The expose of the missing Le Corbusier tapestries from the
High Court reveals apathy towards heritage. Kiran Joshi
weaves the story behind the artefacts.
The recent coverage in The Tribune on the plight of Le Corbusier’s tapestries has shown that the situation of the 12 tapestries in Chandigarh is highly critical. The responsibility for their plight, however, cannot be attributed to any one event or individual but to a complex interplay of multiple factors over the past several years.
The foremost among these is a general lack of awareness and a resultant lack of appreciation, of the cultural value of modern heritage among various stakeholders – users and custodians alike. In addition are the factors of complete absence of an appropriate mechanism for legal protection and scientific conservation of these artifacts. Had all these enabling mechanisms been in place, it is unlikely that the tapestry in the custody of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha would have been lost to oblivion, or, that the ones in the Punjab and Haryana High Court mercilessly mutilated for inserting unsightly air-conditioning ducts.
The earliest tapestries to
be designed for Chandigarh comprised a set of nine large pieces for the
courtrooms of the new high court building. The one for the court of the
Chief Justice (now Court 1) covered an area of 1300 sq. ft and the other
eight (for Courts 2 – 9) measured about 600 sq. ft each. Though the
tapestries were ostensibly created for acoustical purposes "a
beautiful opportunity to place in accord the architect of the reinforced
concrete (resonant) and the craftsman of wool (noise-absorbent)"
— they would also serve "by the sweep of their polychromy and the
intellectual and poetical presence of their symbols" as a
The experiment with the tapestries was repeated in 1960 in the building for the Legislative Assembly using a similar design format but an extended repertory of symbols. A total of three pieces were installed here — two measuring approximately 1700 sq ft in the Council Chamber (now the Haryana Vidhan Sabha) and one of 1500 sq ft behind the ramp in the Deputies’ entrance in the basement (now the entrance hall of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha).
A little known aspect of these early nine designs is the socially responsive method of execution originally conceived by Le Corbusier. Each of the tapestries was a structured composition of several rectangular units ("elements") with a standard width of 4’-7", corresponding to that of the loom. Execution of each tapestry would be awarded to a different village in the region and that of each constituent "element" to a separate family within the village, with a "manager" coordinating the entire production. Economic benefit from the enterprise would, thus, accrue not to any single commercial establishment but several households.
"This division of labour will allow an easy realisation of this considerable order of 6200 sq ft of tapestry in the stipulated time, that is to say in five months. It will be a demonstration of normalisation and of distribution of labour by the application of the Modulor", Le Corbusier explained in a letter written to Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954. "This art can actually become a growing concern in the architectural evolution of India giving an impulse to the handicraft in the villages [`85] Certain chapters of the Indian Five Year Plan might take into consideration this question, from the point of view of its connection with economics, handicraft and art".
Perhaps the concept was too utopian and radical to bear fruit. In reality, the tapestries were woven as single pieces by The East India Carpet Company, Private Limited of Amritsar (later to become Oriental Carpets of New Delhi), which set up a special organisation to ensure the completion of the immense task in record time for the inauguration of the building in 1955.
Despite the variation in their size, all nine tapestries were based on the same generic design — compositions of a geometrical orthogonal order, "stressing the balance and preciseness appropriate to law matters", with rectangles of flat colours animated by stylised motifs devised by Le Corbusier to symbolise Indian traditions, the culture of Punjab and the philosophy underlying his design for Chandigarh. A total of 53 detailed drawings and coloured sketches were prepared in his Paris atelier for the accurate transmission of the concept. These graphic tools were accompanied by metaphorical descriptions of the themes, the motifs and colours used for each of the tapestries.
In general, the motifs designed by Le Corbusier symbolised intangible values of natural elements, manmade objects and abstract geometric shapes. The presence of "opposing forces" in life and nature is reiterated through the interplay of several ordinary geometric shapes. In a similar strain, the background colours also symbolised human strengths and failings. The tapestry in the court of the Chief Justice, for example, was predominantly red, symbolising action; while its yellow and blue patches indicated light and space. In other cases, white expressed serenity and clarity, green represented meadows and forests, and so on.
Happily, however, the Chandigarh Administration has been fully seized of the value and the vulnerability of these pieces for quite some time now. Positive action has already been initiated by the administration for a scientific restoration and reinstallation of the affected tapestries of the high court as well as the Haryana Vidhan Sabha. Also, the piece lost from the Punjab Vidhan Sabha is being replaced by an authentic reproduction, which is being executed under careful control of officials of the Department of Urban Planning, Engineering Department and the author. Le Corbusier’s tapestries are but one example of the plight of several valuable elements of the modern heritage of Chandigarh.
There is apathy for Corbusier’s incomplete projects and indifference towards existing ones, writes
legacy of the Nehruvian era, Chandigarh, perhaps the best-known modern
city, reflects the spirit of resurgent India. Corbusier believed that
citizens are true guardians of the city. For the guidance of the people
as well as future administrators (law-makers), he enunciated the Statute
of Land which is prominently displayed in the City Museum, Sector 10.
Due to a lack of
enforcement of the building laws, people show an utter disregard for
building codes. Carefully designed commercial buildings are being
defaced with unlawful advertisements and hoardings in ever-increasing
numbers. This needs to be rectified to save Chandigarh’s image.
Retaining villages in the second phase of development was a grave mistake as the building codes could not be applied to the existing villages. If at all, they should have been developed into model villages. Colonies and super-structures are being built in violation of the Periphery Control Act, thereby depleting the green-belt and burdening Chandigarh. The ever-increasing inflow of migrants unlawfully occuping public land in and around the city is a problem. One-third of the population living in unhygienic conditions in slums needs attention. It is a challenge as well as an opportunity to settle those who provide essential services to the city. We are not conscious of our sacred heritage and historic works of Corbusier. These works of great architectural significance have to be protected and preserved for posterity.
Not only the Capitol Complex, containing the master architect’s works, remain incomplete but even the buildings designed by him have been tampered with thoughtlessly. The crowning monument at the apex of the city was to be the Museum of Knowledge in place of the Raj Bhavan, both designed by Corbusier. The Museum of Knowledge, as envisaged by Corbusier, was intended to be a scientific tool using audio-visual techniques and cybernetics to aid in arriving at effective decisions within resources. Two such museums of nature (on different subjects) exist in Paris and Corbusier must have consulted a number of specialists before making the proposal which he pursued vigorously during his life-time. This project has remained unrealised despite the fact that a top-level committee of technical experts in the field appointed by the Government of India recommended the project in the mid-seventies.
Martyrs’ Memorial in the Capitol Complex remains incomplete for want of missing sculptures. Full-scale models of the sculptures were prepared and are lying with the P.W.D. Of the other two projects conceived by Corbusier, the 11-storey office building (originally meant for Post and Telegraph office) in Sector 17 City Centre and the Sports Complex on the eastern side of the Sukhna Lake remain unrealised.
Chandigarh was not built by imported building materials or sophisticated machinery. The city is almost hand-made and is very beautiful. It contains the maximum number of modern-classical buildings.
Even the furniture and wall-hangings (tapestries) for the Punjab and Haryana High Court, Legislative Assembly Building and the Civil Secretariat designed by Corbusier were neglected and allowed to deteriorate. These should have been restored and tapestries of great aesthetic value displayed . It is a matter for consideration if the tattered tapestries or broken furniture in large quantities can be displayed as valuable heritage. UNESCO has declared, after following stringent criteria, some cities as heritage property. There were suggestions to get Chandigarh the same status.
Tourists from the world over will visit Corbusier’s Capitol Complex and his place of work in Chandigarh the same was as they flock to the Acropolis at Athens (Greece).
Art in daily life
To hire Le Corbusier, a world-renowned architect and urbanist, to plan Chandigarh and design the Capitol Complex in the shadow of the Shivalik Hills was by itself an act of courage. Often, Jawaharlal Nehru had to use his charisma to pacify legal luminaries to bear with the creations of a genius because they were unconventional. Corbusier’s designs established the roots of modern architecture in India and put Chandigarh on the international map. For a common man, the court is a grim place with overbearing period furniture, dark panelled walls and profiles of judges and advocates silhouetted in a stiff atmosphere. Here was Corbusier creating an ambience of art within the requirements of magnanimity and awe. The whole wall tapestries designed by him for each chamber of the High Court serve an accoustic function but that could not have been the only reason. That could have been done by the use of ordinary accoustic tiles or other such material. To an artist, a problem is also an opportunity for self expression. This is what Corbusier did when he decided each chamber were to have a whole wall tapestry with a different design. To have them woven and embellished by our own tapestry makers of Amritsar and to see them mounted on walls under his own supervision was an extraordinary gift to the City Beautiful. To appreciate a work of art requires tuning of one’s own sensibilities to the vibrations generated by its creator. It is understandable that some people do not appreciate the artistic value of the tapestries of the High Court but if they allow themselves to be influenced, they are bound to be moved. Such is the promise of a work of art.
— The writer is a former Principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture