Tuesday, October 7, 2003, Chandigarh, India


It makes us think, Again
Vikramaditya Prakash

The elaborately painted doorway to the Assembly hall
The elaborately painted doorway to the Assembly hall.

Swiss currency note bearing Le Corbusier’s photograph
Swiss currency note bearing Le Corbusier’s photograph

THE relevance of Le Corbusier today, for Chandigarh as for the rest of the world, lies less in his specific architectural and urban designs, as it does in some of his principles-and more so, in his example as an independent thinker of modernity.

Le Corbusier was a profound an original thinker-a man of first principles. When he said that a house was "a machine for living", he did not mean that houses were not to be made as comfortable places for human being and were instead to be treated as lifeless machines. Rather he meant that when one designs a house one must think of it, first and foremost, as an object that can effectively mediate between human beings and the environment that they live in. A house had to create comfort conditions for humans while being respectful of the earth. Now, Le Corbusier's own solutions to these principles were not always the very best. The brise-soleil that is designed to passively cool and heat building, for instance, does not work in Chandigarh. However, the basic principle, that buildings must be designed to effectively cool and heat their environment is still valid, and has once again returned to the forefront of architectural debates around the world with the rapid rise of the environmental movement. So, today, the challenge is to solve the problem better, to re-do the brise-soliel, as it were, and no self-respecting architect around the world is not engaged with the problem of designing environmental machines for living.

This was Le Corbusier's approach to modern architecture. Unfortunately, for the longest time, in particular since the early '70s when modern architecture went out of fashion, Chandigarh has been beset by, in my opinion, a spurious debate between its "modern" architecture and its relevance for "India". This is spurious because - why is it that the things that are modern, are not Indian? Why is India always the traditional, the old, the hidebound, the ancient? Do we not want to be modern?? Are we not modern???

What is it to be modern? Perhaps the relevant question in the present context is: What was it to be modern-when Le Corbusier, Nehru, and the rest-Verma, Thaper, Jeanneret, Prakash, Sharma, etc were creating Chandigarh?? For me the most succinct portrayal that being modern at Chandigarh was not just a question of building modern "style" buildings comes from Nehru's articulation of Chandigarh. Speaking to a group of architects at the Indian Institute of Engineers in 1959, Nehru said: "Now I have welcomed very greatly, one experiment`85Chandigarh. Many people argue about it, some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial whether you like it or not. It is the biggest thing in Indian of this kind. That is why I welcome it. It is the biggest thing because it hits you on the head and makes you think. You may squirm at the impact but it makes you think and imbibe new ideas, and the one thing that India requires in so many fields is to be hit on the head so that you may think`85"

"Makes you think." When I first read this quote, I balked at that phrase, in particular at the paternalism that seemed to be inherent in the statement. As if India, did not think. But then I found another, quite amazing quote, from a letter written by Le Corbusier to Nehru, that made me think again. In this letter, written in 1955, Le Corbusier was asking Nehru to sanction money for the construction of the Open Hand. The interesting thing is that Le Corbusier here proposed the Open Hand, not just as a symbol of Chandigarh, but as a monument that represented a thinking man's choice and his refusal to accept the false choices of the world he lived in. The world of the 1950s was transfixed by the dilemma of the Cold War and the prospect of imminent nuclear World War III. Le Corbusier proposed the Open Hand as symbol of non-alignment with the two power blocs. "They laid a frightful pressure on me," Le Corbusier wrote to Nehru.

"It took shape" - refusing to commit himself, maintaining independence in the face of an abominable choice--USA vs. USSR--Le Corbusier projected the Open Hand as a symbol of this choice. He proposed it, in other words, as the symbol of non-alignment, corroborating one of Nehru's biggest obsessions at the time, i.e. the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Le Corbusier's letter in fact was written months after the landmark Bandung Conference of April 1955, when the NAM was proposed by Nehru..

In other words, my main point here is that for Le Corbusier and for Nehru, to be modern was not to slavishly imitate others or to accept false choices and solutions that other might propose-but to think for themselves. To be modern was not a style, or a fad, or the way of the western world, or the antithesis of things Indian. It was a way of thinking, a way of life, that was ultimately driven by ideals and the strong desire to take charge of one's own destiny. Everyone, for modernists of the Le Corbusier and Nehru kilt, needed to be hit on the head and to think for themselves.

We live today in the 21st century in a world that yet once again-or perhaps still-offers us false choices. Us vs. Them. "You are either with us or against us". And they still offer war as their only solution: fanatics on suicide missions in passenger planes or ideologues with itchy fingers on laser guided bombs. Not much has changed. And the urgent questions still remains: is there not a third way? Why must we be forced to choose between one man's warped conception of tradition and another's one-sided vision for the future? We need to think. We have, yet once again been hit on the head, and we need to assemble the thinkers.

This, then, is the relevance of Le Corbusier today, in the context of Chandigarh. In my opinion, as architects, planners and thinkers, many of us have tended to become complacent, happy with the sureties of making good money, comfortable in our modernist bungalows, content with hurling armchair daggers at mis-guided souls with pedimented facades and other "bania-baroque" (in Gautam Bhatia's memorable phrase) hybridisations. Don't get me wrong: I abhor the "bania-baroque", because usually it is a consequence of a slavish imitation of the "rich man's" architecture. Many chastise modern architecture for being similarly motivated. Perhaps for some it was. To that extent modern architecture, and Le Corbusier, is irrelevant for Chandigarh today. But to the extent that we still consider ourselves to be enlightened citizens of the world, and of a free-thinking, independent, secular, democratic India, to such extent Le Corbusier, Nehru and the dream that was Chandigarh remains as important as ever.

Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier

A  sketch
A sketch

THE other day, a senior professor in the department stopped me in the hallway and ceremoniously presented me with a brand new 10 franc bill issued by the Swiss government. It had Le Corbusier's portrait on it, etched into history, now a symbol of the Swiss State. Although French by citizenship and residence, Le Corbusier was born and brought up in Switzerland.

Looking carefully, I found that the background of the bill was made from overlaid layers of a distinct Le Corbusier elevation. It was the Secretariat-Chandigarh's Secretariat! I was shocked, simultaneously pleasured and outraged... Trademarks can be copyrighted, but the public inhabitation of architecture opens it up for appropriation by all those who want to make a claim. It is a symbolic text, simultaneously woven into as many life-worlds as would have it. Things mesh, inevitably. In the end, therefore, I felt vindicated by the intentions of the Swiss government: if they could claim the Chandigarh Capitol as their own, surely I could claim Le Corbusier for India`85

— Excerpted from Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The struggle for modernity in postcolonial India (Mapin)