The Corbusier blueprint

A museum looks back at the life and times of the master Swiss-French architect who designed Chandigarh

Written by Jagmeeta Thind Joy | Published: March 29, 2009 11:47 am

A museum looks back at the life and times of the master Swiss-French architect who designed Chandigarh
To start this journey back in time,it’s only apt that we begin with the present. When you step off the road that divides the city of Chandigarh into two,so aptly called Madhya Marg,you’ll come across the only single-storeyed building that seems to have been left alone when everything around it is gaining height. Forgotten over time,left to crumble and die,today the Old Architect’s Building,tucked away in Sector 19,has been restored to its rightful place. This is now the Le Corbusier Centre,the biggest permanent exhibition on the Swiss-French architect in the world with over 1,000 works on display.

His parents knew him as Charles Edouard Jeanneret. To the world,Le Corbusier was an architect and urban planner whose contribution to Indian modern architecture remains unforgettable. It’s here in the Old Architects’ Building,that the Swiss-French architect worked and conceptualised Chandigarh with his team,almost six decades ago,from 1952 to 1965. His legacy has won the city a nomination in Unesco’s World Heritage list.

“There was so much to Le Corbusier that we didn’t know,” says V.N. Singh,the nodal officer of the centre,which has been set up with the assistance of the La Fondation de Le Corbusier in Paris. For one,it was an interesting twist of fate that brought Corbusier and Chandigarh together. The project was commissioned to him in 1950 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru,India’s first Prime Minister,after one of the two original architects from America,Mathew Norvicki,died in a plane crash and his surviving partner Albert Mayer decided to discontinue the project.

With a brief from Pandit Nehru that said Chandigarh should reflect the new nation’s modern,progressive outlook,“unfettered by the traditions of the past,” Corbusier arrived along with three senior architects — his cousin Pierre Jeanneret,Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane Drew — in the summer of 1951.

In the words of one of Chandigarh’s leading architects Kiran Joshi,who has written extensively on Corbusier,this building,like the rest of Corbusier’s work,“was designed with particular attention to the city’s mandate of cost-effective and climate responsive materials and methods.”

Walk in past the concrete shell of the porch and you step on brick-tile floors (the original ones intact) with sloping roofs lined with jute above to keep the heat at bay. It’s here at the entrance that you spot a busy-looking Corbusier,sporting perfect round spectacle frames,working on his desk,in a black-and-white photograph. “The corridor connecting the nine rooms is actually a photo-gallery showcasing the architect’s multi-faceted personality,” Singh chips in as you notice,Pierre Jeanneret’s picture on the other wall. While the cousins are seen hard at work in many photographs,there are pictures of them paddling at the Sukhana Lake. Across the wall is another collage of photos of Corbusier,from birth to death. It was while swimming in the Mediterranean in August 1965 that Corbusier died of a cardiac arrest.

We steer to the archival and documents section and see the enormous amount of paperwork Le Corbusier had to deal with. There are umpteen documents and letters on display,particularly those between him,Nehru and the then Chief Minister of Punjab,Pratap Singh Kairon. It’s one dated 15 July 1954 and written in French that you wish had an English translation. “It is addressed to the then Governor of Punjab,CPN Singh ,asking him to release the pending fee for the work done on the Capital Project. I believe that payment was never made,” Singh says.

In the next couple of rooms are models,maps,photographs,prints,personal possessions and hand-written notes. Corbusier looks confused in a photograph taken just after he arrived,where he stands on a dusty,parched land with a bewildered look; then there’s one with him just waving his open palm with the thumb and the little finger moving out. “Open to give and open to receive”— the quote underneath plastered on the wall spells his philosophy.

Just like the ‘Open Hand’ mantra,Corbusier followed the ‘Modular man concept’ where scale and proportion were an integral part of his planning of architecture. So were the outdoors. “Space and light and order—those are the things that men need just as much as they need bread or a place to sleep,” Corbusier says to you in another room,where the light is plenty and even on a hot day like this,it’s very airy.

While Corbusier oversaw the complete Chandigarh project,he designed just ten buildings and it is Pierre Jeanneret who can be credited for the rest. Ditto for the furniture you see in the Committee Room that still houses the original conference table,chairs and a bed

One also notices three books written in French on display. Among them is a rare copy of A Journey To The Country Of Timid People,authored by the architect,a book that reflects his work and time spent in India. While Pierre spent 17 years in India,Corbusier left in less than a decade. Their work has lived on.

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