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Friday, December 04, 2020

On Corbusier’s 50th death anniversary, two architects debate his ways of seeing

Swiss-born Frenchman Charles Edouard Jeanneret Gris adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier because he felt it would suit his architectural persona.

Written by Riyaz Tayyibji And AGK Menon | New Delhi | Updated: August 24, 2015 1:13:12 pm
The premises of the Mill Owners’ building in Ahmedabad The premises of the Mill Owners’ building in Ahmedabad

Swiss-born Frenchman Charles Edouard Jeanneret Gris adopted the pseudonym Le Corbusier because he felt it would suit his architectural persona. An icon of modernism, he was invited by Jawaharlal Nehru to build India’s first planned city, Chandigarh, but paved the way for new possibilities in architecture elsewhere too. Yet, his legacy comes with its own burden. On Corbusier’s 50th death anniversary, two architects debate his ways of seeing

‘Corbusier reintroduced Indian architecture to its transcendental role as an art’

You enter the Mill Owners’ Association Building in Ahmedabad through the ramp, which takes you directly to the first floor. The ramp, asymmetric with a raw concrete parapet on one side and a sensuously cast aluminium handrail on the other, seems like a line suspended on slender steel supports that are reminiscent of wing struts from those WWI biplanes. The building has an archaic sense to it with its “brutal”, rough concrete, almost cast like old stone. Designed by Le Corbusier and completed in 1954, our movement through the building becomes the focus of our experience — it’s what the architect called “Promenade Architecturale”. As we move from West to East, we move between the framed views of the city and the river; we journey between the man-made and the natural. As we travel upwards in the building, we gradually become more aware of the sky. With his masterly play between opposites: city and nature, earth and sky, inside and outside, brutal and humane, modern and archaic — we are taken through a kaleidoscopic architectural experience tied together by movement, light, shadow and silhouette. It is here that ideas and material meet.

In 1951, when Corbusier was invited to India to work on designing Chandigarh, the trajectories of Indian modernism were already well established. Ideologically rooted in the reformist movements of the 19th century, which were inspired by the nationalist and romantic movements in Europe, architecture was also responsive to the perceived problems in the Indian social milieu.

The arts, too, were responding to these social shifts. By 1921, Santiniketan was already over 50 years old and had become a university. In 1922, the International Avant Garde presented itself in Calcutta at the “Society of Oriental Art”. Here, several artists of the Bauhaus also participated. By the 1940s and early ’50s, architects such as GB Mhatre in Bombay were moving away from their Art Deco predilections to the functionalism of international modernism. Achyut Kanvinde was already experimenting with concrete and the frame system, both, in Delhi and Ahmedabad.

As far as urban planning was concerned, Otto Konigsberger was working for the Mysore state by 1939. Albert Mayer and his associate Mathew Nowicki were working on Greater Mumbai and Kanpur, before being commissioned for Chandigarh. Modern urban planning imported from Europe and America was already shaping the urbanity of a new India. However, it was Nowicki’s untimely death that led Corbusier to enter the Indian architectural and planning scene.

He brought with him a new way of referencing the past into buildings, without being stylistic or literal. Abstract and symbolic references were evoked through material and sensual experiences of space. The archaic and the modern could co-exist in poetic tension. The lessons of an old architecture digested and re-formed for a new time. Corbusier re-introduced Indian architecture to its transcendental role as an “art” in a modern world, and with this inspired an entire generation of Indian architects including Shiv Nath Prasad, JK Choudhary, Rajinder Kumar, Achyut Kanvinde, Anant Raje, Charles Correa, and BV Doshi. Though some of these architects were largely influenced by the language of Corbusier’s work, its “brutalist” aesthetic and its formal qualities, the most enduring influence can be seen in the works of Doshi and Correa, who, without literal or direct borrowing, continued the quest for an appropriate “Indian” architecture, within the larger modern paradigm.

While Correa would go on to use a mode of visual representation of older motif’s overlaid onto buildings organised in a modern manner, Doshi searched for the intangible principles that underlay creative activity across the subcontinent.

In the tight rope walk between the search for an Indian modernity on the one hand, and a connection with our roots on the other, it was Corbusier who was the first acrobat.

Riyaz Tayyibji is a practicing architect and partner at Anthill Design, Ahmedabad

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‘What got left out in the pursuit of poetic ideals were the quotidian needs of the majority of our population’

High Court in Chandigarh High Court in Chandigarh

At the outset, let me state that I admire the amazingly multidimensional professional oeuvre of Le Corbusier. He was a seminal figure in the world-wide development of modern architecture and urban planning. He executed some of his major projects in India, at a time when the profession was at the cusp of its search for a post-Independence Indian identity; he decisively turned its gaze towards modernism. He was the proverbial paterfamilias of modern Indian architecture and urban planning. That said, my point is that as in the case of personal growth, so in the case of professional evolution, the contributions of such dominant father figures need to be critically evaluated by subsequent generations in order to equip themselves to confront contemporary realities. My complaint is that this has not been attempted in the case of Corbusier and his contributions to Indian architecture and urbanism.

The uncritical acceptance of his contributions has seeped deeply into the ideology of the Indian profession. Even in the face of obvious problems, this has created in the habitats we plan for ourselves, it is still difficult for professionals to consider alternatives to his ideas. For example, Corbusier once confessed that his desire in building was to create poetry: he was, of course, an exemplar in translating that desire into compelling architecture. What got left out in the pursuit of the “poetic” ideals were the quotidian needs of the majority of our population.

Ironically, Corbusier had a lot to say about the architecture for the “working class”, but unfortunately, that message got lost in its translation into the Indian context. We have produced some great architects who have made some great buildings inspired by Corbusier, but why is it that the habitats within which they were built are unliveable and, year after year, our housing shortage increases? Isn’t that the architect’s responsibility too? Therefore, while singing paeans to his influence on Indian architecture we also need to self-reflexively evaluate that legacy.

His Olympian stature elided the complex needs of our post-colonial society. On being commissioned to design Chandigarh, Jawaharlal Nehru asked that the architecture of the new city be “unfettered to the past”. Le Corbusier accomplished that imperative by cutting the Gordian knot that binds our society to its roots and the manner in which he did it continues to mesmerise our architectural imagination.

Corbusier and Doshi (right) in Ahmedabad Corbusier and Doshi (right) in Ahmedabad (Courtesy: Vastu Shilpa Foundation)

Corbusier, it has been recently revealed, was a crypto-Nazi. Not surprisingly, he displayed a certain kind of arrogance in the manner in which he executed his tasks: architects don’t listen, they instruct. The Indian profession enthusiastically absorbed that message, perhaps because it was perceived to be in consonance with the traditional role of experts in our hierarchical society. If so, should we still be subscribing to it? Unfortunately, our profession is still living off that myth, thus vitiating the positive role it can play in our transforming society.

His legacy in urban planning has, however, been more disastrous for our cities. While his direct influence on Indian architecture waned in the last six decades, and architectural strategies have diversified to address contingent ground realities, the model of Chandigarh as the ‘ideal’ Indian city persists, and has spawned, and continues to spawn, master plans for numerous cities that have no understanding of the socio-economic contexts for which they are drafted.

Many people, especially the elite, admire Chandigarh because it has the order and rationality of European cities and none of the organic “messiness” of typical Indian cities. As the urban historian Ravi Kalia said, “The speed with which the decision to build Chandigarh was made and technical help was acquired from the West demonstrates the failure of the newly independent state to meet its technological needs and its continued dependence on Western know-how for modernisation.” For example, the genealogy of the Smart City programme, the flagship project of the government of India, can be traced to the Chandigarh model. The latest and most egregious example of this practice is the planning of the new capital for the recently bifurcated Andhra Pradesh where the chief minister proudly contracted foreign expertise for the job.

So what’s the problem? Chandigarh valourised the practice of master planning the complete cities, but our transforming societies cannot follow such rigid scripts and, quite naturally, unplanned slums result. For example, over 60 per cent of even a well-planned and funded city like Delhi has been subsequently “regularised”. It is said that slums are the solutions to problems, but our admiration for Chandigarh does not allow us to understand its needs. And unfortunately, the idea of Chandigarh perpetuates itself in the mindset of architects, urban planners, administrators who do not wish to understand Indian urbanism but aspire to replicate European urbanism. That is the conflicted legacy of Le Corbusier.

AGK Menon is Delhi-based architect and urban planner

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