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Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Le Corbusier: The curator of Chandigarh’s urban landscape

Chandigarh was also the first complete realisation of Le Corbusier’s urban precepts and the surrounding landscape.

Chandigarh |
September 27, 2021 3:23:06 am
Corbusier is often criticised for treating his architecture as an object disconnected from the context. But that is not so. (File)

(Written by Sangeeta Bagga)

Chandigarh is considered the most modern city of India, built to fill the void left by the loss of Lahore. It was a departure from the existing modes of thought with a great responsibility: to provide the best of amenities to all classes of people. Chandigarh was also the first complete realisation of Le Corbusier’s urban precepts and the surrounding landscape.

Who was Le Corbusier?

A Swiss-born French architect who adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier, meaning crow, Charles Edouard Jeanneret Gris was the strongest protagonist of the Modern Movement whose quest for precision and artistic pursuit was inherited from a father, a watch dial engraver, and a musician mother.

His journey from the Alpine – Jura landscape to the plains of Panjab produced a 450,000-strong archive, which includes a vast repository of sketches, paintings, sketchbooks, drawings, maps, sculptures, artwork, poetry, and above all, the most majestic and provoking ensembles of architecture.

Corbusier is often criticised for treating his architecture as an object disconnected from the context. But that is not so.

Corbusier’s greatest ‘Landscape Project’ in Chandigarh, its The Spiritual Directeur, was the Capitol Complex where he designed an ‘optical apparatus’ to capture and frame the views of the Shivaliks. The Capitol Complex exhibited his concerns for the site and the urban landscape.

On the verdant plain of Chandigarh, visually closed off by the Shivalik hills, Corbusier revisited the epiphany of the Acropolis in Athens, which he had documented in his sketchbooks during his travels, the Voyage d’Orient. It was the ideal placement of the city at the foothills of the emerald hills and the Capitol Complex was its noblest element. It was due to his respect for this context that his original buildings, which were planned in a linear fashion, had to be rearranged to be perpendicular to the Shivalik range so as not to block the view.

The initial sketches were buildings in two groups, the High Court on the one side and the Assembly and Secretariat on the other, with a large central open space between them, thus offering the extended view of the mountains. A single structure, the Open Hand, was to rise atop a tall podium in this space. Working on this scheme, the composition became tighter and more geometric to include four majestic edifices and six monuments arrayed atop a 5-metre-high plaza where the ‘pedestrian is the king’ in eternal contact with nature. The creation of the symbolic axis depicted by the ceremonial path, the Jan Marg linking the city centre Sector 17, to the Capitol Complex, brought the citizens to the ‘seat of Administration’.

The new composition created a 1,400-metre-long Capitol and formed two equal squares, each divided into four equal sections, 350m on one side. Peripheral obelisks marking the boundaries of the Capitol Parc, as Le Corbusier called it, and a water channel forming its southern boundary, were seemingly inspired from the landscape architecture of the Mughal gardens of Pinjore, which Corbusier visited prior to his final sketches of the Capitol.

Corbusier’s visits to the Mughal Gardens at Red Fort and the presidential Palace designed by Lutyens where he had his earliest meetings with Pandit Nehru were opportunities to appreciate architectural and natural compositions structured according to end points that identify notable elements of the landscape.

Thus began the story of Chandigarh, amidst the disciplines of local climate, a shoestring budget, and indigenous materials and methods of construction. With its theme of ‘Sun, Space and Verdure’, it was to be “a capital that would serve as a model in city planning for the nation, if not for the world’. The Capitol Complex as its ceremonial and administrative head also represents the first-ever largescale use of the modern material –Reinforced cement concrete. Cast and poured in situ with plastic qualities, it created the sculpturesque skylights and magnificent ramps for the Assembly Chambers, the parasols in the Secretariat, and porticos in the High Court. To add richness to the monochromatic concrete were the hand-painted ceremonial doors, the colourful tapestries or nomadic murals as Corb called them depicting Indian motifs and forms from nature.

Corbusier’s Capitol Parc stands tall today as the largest property on the transborder serial nomination of Corbusier’s works spanning seven countries across five continents on UNESCO’s World Heritage List.

(The writer is the principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture)

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