestage. Architects from all over the world came to visit Corb's buildings-- and were profoundly influenced by the impact. So, when you returned back to your own office, you wanted to change all your projects to exposed concrete--great sculpted shapes, cast in situ, using hand-made form work. Everyone seemed to be so galvanised: Paul Rudolph in America, Tange in Japan, the New Brutalists in Britain. They all wanted to use a construction technology which was extremely expensive in the United States and Europe--and yet for us here in India was a perfectly legitimate and economical way to build. This was adrenaline indeed! Because, just by working here in our own country, we got the extraordinary opportunity to be at the cutting-edge of where it was all happening.
This launched us on a trajectory that is fundamentally different from the kind of Disneyland mode that architects seem to slip into when they are commissioned to build in Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. In India, we feel that a serious piece of architecture can express the people and culture which gave it birth. In fact, it isn't serious unless it does this. The fundamental truth is that all great works of Architecture, from the Oak Park Houses of Frank Lloyd Wright to Fatehpur-Sikri to the temples of Japan, are all regional. They speak to us powerfully and eloquently of their time and place, Wright's houses could not have been built in London, nor in Delhi. Like Chartres and Fatehpur-Sikri, they have become universal, precisely because they are so rooted in the soil on which they stand.
And the corollary of this: Architecture is not a queue in which we all have to line up, with perhaps the Americans ahead, or the Chinese behind. No, each of us has the opportunity to be on the cutting edge of where we live. No one else can do that. It's up to us to seize that opportunity--and not regard ourselves just as second-hand re-runs of events that have already been staged elsewhere.
Chandigarh certainly taught us that much--and the excitement lasted well into the 60s. In fact, it probably was one of the main reasons Louis Kahn was so delighted to accept commissions in Ahmedabad and Dhaka. However, by the 1970s, when Kahn came along, quite a lot had changed. For instance, for the design of New Delhi in the 1920s, Edwin Lutyens' contract specified that he must spend six months of every year in India, until his work was completed. Thus for extended periods of time, Lutyens perforce had in-depth exposure to the building materials, the climate, the culture, and the people of this country. Corbusier had to come to India twice a year, for visits that lasted a month at a time. In addition, his colleagues, Jeanneret, Fry and Drew worked here on full-time government contracts for a period of several years. This created a special culture here in Chandigarh, one in which the Indian architects and engineers could learn a great deal from their foreign consultants--and the other way round as well! The expatriates could profit from the kind of feedback that only local experience and insight can provide.
I would like to draw attention to two aspects of Corbusier and Chandigarh. The first is the power of the basic paradigm that underlies the architecture we create. For Corbusier, this paradigm was the Parthenon on the Acropolis in Athens, a symbol of the pristine man-made object in dialogue with nature--but not imitating it. It was a line he traced back to the Greeks, and from them, right across the centuries via Michaelangelo and Palladio, down to his own generation. Thus all his oeuvre, as many scholars have often pointed out, is the work of un homme meditaranee--a Mediterranean Man.
Now this is a paradigm quite different from those which exist in Hinduism or Buddhism. Are the caves in Ajanta and Ellora separate from Nature--or part of it? For a cave is a wonderfully ambiguous enterprise. Are we interfering with nature? Or are we leaving it alone? Now just as the Parthenon led inexorably to the contemporary world of Corb, where would the paradigm that underlies Ajanta lead us? For, we will not find an Indian architecture (or a Japanese one for that matter) by coming down the path from the Greeks to Corbusier and then turning left to find India (or right to find Japan). No we have to come down a different road altogether, one which commences from quite another starting point. This is the challenge that the architects of the non-western world must face.
The other issue I want to draw attention to is the urgency of the problems that are besetting Chandigarh--ranging from the proliferation of the squatter colonies, to the lack of public transport, to the lunacy of being run by three different governments simultaneously. The plan of Chandigarh was made half a century ago. It is high time it was reviewed. I know there are people who think it is sacrilegious to even think of undertaking such a task, but it must be done. The squatter colonies started with the arrival of the first construction workers--and the Master Plan never concerned itself with the kind of dehumanised lives they would have to lead. In the meantime, all of us (including Corbusier) kept stressing the importance of planning for "human needs and aspirations". I guess we weren't thinking about them at all. We were thinking about ourselves.
And we are still thinking about ourselves when we pre-empt the city's water supply for our own gardens and lawns. Of course we pretend that our defence is based on a pious reverence for the ideas of Great Man. But it's not - it's based on the (near-pathological) awe we have for the lifestyle that prevailed in the cantonment areas which the British created--and which they kept exclusively for themselves. We weren't allowed to live there--and perhaps that is why, ever since Independence in 1947, all our new housing lay-outs (from Sundernagar to Maharani Bagh in Delhi) are really just our own versions of the British cantonment. You know, individual houses standing on green lawns. Nobody on the roads. The only person in sight, a servant walking a dog, or returning from the bazaar. For most of us, these are the ultimate images of urban living.
It all reminds one of that brilliant fable of George Orwell, Animal Farm. As you will recall, the animals in the story are all terrified of the Farmer, who lives in a big house, from which he controls them. So they decide, with great trepidation, to drive him out and burn the house down. Surprisingly, in the first chapter itself, the Farmer turns tail and runs away. The animals are overjoyed--in fact so deliriously happy that they become too tired to burn down his house that night but decide to postpone it till the next morning. The following day when they get up, other events take place and they put off the burning again--until a few days later, some of the animals (I believe it is the pigs) seize occupation of the Farmer's house and start controlling all the others. The animals are confused and horrified. But every time a horse or donkey neighs in protest, the clever pigs flash a picture of the Farmer's House in front of their eyes, and the animal is reduced to trembling submission. The new regime has been validated by the imagery of the old.
You know, regardless of what we think of ourselves, I have no doubt what judgement history will make about us. When he was commissioned to design New Delhi, Edwin Lutyens was specifically instructed to create an architecture which would proclaim to the native population the power and glory of the British Empire. In fact, he refused to acknowledge the possible relevance of a masterpiece like Fatehpur-Sikri (which he described as "the work of monkeys"). So after our struggle for Independence was over and the British had left, what did we do? We moved into Lutyen's buildings, i.e. right into the Farmer's House, using its imagery to reinforce our right to rule. And worse than that: every time a new building is to be constructed in New Delhi, edicts are issued that it should comply with the "Lutyens-Baker style of architecture"--whatever that means. In other words, even when we get the chance to build anew, we want to extend the Farmer's House.
Regardless of what one might like about Chandigarh, or what one might abhor, one thing is clear: it is not Orwell’s Farmer's House. On the contrary, Corbusier's work opened a door into another landscape. He showed us that we were free to invent our own future. Not by slavishly following his language--in fact, that would be the antitheses of what he stood for. But, through his example, finding the courage to discover our own voices.
That, in a nutshell, is what this city is about. And for all architects, it raises the fundamental: Are the attitudes of Modernism germane to a country like India? Or are they just a fetish of the elite, of no irrelevance whatsoever to the mass of our fellow-citizens? To answer this question is to examine the luggage we inherit--as individuals, and as nations--and carry throughout our lives. And to realise that we may well have a choice as to which pieces we take with us into the next century, and which we might leave behind. This is the essence of our dilemma--an analogue of the fundamental question that has racked our nation for the past 56 years.
— Photos by Kuldip