Tuesday, October 7, 2003, Chandigarh, India


Belief, Freedom define cityís design

Le Corbusier believed that once you get involved in a project you must allow your sensibility to take over. To him, discovery was possible every time and at every instant, and he was actually looking for opportunities that gave him a chance to change. He perhaps burnt whatever he liked so that he could start afresh. This is what I think this man stood for: belief and freedom, says B.V.Doshi, eminent Ahmedabad-based architect.

I joined Corbusierís studio at the peak of his career in 1951. In retrospect, I can say that it was a phase of rethinking for Le Corbusier, especially after World War II and the troubles he had gone through. I believe, the commission to design Chandigarh revitalised him. Reflections must have changed him in many ways. Planning for Chandigarh, a new visionary capital for the state of Punjab was obviously the most unexpected but welcome opportunity to express his new thinking. Additionally, there was the challenge of working in an alien environment. Working in India with her large population, full of paradoxes but with a great cultural history, and new aspirations following Independence, must have been for him a very unusual proposal as compared to his earlier solutions for Algiers, etc.

Le Corbusier with Pt Jawaharlal Nehru
Le Corbusier with Pt Jawaharlal Nehru

At such a juncture, I was indeed lucky to have found an opportunity to work in his studio. My task then was to interpret his sketches for the high court and partly the Governorís Palace. You can well imagine my plight as a fourth year architecture student from Mumbai, working for the great master without much background of contemporary architecture, and not knowing French to add to it all. Luckily, Le Corbusier took on the role of a mentor and taught me the basics of architecture through sketches and drawings which were our only means of communication. Fortunately for me, in his life this phase of building in India was new and the mode of communication, for him, while in India was only through eye movement, gestures and sketches. We managed with non-verbal communication until I picked up French in due course.

For Le Corbusier, I presume, the task was more difficult. All his reconsiderations and new thought since Algiers had to be expressed through architecture and planning. In addition, there was the challenge to express the constraints of Indian economy, technology, climate and the aspirations of a large population befitting a new century. There was this great ancient past and an unknown future ahead which had to be captured and manifested in this new city.

His logical and ever fresh mind offered India answers similar to those of any of the great Indian architects of ancient and medieval times who designed the great temples and marvels of Mughal architecture such as Fatehpur Sikri and the Taj Mahal. The hot, scorching summer sun, the cool winter months and the torrential rainy season appealed to him as the major concerns for his Indian designs. He discovered the need for living under the shade and to use natural ventilation. Moving amongst the people, the population for whom he had to design, he felt the intense relationship between people, and the flora and fauna at a spiritual and material level in everyday life. These were the circumstances which marked my introduction to Le Corbusierís approach to architecture in India.

The innovatively designed circular ramp of the Student Centre, Panjab University
The innovatively designed circular ramp of the Student Centre, Panjab University.
ó Photo by Kuldip Dhiman

Over the next few years, I gradually experienced his interpretations and translations of these observations into design. During the process of design his creative genius was manifested in many different ways. He was logical, rational in his thinking, but not closed. He certainly could look at totally opposite views to discover what would benefit his vision. For him discovery had to happen at all scales, simultaneously and without constraints. References from earlier works were only references and the thrust was on an approach suitable to India where the vision had to match not only the aspirations of a free India but also the availability of skills, techniques, resources while relating harmoniously to the eternal cosmic cycles, cosmic elements and the resulting lifestyle that he had witnessed during his journeys.

To approach this complex task and deal with almost paradoxical parameters, he devised logical tools for himself and his staff. The climatic grid he developed suggested the appropriate orientation, nature of openings and types of shading and insulating devices. Additionally, he consulted French scientists to find suitable applications of advanced technologies and their implications on costs and maintenance within the Indian context.

Being methodical and precise, he would expect us to transform a stamp-sized conceptual sketch he had made in India into a design. While developing it, he would ask us to follow-up all other relevant information, including the climatic grid which was prepared in the studio to study air movement, sun path, humidity, rainfall, etc. to decide the orientation, materials, openings, methods of construction, among other things. The brief would be vague initially but would be developed and detailed constantly. Even today, I would like to ask the same questions as many of you would. Why did Le Corbusier locate the Capitol Complex this far? Why not in the centre? Why did he constantly draw the Himalayas which are at a great distance? What did he conceive as a Capitol? Why did he respond differently here, given his constant praise and great admiration for Piazza San Marco and its human scaled space, located right in the centre of the populace.

One of the answers, that comes to my mind as an Indian, are the locations of Indiaís sacred places. To him, the presence of the eternal Himalayas was, perhaps, sacred. I remember Le Corbusierís insistence that natureís laws are above everything. Like the waters flowing down from the hill which hit the plateau in the plains, a level where it meets the horizontal, and where it meets the ocean at a level lower than that of the river. Perhaps the large plain at the Shivalik foothills was such a sacred site, away from political intrigue and closer to a wiser counsel. Even the High Court building is located opposite to and at a distance from the Assembly. The Assembly belongs to the people and their representatives. It is here that peopleís views are important. I believe such architectural decisions are eternally valid, like in all our ancient centres, to balance this crucial relationship. Incidentally, in the contemporary global context where communications have no boundaries, this could be his understanding that distance should not matter.

An important thing that I have understood from him is to leave certain issues to chanceóto work with an open eye and an open mind. This to me is not a western trait or philosophy. It is typically eastern, Indian. He never hesitated to flout his own rules if the change helped his vision and goals. He would say that exceptions are naturally required to justify the essential.

He drew a diagram to explain to me his philosophy of life. The star is the dream. When we have a dream, we are often negligent but keen that somehow we shall fulfil the dream. However, we forget that while we are dreaming and in the clouds, there is a hidden dagger of uncertainties behind a cloud, which may kill the dream and we may get lost. Hence to deal with uncertainty, we must always keep margins, i.e. open-ended attitudes in life. To give an example, I shall discuss the press section inside the Assembly building. This section and the part with the ducts and the lift shafts was never there in the original plan. They were subsequently added but we see in the final result a great enrichment to the architectural and spatial experience. Similarly, in the case of the Mill Owners Building and the Shodhan House, Le Corbusier would always look for such unexpected opportunity. He would not absolutely resolve all the issues at the same time because he would like some to come as a chance and say that, "Let chance play its own game and add to the virtue of the final design."

Finally, I want to conclude with one of the most remarkable experiences I had while working on the Chandigarh Project in Paris. One day, we received an urgent letter along with a set of drawings of the facade of the Secretariat building which houses the offices of ministers. What we admire today in the facade of this block is the most astonishing, rhythmic variation in the placement of the vertical supports as well as the location of horizontal sun breakers and the parapets. When you observe the original facade, you will notice that the intention of these variations is to express the inside. However, according to P.L. Verma, the Chief Engineer, these variations were not possible due to the lack of structural supports. He had sent us these drawings to seek a solution. After Semperís (the Columbian architect) and Xenakis (the Greek architect-musician) worked on that for more than a week, there was still no solution, but to revert back to the rhythms of balconies of the other blocks. In desperation, Le Corbusier asked Semper to overlap both the drawings together at a larger scale and instantly introduced a new set of columns on the external surface to align with the internal one and provide additional support. Thereafter, he superimposed the earlier theme of spatial divisions and made a new drawings. His incorporation and slight modifications created a totally new facade. To this he added a few embellishing features and created this magnificent facade that we admire today. To me this has been the most virtuous, acrobatic act that I have ever witnessed. Such was his open-mindedness, freedom and an attitude to travel the roads not yet travelled.

He mentions in his book, "When I start to paint, it is blue, but by the time it is finished it becomes red, I donít know how." Which means, that once you get involved in a project you must allow your sensibility to take over. Therefore, to him, discovery was possible every time and at every instant, and he was actually looking for opportunities that gave him a chance to change. In short, he perhaps burnt whatever he liked so that he could start afresh. This is what I think this man stood for: belief and freedom.