There are no shortcuts
when coming to terms with the architecture of Le Corbusier. His individual
works are like dense poetic texts combining many levels of meaning over a
hermetic core. Just when the historian imagines that an “explanation” has been
found, the buildings slip away from the grasp of rationalisation, re-asserting
their right to live in the realm of space, form, material and experience. Le
Corbusier’s architecture seems to possess an infinite capacity to stir both
enthusiasm and animosity.
His vast creative universe is apparently capable of inspiring later architects of contrasting creeds and forms, perhaps because Le Corbusier himself delighted in polarities. He continues to function as both a mirror and a lens, helping individuals to define their own artistic identity and to focus upon generic problems. Rather as Picasso did for painting and sculpture, Le Corbusier redefined some of the ground rules of the architectural discipline.
Le Corbusier constantly absorbed new experiences and perceptions, then stocked these in his memory where they underwent a “sea-change” (to borrow a phrase from Shakespeare’s Tempest), before being translated into the stuff of his own dreams, myths and inventions. He stole things from the world because they corresponded to some inner patterns of thought and imagination. In this process, abstraction played a role in filtering experience and in translating particular things into generalised icons and emblems. Painting served him as a laboratory. Le Corbusier was a sort of magician who would take things from their original context and transform them into his own terms. Thus an ocean liner could turn into a housing scheme, a crab’s shell into a chapel roof, a freeway into an “S” shaped ramp.
He stole things from the world because they corresponded to some inner patterns of thought and imagination. In this process, abstraction played a role in filtering experience and in translating particular things into generalised icons and emblems.
creative intelligence discerned unexpected analogies or “correspondences”
between diverse phenomena, so that an open hand might resemble both a tree and
a flying dove, or the curves of a woman might coalesce into the sinuous outline
of a landscape, then to emerge as an abstract calligraphy with no particular
This preamble on architectural invention may be useful in coming to terms with the genesis of the Capitol in Chandigarh which occupied Le Corbusier for the last 15 years of his life between 1951 and 1965. For Le Corbusier this was the chance at last to plan an entire city according to principles which had been maturing over a lifetime, although in fact, once he had set the ground rules in place he left most of the realisation of the city to others such as Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew and the Indian architects who flocked to join the experiment. Instead he concentrated almost exclusively upon the monumental ensemble of the Capitol to the north eastern extremity of the city which was deliberately defined as a separate zone by means of earthworks and mounds.
The Capitol in Chandigarh combines buildings and open spaces in an artificial landscape. It is an incomplete project. The Parliament, High Court and Secretariat were constructed but not the Governor’s Palace at the top of the ensemble. The landscaping is also not finished. Le Corbusier envisaged a sculpted terrain incorporating monumental buildings, platforms, bodies of water, terraces, trees, parks, roads, valleys and gardens alluding to several past styles. For example, next to the Governor’s Palace he suggested a gridded garden based upon Mogul examples; elsewhere he thought of using looping roads as in Central Park, New York. This symphonic ensemble of the natural and the artificial combines some recognisable images with signs and symbols of a more emblematic character. The buildings themselves are not separable from this dense “text”, as they reiterate guiding themes but in a more abstract form.
The entrance to the Chandigarh Assembly. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
He hoped to create an entirely new sort of urban space with a certain mythic presence heightening the experience of the surroundings, for example the foothills of the Himalayas in the distance, but also suggesting the visible and invisible forces of “Nature” as a spiritualised concept and haunting presence. One may think of the Capitol in Chandigarh as a “cosmic and political landscape”.
To understand Le Corbusier’s interpretation of Indian realities, both recent and more distant, it is necessary to consider the very raison d’être of the new city. Chandigarh was created out of the hopes, chaos and tragedy surrounding the Independence of India in 1947, and the subsequent Partition in 1948 which led to the creation of Pakistan. Punjab was cut in two and the old capital of Lahore was left on the Pakistani side. Needed then was a city to house innumerable refugees but also to supply an administrative head to Indian Punjab and to anchor and stabilise a crucial part of northern Indian territory.
This emergency situation was translated into a major opportunity when Nehru understood that the new city could in turn become a show-piece of the newly independent nation. It could reflect his cherished ideals of balanced technological modernisation (with the socialist state playing a major role in guiding the economy); democratic representational government (with parliament, senate, justice, governor independent but in equilibrium); and secularism (with a framework of citizenship and social rights independent of questions of religion or caste). Although it was to be a mere local state capital, Chandigarh could take on national even international significance.
When Chandigarh was in construction Nehru referred to it as a “temple of the new India…unfettered by tradition”. The entire mood of those times was to construct a better future and to forget years of colonial occupation which had often forced Indians to live in extremely cramped and unhygienic conditions in the old cities. The themes of open space, greenery and light which were so dear to Le Corbusier, touched many chords with members of an elite whose values were to some degree “western”.
“She [India] is waking up….intact at a time when all is possible”, wrote Le Corbusier to Nehru: “But India is hardly a brand new country: it has lived through the highest and most ancient civilizations. It has an intelligence, moral philosophy and conscience of its own.” India also happened to possess one of the greatest architectural heritages in world history, and of this too Le Corbusier was fully aware. This was another side of his task: to acknowledge India’s spiritual and artistic traditions but without lapsing into superficial imitation or orientalism.
It was a question of probing Indian culture to its roots, its deeper patterns of myth and meaning, then transforming these substructures into modern symbolic forms. The problem was not so foreign to an architect who had always linked authentic modernity to the radical reappraisal of the past. When Le Corbusier first came to India in 1951 he was quick to grasp these larger political agendas. He was also inspired by, even overwhelmed by, the selected site, a drainage plain containing several villages but with extraordinary views in the direction of the foothills of the Himalayas. He realized that brick and reinforced concrete would be his most likely materials, especially given the abundance of clay and the indigenous expertise in concrete construction on the part of Indian engineers.
He responded to the climate with its extreme heat and rains as a stimulus in finding an appropriate vocabulary. In his Indian sketchbooks he referred to deep loggias, verandas, shading devices, cross ventilation, plants and water. The smaller commissions in Ahmedabad (Sarabhai House, Millowner’s Association Building, Shodhan House etc.) were like laboratories. He soon established the basic “key” or “genotype” for his Indian works: the “parasol” an overhanging, protective roof held up on slender supports, providing shelter from the sun and the rain, but also providing cross ventilation underneath through sun shading blades or brise-soleil (sunbreakers). In effect the parasol was a transformation of the topmost slab of the Dom-Ino skeleton although there was the intervening discovery of the shading roof of the Maison Baizeau in Tunis of 1928. Variations on the “parasol theme” can be found in all of the main buildings on the Capitol in Chandigarh.
The Capitol is the symbolic head of Chandigarh, a city which suggests an abstraction of the body with the spine of the main axial road and the ‘arms’ of the main transversal one. The Capitol itself is deliberately removed from the town and constitutes a separate domain. In defining this area Le Corbusier had to balance many considerations. He needed to define limits yet make the most of the epic views. He reverted to a fundamental device for establishing a collective space, the platform, although he also worked downwards to define trenches for traffic and upwards to establish the levels and terraces of the actual buildings. In plan he worked with axes and cross axes but these were rarely directly aimed at buildings in an obvious way, they were usually slipped and displaced to create a dynamic tension. The Capitol is a subtle overlay of geometries.
— By William J.R. Curtis
Iam happy to recount my trepidations while I
was learning under Le Corbusier, my mentor and guru, with whom I spent four
years at his studio in Paris and then almost four years at site, supervising
and giving needed information to complete the buildings in Ahmedabad. This is
where I discovered the essence of what architecture could be.
It was Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who invited Le Corbusier to design the plan of Chandigarh, the capital of the new state of Punjab, and fulfill his desire that Chandigarh herald new impetus to break all the shackles imposed by the foreign rulers and rediscover an Indian identity to match our great civilization.
Cities are not built in a day, they take centuries. Life is conceived here and its end merges with the cities, its culture, values and meaning. Stories are written about ancient cities, and so is the story of our civilization. From ancient Babylon, Mohenjo-Daro to Athens, Rome, Paris, London; all these cities tell us stories about their culture, art institutions and values which get embedded in the city. A city’s core is its institutions and it is from where the values and meaning of life disseminate.
In our history, after Jaipur came Delhi and then occurred Chandigarh. In his book Discovery of India Nehru talks about how our own civilization thrived over centuries and how a new way of life was discovered; Chandigarh was conceived to break from the lethargic past. Nehru must have taken the opportunity to take advantage of Punjab’s entrepreneurship and spirituality which gave us this most modern contemporary city of Chandigarh. Though Post-Independent Punjab is a small state in the Indian subcontinent, he saw in it a new state, imparting value giving, not only to India but also the world; a new contemporary magnet which could attract visitors from all over the world comparable to the virtues of Paris, Rome, New York. A new world where one could experience advanced lifestyle, employment, learning and having the spirit of unity of heart, body and soul; where every being will have a place to nourish family, an opportunity to work, a place everyone could learn, grow, enjoy and have good life besides fresh air and breath. A city where there is no strife, no want and a choice where institutions pursue their beliefs, faith and culture.
To achieve this, he sent his emissaries to hunt for an architect, planner who had vision, skill and reputation and conceive a new way of life for India. It is this search that found Le Corbusier, Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew and Jeanneret. Corbusier in his most mature years conceived the plan of the city of Chandigarh and gave us another city equal to Maharaja Jai Singh’s Jaipur. It was in Jaipur that our astronomical beliefs were built at a large scale to express our symbolic connections with galaxies.
Likewise, today we see how Le Corbusier not only gave us the symbol of a new city complex, the High Court, the Assembly building, the Secretariat and the Governor’s Palace (yet unbuilt) with a new revolutionary concept combining our cultural values to fulfill the mandate of the newly acquired independence. He recognized that the only way to create values is through democratic process. Corbusier, in his four major seminal buildings namely the Assembly Hall, High Court, Secretariat and Governor’s Palace, eliminated plinths, steps or levels between the citizens and the decision makers; not only did he do this but in his Master Plan he provided a unique, most unusual, and a rare feature of a green valley where every individual, poor or rich, busy or idle could spend time in silence amongst trees and parks, where he could not only cultivate his body, but also connect his soul.
Not only did he plan this, but he also gave us the chance to view every day our unique natural asset, the Shivalik Hills and the distant Himalayas, a city worthy of our ancient tradition and culture of which we read references in the Upanishads (ancient Indian treatises) and Mahabharata.
Corbusier, in his four major seminal buildings namely the Assembly Hall, High Court, Secretariat and Governor’s Palace, eliminated plinths, steps or levels between the citizens and the decision makers; not only did he do this but in his Master Plan he provided a unique, most unusual, and a rare feature of a green valley where every individual, poor or rich, busy or idle could spend time in silence amongst trees and parks, where he could not only cultivate his body, but also connect his soul.
How does one look at them in reality and how do we measure why and how he designed the buildings the way he did and therefore the title of my essay is the ‘Indian Incarnation’, because I thought that what he was before in Paris and what he was still in Paris, he was not the same in India, particularly in case of architecture in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad.
Before Corbusier arrived in Chandigarh, he had met P.L. Varma, the chief engineer of the project, who ultimately became his very close friend and supporter. They both often wondered what could be done and how they could realize his direction for Chandigarh.
During the years that I was in Paris, I had a chance to stay in ‘La Maison du japon’, on the third floor from where every morning I had the good fortune to have darshan (divine sighting) of another of Le Corbusier public landmarks, the Pavilion Suisse Hostel for students, at the ‘Cite Universite’, full of glass on one side and solid wall on the other. Every day I marvelled at the character and wondered how Le Corbusier expressed his main theory of free ground floor and garden terraces on the top.
The glass curtain wall makes the heavy mass disappear. I saw many sketches in his diaries constantly working his thoughts on 24 hours’ cycle of the day, and how the sun would move during summer and winter and how the seasons react. Such drawings and studies helped him to orient his buildings, connect them to the nature and devise means to protect as well as open. Likewise, he was fascinated by the minimum objects that everybody lived with in India.
A charpai (Indian cot), he mentioned as a multipurpose object used to sleep, to carry, to make a shade, to store our stuff below. And so are the cycles of the moon. How often he mentioned these cycles of the moon, sun and the birds flying.
One day he told me, while drawing the section of the Mill Owners Building, how the birds would fly through the building and he sketched them on both sides and this is how he looked at life and the buildings he created.
In 1951, when he visited Ahmedabad he saw this building under construction, designed by Kanvinde for the Ahmedabad Textile Industry and Research Association (ATIRA) and discovered the partially sagging concrete slab due to steel shuttering and perhaps called it “The Beton Brute”.
He saw how the workers at site managed to carry on their heads frugal local materials and how simple technologies can work in tandem with his designs.
Simultaneously when he saw the Muslim or Hindu buildings, in summer and in winter, and then the overhangs, temporary ones, he sketched them and then said ‘This is how architecture has to be’. For a person who came from Paris, who talked about technology, who talked about the population in large numbers and living in a sky scraper 20-storeys high saw these things and wondered how should one design? He was a warrior at heart and found ways to win his battles.
— By B.V. Doshi
‘The styles are a
lie. Style is a unity of principle that animates all
the works of an era and results from a distinctive state of mind.
Our era fixes its style every day.
Our eyes, unfortunately, are not yet able to discern it.’
As you can see in this
quote, Le Corbusier has never been at ease with the question of style in
architecture. It seemed to him that the notion of style referred back to an
architecture of the past, and therefore could not be applied to modern
architecture. Yet now that his body of work is finite, there is an undeniable
‘Le Corbusier style’ that still influences many architects today.
I would argue that there are two styles rather than one. A first, from the 1922–1928 era, that others named Purism. A second, from 1930 to 1965, that we can call Brutalism. Historians tend to argue that the emergence of this ‘New Brutalism’ dates back to, in the case of Le Corbusier, the construction of the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles. In reality, its origins are rooted in the early 1930s when he moved away from modern architecture dogmas, even if he contributed to their elaboration.
This distinction is, in fact, critical re-evaluation, rather that renouncement. It is a time for Le Corbusier where he attempts to do two things: first, establishing new relationships between tradition and modernity. Then, making architecture progress through a drift from theory to poetry. The results were spectacular. No more purist architectures and their abstractions, no more rational volumetric plays from Euclidian geometry. It was time for improbable encounters of volumes in space, curvatures or odd shapes, time for material surprises and colors to resonate with raw concrete, the infamous ‘béton brut’.
When I designed the exhibition in Marseilles in 2013, I was interested in the origins of this Brutalist ‘style’ in Le Corbusier’s work. He himself defined this Brutalism as ‘clumsy romanticism’.
Coming back to the origins of his Brutalist positioning, I suggest we mainly look into the following directions. The everlasting fascination of Le Corbusier for nature, both in its geomorphic and cosmic dimensions. He considered nature, man, and architecture, three intricate and non-dissociable elements of a project. Second, the ambivalence between his attraction for industrial rationality and his idealization of craft. Then, his passion for both grand historical works of architecture, and vernacular architecture.
Additionally, his discovery of primitive arts and art brut, particularly through his cousin Louis Soutter’s drawings. Finally, his undying love for the Mediterranean, a place for ancestral cultures with the note-worthy presence of Greece and the Parthenon in the origins of architecture.
This is how, between 1945 and 1965, that is exactly 20 years, Le Corbusier delivered around 20 Brutalist chefs-d’oeuvres, in a magnificent unity of thinking. I want to stress here the importance of this unity, as these works stand today as major figures of the 20th century global architectural landscape.
These chefs-d’oeuvre, that I will provocatively designate as post-modern, question (just like numerous prototypes) the programs they were invited to solve, whether it be individual collective housing, a chapel, a convent, a museum, a hospital, or even a palace. In this objective, they set up audacious composition systems in plan, sections and façades. They attempt to mix construction technologies ranging from the most archaic to the most sophisticated, to finally establish astonishing relationships between all disciplines of the arts, what Le Corbusier called la synthèse des arts, or the ‘artistic symbiosis’. These systems contributed to the development of new images and imposed a new way of thinking architecture in the light of its most essential component: poetry.
(Edited excerpts from Le Corbusier Rediscovered: Chandigarh and Beyond with permission from Niyogi Books.)