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Remembering Pierre Jeanneret, the man behind the Chandigarh chair and buildings that educate

Chandigarh with its elements, buildings, signage and elements resonates today the principles of simplicity, eye for detail and modest ingenious solutions that Pierre Jeanneret devised to complex problems.

Pierre Jeanneret in his office at the Panjab University

Written by Dr Sangeeta Bagga

“L’architecture Corbu à Chandigarh ne serait peut-etre pas sans Pierre”. (Without Pierre, Corbu’s architecture in Chandigarh might never have been). There can’t be a better tribute to Pierre Jeanneret, the Chief Architect of the Panjab Capital Project from 1951-1965, by none other than Le Corbusier himself.

Having learnt precision from his father, a surgeon and having served in a biking company himself, the Swiss born Pierre was a simple, unpretentious humane being who was also the first Principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture.

Established in 1961, the CCA served as a laboratory to train architects who would carry forward the legacy of modern city planning not only in Chandigarh but new townships in the country.

Educational buildings with sculptures in brick

December 4, marks his 54th death anniversary, and the city with its elements, buildings, signage and elements resonates today the principles of simplicity, eye for detail and modest ingenious solutions that Pierre Jeanneret devised to complex problems.

As an educator, he led by practice, using his mornings to develop the city fabric alongside the architect couple Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry assisted by a host of Indian architects. In the late afternoons, he would engage in site work and decision making at the Panjab University for the Administration building, the library. and the Gandhi Bhawan which was closest to his heart.

He spoke to the contractors, engineers and others through drawings, woodcut and metal models, which led to the development of a strong work ethic in the architecture department that is seen in the form of large-scale wall models of the city in most public buildings, libraries, and institution foyers etc. even today.

Gandhi Bhawan, one of the favourite buildings of Pierre Jeanneret where the camera lucida was explored extensively.

As the Chief Architect, he oversaw the construction of housing, elementary and high schools, colleges, libraries, healthcare and markets for 15 years.

Pierre embraced the culture of undivided Punjab, the mother state of Chandigarh’s citizens. Where work stopped and leisure began is difficult to ascertain , for Pierre spent his free time building boats at the boat club, weaving durries, crafting utilitarian furniture, patio lights, hammocks and lampshades in his garden alongwith Bansi, his cook-cum-helper and close confidante. His weekend trips to Nangal, Talwara and the Bhakra dam site were as if to seek inspiration from the hinterland. And a close examination of the motifs in the city’s architecture show that he took cues from these.

The Pierre Jeanneret archive housed at the Canadian Centre for Architecture also known as the CCA Montreal, Canada consists of a repository of over 700 drawings, photographs, personal letters, sketches donated by his niece Jacqueline Jeanneret from Geneva where Pierre returned in 1965 after leaving Chandigarh. This author was invited to review the archive as a native of Chandigarh and develop a critical essay on selections from the archive. While working at the CCA subterranean vaults on the Pierre archival documents , the amazing collection revealed among other facts that Pierre possessed more than seven cameras at a time and alongside SD Sharma and Jit Malhotra, who were young apprentices working on the city, he would create the Camera Lucida- a series of frames to view the buildings from outside, inside and vice versa.

PGIMER began construction in 1960s commissioned by Pratap Singh Kairon and Pandit Nehru

I was awestruck by Pierre’s eye for detail, revealed in the subjects that he chose to photograph, be it the Gandhi Bhawan, or the Government Museum and Art Gallery. I came across 6-7 images of the same building or scene with slight variation in angles, light quality and distance of the clicks, and then the same from the interior viewing the outside. All of this were achieved through primitive, hand held and manually focussed black and white cameras that heightened the quality of the photographs even more. This showed how the ‘inside to outside to inside’ experience was equally important and contributed to the creation of Chandigarh’s buildings.

His concern for the minutest detail is revealed by the innumerable models made for the Gandhi Bhawan– the jewel in the crown for Panjab University. The pinwheel shaped tripartite structure is the only white pebble panel clad building rising from a water pool and contrasts against the red sandstone buildings around it. Pierre also devised ways to bring in sunlight into the library buildings in the University and the City Centre, as well as the laboratories in the Science Blocks and the lecture theatres of the Arts blocks.

The sunfilled balconies of the boys and girls hostels as well the light wells created in the heath centre at the University serve as learning centres for us today for designing and orienting in light of the harsh composite climate and shoestring budget. The creation of the PGIMER masterplan was also a challenge that Pierre Jeanneret took upon with equal zest . It was the region’s first teaching and referral hospital with advanced medical research facilties. The psychological needs of patients , a healthy work environment for the medical and nursing staff were perhaps the inspiration that brought forth the rectilinear spatial geometry of hospital blocks affording a seamless and efficient circulation system with generous open spaces for attendants in waiting. Even within the building blocks, end terraces were uniquely designed to serve as wind scoops facilitating cross ventilation while comfortable ramps enable patient , wheelchair and goods travel within and ouside the buildings.

Pierre spent his free time building boats at the boat club, weaving durries, crafting utilitarian furniture

From the design of a play sculpture in a nursery school to the sculptural ramps of the monumental medical facility, Pierre Jeanneret’s engagement and eye for detail is all pervading. He also embellished the building interiors with functional and longlasting furniture and built-in furniture.

Each building has its learning for the citizens. It is indeed a noble way of teaching and leaving behind a living legacy.

For more on this subject, please do visit the exhibition curated by the students and faculty of CCA to mark the contribution of Pierre Jeanneret to the city.

The writer is the principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture. This article is part of the fortnightly series by faculty and students of the Chandigarh College of Architecture on ‘The Making of Chandigarh’ in collaboration with the Le Corbusier Pierre Jeanneret Forum.

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