What Le Corbusier wanted — and didn’t get

As the UT Administration gears up to mark the 50th death anniversary of Le Corbusier, Indian Express takes a look at what he could not achieve during his lifetime for his city beautiful.

Written by Khushboo Sandhu | Chandigarh | Published:August 10, 2015 7:33 am
Le Corbusier, Architect Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier death anniversary, Le Corbusier projects, Le Corbusier Chandigarh, Le Corbusier Centre, Le Corbusier Centre Chandigarh, Chandigarh news A photo of Le Corbusier and cousin Pierre Jeanneret taken at Sukhna Lake, displayed at the Le Corbusier Centre in Sector 19, Chandigarh. (Source: Express photo by Jaipal Singh)

“The most important thing about Chandigarh is not whether you like it or not but that it hits you on your head and makes you think.”

That was our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru on Chandigarh.

And think what? Think of the architect, if we could add; think of architect Le Corbusier.

Corbusier and his team took over planning this city after the death of Mathew Novicki in a plane crash and Albert Mayer’s decision to discontinue. However, 50 years after the death of Corbusier, there are still several unrealised projects of the city creator and his team.

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Among the most well-known of Corbusier’s unrealised projects is the Museum of Knowledge. This was the fourth building that was to be constructed that would have completed the Capitol Complex; the other three being the Secretariat, Assembly and the High Court.

Le Corbusier, Architect Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier death anniversary, Le Corbusier projects, Le Corbusier Chandigarh, Le Corbusier Centre, Le Corbusier Centre Chandigarh, Chandigarh news The Capitol Complex. (Source: Express photo by Kamleshwar Singh)

The Museum of Knowledge was designed as the Governor’s Palace. The concept did not find favour at that time as it was felt that it would be against the concept of democracy. Corbusier was asked to change the concept. He then prepared the concept of Museum of Knowledge. The museum was to be built as a repository of knowledge. While the design for the Governor’s Palace was ornate, that of the Museum of Knowledge was simpler.

Over the years discussions have been held on how the Museum of Knowledge could be given shape and what use it would be put to. A meeting of the Advisory Committee was held in 1964; it was attended by Corbusier to take a decision on the issue. A discussion was also held in the year 2008 that the building be constructed by the Chandigarh Housing Board along with the Department of Tourism. The proposal never went beyond the stage of initial discussion. A proposal was also mooted that it could be used as a museum of urban study.

Former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture, Dr S S Bhatti, says, “The initial plan made by Corbusier should not have been rejected. The design for Governor’s Palace was made well. The building could have been put to some other use instead of housing the Governor. The design for Museum of Knowledge is a poor one. Over the years no one really knows how to execute the design.”

Another unrealised design of Corbusier is that of an 11-storey building in the heart of the city: Sector 17. That bureaucratic rigmarole persisted then as well is one of the reasons that the building could not take off.

Corbusier had planned the building for the Post and Telegraph Department. In a communication dated February 3, 1959, he wrote to members of a high-level advisory sub-committee comprising the then chief commissioner M S Randhawa as president and P L Varma as well as R N Dogra as the other members.

The letter stated that in a communication he received, dated January 17, 1959, it had been stated that Chandigarh city centre was under the control of standing architectural regulation.

“Of the same architecture but of an exceptional height, the Post and Telegraph building will occupy the centre of the city centre which is the hub of Chandigarh. It will be an eleven-storey building, the only one overlooking the town.

Our scheme implies the definitive foundation for an eleven-storey structure,” wrote Corbusier.

Corbusier mentioned some document sent to him that “predicts failure should we persist in wanting to realise the eleven storeys in one operation”. Aghast at this, he had stated, “As Government Architectural Adviser, I protest against such an attitude.”

The Master Plan committee gave its approval for setting up the building. It is proposed that the building could be a financial hub and all banks could shift operations here. At present, the banks operate from the Bank Square in Sector 17.

Corbusier was also asked by the Punjab government to design a sports stadium in Sector 26. The decision was taken in a meeting of the Council of Ministers held in August 1955. It was decided to allocate an amount of Rs 5 lakh for the purpose.

Architect Surinder Bahga says that the project could not materialise. As per the design prepared by Corbusier, the cost of construction was estimated to be around Rs 4 crore. It was proposed to construct a playing field surrounded by an athletic track. It was to be designed as a reinforced concrete structure.

It was also proposed that the stadium could be built at Panjab University. However, finally the plan was shelved.

Apart from Corbusier, there were some designs that his cousin Pierre Jeanneret had prepared for the city which could not materialise. These included a state-of-the-art convocation hall at Panjab University. Another was a sculpture proposed to be constructed in the water body near Gandhi Bhawan at the university.

Architect S D Sharma, who worked with Corbusier, feels that his incomplete buildings should be completed. “Only when the fourth building is made in the Capitol, will the picture be complete. The administration should finish the incomplete works 50 years after his death. The 11-storey building should also be constructed. The use of the building and the revenue model can be worked out. It will give a distinct identity to Sector 17,” he says.

Sharma says that Corbusier was way ahead of his times. The concepts like smart city that are being floated now were present in his designs. “The creator’s dream should be fulfilled,” said Sharma.

‘Chandigarh Unbuilt’

Three former students of Chandigarh College of Architecture have started a contest on the theme “Chandigarh Unbuilt”. Architects, students, engineers, designers and artists from across the world have been invited to send their ideas about how the Museum of Knowledge should be conceptualised.

Archasm, the website of these students, has also collaborated with Indian Institutes of Architects, Chandigarh Chapter, for the competition. Registration was started on August 1 and the entries can be sent till October 31.

Anirudh Nanda, who is among those who floated the idea, says that a need was felt to start a website-based competition on Indian principles. “As students, we participated in European competitions. There was not much from India. We have invited entries from people seeking their interpretation of Corbusian principles, whether they feel the need to create something new or retain the original concept,” he says.

Nanda says that they have been receiving queries from various countries after the website archasm.in was started and the competition announced.

Architect Surinder Bahga says that the ideas received could be shared with the administration. This could facilitate completion of the incomplete building.

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