IndienIndien

 

 

INHABITING ARCHITECTURE

 

The other day Anne Moudon, a senior professor in my department, stopped me in the hallway and ceremoniously presented me with a brand new 10 franc bill issued by the Swiss government. Ann knew I am a scion of Chandigarh, born and brought up in Jawaharlal Nehru’s aspiration, Le Corbusier’s dream. The bill had Le Corbusier’s portrait on it, etched into history, now a symbol of the Swiss State. Although French by citizenship and residence, Le Corbusier was born and brought up in Switzerland, and thus through the accident of birth could be claimed as a part of the Swiss heritage. I wondered what the French would think about the Swiss reclamation of their prodigal son. Looking carefully, I found that the background of the bill was made from overlaid layers of a distinct Le Corbusier elevation.

It was the Secretariat – Chandigarh’s Secretariat! I was shocked, simultaneously pleasured and outraged. This was, after all ‘my’ Secretariat or, let us at least admit, the Secretariat of the Government of Punjab authorised by the Indian nation-state. I could understand that I had to contend with Le Corbusier’s inheritors – like the Fondation Le Corbusier – for symbolic ownership of the Capitol, but to see it usurped by another nation-state, on one of its official units of exchange, was outrageous! They were clearly not commemorating an Indian building (which might have been nice); they were reclaiming what they perceived to be their own legitimate Swiss heritage.

Who owns works of architecture? Architecture is a crossroad for life’s forces; we enact our life-worlds on its stage set. More life stories live through a work of architecture than can ever be accounted for in a single narrative. Every time I went on Capitol Esplanade as a student there were always someone from Kansal, the village just north, bathing a buffalo, washing clothes, playing cricket, or just passing through on a bicycle or scooter. The legislators and judges never bothered to walk on the Esplanade, since they always came and went by car from the lower level. As a consequence, in spite of the security and the official sanctity of the place, the Esplanade has become open territory for all sorts of unofficial activities. Even the security men have strung up lines to dry their laundry.

The innumerable architects who pass through Chandigarh, many of whom I escorted to the Capitol myself, generally prefer to wait patiently until the village people pass on through, so that they could they can get a ‘clean shot’ of the buildings. They try and edit out the laundry from the picture frame, usually unsuccessfully, and then complain about the callous Indian government’s disrespect for the great French/Swiss architect’s creations.

Trademarks can be copyrighted, but the public inhabitation of architecture opens it up for appropriation by all those who want to make a claim. It is a symbolic text, simultaneously woven into as many life-worlds as would have it. Things mesh, inevitably. In the end, therefore, I felt vindicated by the intentions of the Swiss government: if they could claim the Chandigarh Capitol as their own, surely I could claim Le Corbusier for India.

Mats Eriksson’s photographs, avid sentinels of the act of inhabitation, help me make this claim.

From the distance of academia, as also from the distance of an expatriate living in the United States, I can see how the Indian figures, the white linen red-edged table-cloths, the piles of paper, the ‘Godrej’ steel tables and cubboards, the walls sloppily whitewashed in the name of neatness, the road signs carefully hand-painted to look like they were machine painted, the ubiquitous drying laundry – I can see how all this looks quaint and out of place in the slick lines of the modernist architecture of Le Corbusier. Yet, when I was growing up in Chandigarh, 23 years before my own journey to the West to worship at the doors of academia, I was in all of Mats’s photographs. I was, indeed, still am the photos. It did not feel quaint then. And it wasn’t.

Le Corbusier’s modern architecture was not foreign to those of us growing up in Chandigarh. It was our proud birthright, just like Jefferson’s Neo-Palladian architecture, imported from England and France, is America’s. Although it is commonly believed that a hapless Indian nation state, clamouring to adopt Modernism, begged Le Corbusier to take on Chandigarh, the famous French architect with whom the city came to primarily associated subsequently was in fact only a circumstantial choice, an unexpected opportunity seized by a team of bureaucrats touring Europe in search of architects to complete a project that had already begun.

Although Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of independent India and the chief architect of the idea that Chandigarh should be a modern city ‘unfettered by the traditions of the past’, eventually came to support Le Corbusier, it is important to note that the former was neither in favour of searching for an architect from abroad, nor did he want a specifically Western modern city. Both those decision were in fact taken by the Indian civil service officers in charge of the project.

One of the major difficulties with the Nehruvian project of modernisation was that it actually functioned through the imitation of the established practices of the Western world. While Nehru innovated a new foreign policy in the form of the non-aligned movement, within India developmental practices, like the TVA-inspired hydroelectric dam projects and the Soviet style five year plans, remained derivative and second hand. This was largely because the institutions and officers responsible for enforcing that modernity needed verifiable models of development that could be found somewhere, if not in India’s past.

Thus it was of Chandigarh. Chandigarh looks and feels the way it does with its neatly hierarchical sectors and plans, not because Le Corbusier and Nehru forced the reluctant inhabitants to conform, but because the officiating bureaucrats, first Fletcher and then Verma and Thaper, who conceived and cast the basic mold of Chandigarh selected a particular image for the city. The hierarchies in the housing, the densities of the sectors, the general spread and sprawl of the city, the need for a special, symbolic administrative ‘head’ etc were all laid out and enforced by these officers. In the end, therefore, the fundamental character of Chandigarh’s residential architecture derives from Indian bureaucratic interpretation of the English new town plans, derived from the Garden City Movement.

Beyond the master plan, the modern claim of the city was settled through appearances – the city could not look colonial, or Indian, but modern. This question of ‘style of architecture’ was made critical, and imbued with symbolic purpose. P N Thaper, the chief administrator of the Capitol Project, emphasized it repeatedly 1 Maxwell Fry, Jane Drew and Pierre Jeanneret fulfilled the modern mandate of the city with great accomplishment. They fleshed out Le Corbusier’s circulation diagram, that was intended to hold towering unities in its pastures, with a patchwork of bungalow and row house type dwellings. 2

But that by itself is not enough to disparage Chandigarh’s claims to modernism. In 1987 Charles Correa, a well known Bombay based architect, wrote:

India is an ancient land. Over the centuries there have been other new cities like Chandigarh and other prophets like Le Corbusier: Fatehpur-Sikri, Patrick Geddes, Edwin Lutyens, Golconda, Mandu. Today many of them are not perceived at all as a foreign element but as an integral part of the Indian landscape. [...] India as a blotting paper. Who knows? A hundred years from now, perhaps Chandigarh will also fit seamlessly into the Punjabi ethos; perhaps it will be perceived as a famous old Indian town, and Le Corbusier will be acknowledged [...] as the greatest Indian architect of them all? 3

Correa’s quote ends his article provocatively entitled ‘Chandigarh: the View from Benares’ originally published in the Le Corbusier Archives. Benares, at least in the popular imagination, must be one of the most ‘Indian’ cities. Stated as the ‘View from Benares’, the statement ‘Corbusier as the greatest Indian architect of them all’, is pregnant with irony. But the logical sequence it follows seems acceptable. Fatehpur Sikri, Golconda, Mandu must have been foreign to their times, but are today woven flawlessly into the Indian fabric.

Will that then also be the fate of Chandigarh? Indeed, if one wanted, one could already see how the ‘Indianisation’ of Chandigarh might happen; and how it is already happening. Prakash talks of how the Capitol buildings can be revered as old Indian temples,4 and Correa suggests that Le Corbusier thought of architecture as a sacred undertaking; an idea that resonates well in the Indian mind.5 Perhaps, then, Correa's suggestion that just as ‘India was lucky to get Le Corbusier; Le Corbusier was lucky to get India’ is on the mark.6 In which case his characterization as the ‘greatest Indian architect’ might be/come acceptable.

In retrospect, what is the legacy of Chandigarh’s modern architecture? Laurie Baker, the English architect who has practiced on a small scale in southern India for the last 40 odd years, voiced this simply by starting a speech (sponsored by the Indian Institute of Architects) on the topic ‘Architecture and the People’ with the following:

The subject given to me is architecture and the People. Did the promoters mean the people, or could they have said architecture and People? Saying the People implies that we architects are in one category and the people are in another.7

In India the architects and planners are considered ‘professionals’, and in terms of our colonial and modern legacy, they are in one category, and the people in another. That is what it means to be professional, i.e. to be not untrained. Consequently, Modernism, not only architectural but also economic and institutional, certainly produced a great deal of professional expertise, but failed to stage the decolonisation of India because its elitist, top-down framing never enabled it to gain the legitimacy to represent properly, to speak for, the people in whose name it was exercised. The failure here was not of the translation but of the transfer of idiom.

The last point needs to be stressed. If Modernism failed in India it was not because it was ‘Western’, or that it relied on universal ideals. It failed because it relied on the methodology that an enlightened elite could lead the rest of the populace simply on the strength of symbolic demonstration. Rethinking modernism thus cannot be done through a palliative ethno-aestheticism, such as a ‘critical regionalism’, because the problem was not fundamentally aesthetic, i.e. the problem was not that of lack of translation of idiom – people accept the foreign quite easily as their own, if it is useful and beneficial to them. Rather, the problem was the lack of transfer of idiom. Modernism came top down. Although heroic, it proved to be only palliative. We therefore have to re-think Modernism, its successes and failures, as fundamentally inter-woven with the largerpolitical and ethical textile of the nation-state and its subjects.

I would therefore suggest that the relevance of Chandigarh today lies less in the specifics of Le Corbusier’s architectural and urban designs, as it does a part of the production of modernity, of the creation of an Indian modernism, that is still in process.8

Le Corbusier was man of first principles. When he said that a house was ‘a machine for living’, he did not mean that houses were not to be made as comfortable places for human being and were instead to be treated as lifeless machines. Rather he meant that when one designs a house one must think of it, first and foremost, as an object that can effectively mediate between human beings and the environment that they live in. A house had to create comfort conditions for humans while being respectful of the earth. Now, Le Corbusier’s own solutions to these principles were not always the very best. The brise-soleil that is designed to passively cool and heat buildings, for instance, does not work in Chandigarh. However, the basic principle, that buildings must be designed to effectively cool and heat their environment is still valid, and has once again returned to the forefront of architectural debates around the world with the rapid rise of the environmental movement. So today the challenge is to solve the problem better, to re-do the brise-soleil, as it was, and no self-respecting architect around the world is not engaged with the problem of designing environmental machines for living.

This was Le Corbusier’s approach to modern architecture. Unfortunately, for the longest time, in particular since the early 70s when modern architecture went out of fashion, Chandigarh has been beset by, in my opinion, a spurious debate between its ‘modern’ architecture and its relevance for ‘India’. This is spurious. Why is it that the things that are modern are not Indian? Why is India always the traditional, the old, the hidebound, the ancient? Do we not want to be modern?? Are we not modern???

What is it to be modern? Perhaps the relevant question in the present context is: what was it to be modern when Le Corbusier, Nehru, and the rest – Verma, Thaper, Jeanneret, Prakash, Sharma etc – were creating Chandigarh? For me the most succinct portrayal that being modern at Chandigarh was not just a question of building modern-style buildings (even if that is what it devolved into) comes from Nehru’s articulation of Chandigarh. Speaking to a group of architects at the Indian Institute of Engineers in 1959, Nehru said:

Now I have welcomed very greatly one experiment… Chandigarh. Many people argue about it, some like it, some dislike it. It is totally immaterial whether you like it or not. It is the biggest thing in India of this kind. That is why I welcome it. It is the biggest thing because it hits you on the head and makes you think. You may squirm at the impact but it makes you think and imbibe new ideas, and the one thing that India requires in so many fields is to be hit on the head so that you may think….9

‘Makes you think.’ When I first read this quote, I balked at that phrase, in particular at the paternalism that seemed to be inherent in the statement. As if India did not think. But then I found another, quite amazing quote, from a letter written by Le Corbusier to Nehru, that made me think again. In this letter, written in 1955, Le Corbusier was asking Nehru to sanction money for the construction of the Open Hand. The interesting thing is that Le Corbusier here proposed the Open Hand, not just as a symbol of Chandigarh, but as a monument that represented a thinking man’s choice and his refusal to accept the false choices of the world he lived in. The world of the 1950s was transfixed by the dilemma of the Cold War and the prospect of imminent nuclear World War III. Le Corbusier proposed the Open Hand as a symbol of non-alignment with the two power-blocs. ‘They laid a frightful pressure on me’, Le Corbusier wrote to Nehru,

They tried to use and misuse my name and practiced the threat of the bullet in the nape of the neck. I replied with a written declaration to the World Congress. They wish to place us on the horns of the USA/USSR dilemma. This is the result of a lack of information. I refuse to play into your hands and accept the conditions of the dilemma, which may be terrible.10

This refusal on his part, Le Corbusier continued, led him to the Open Hand:

I was possessed by the tragic quandary, which was offered here and there under the outrageous term ‘TO COMMIT ONESELF’. I picked up a drawing of 1948 representing an open hand above the sky-line; five women grouped on the ground see it rise to view. From then onwards I only kept the hand in my drawing, its outline getting more and more pure. I drew it during my travels. It took shape.11

‘It took shape’. Refusing to commit himself, maintaining independence in the face of an abominable choice – USA versus USSR – Le Corbusier projected the Open Hand as a symbol of this choice. He proposed it, in other words, as the symbol of non-alignment, corroborating one of Nehru’s biggest obsessions at the time, i.e. the creation of the Non-Aligned Movement. Le Corbusier’s letter in fact was written months after the landmark Bandung Conference of April 1955 when the NAM was proposed by Nehru. At Bandung, in his speech making the case for NAM, Nehru rested his case on the necessity of principled independent thinking, in the face of the false choices of the cold war. As he put it to the gathered assembly:

We do not agree with the Communist teachings, we do not agree with the Anticommunist teachings, because they are both based on wrong principles [...] So far as I am concerned, it does not matter what war takes place; we will not take part in it unless we have to defend ourselves. If I join any of these big groups I lose my identity [...] If all the world were to be divided up between these two big blocs what would be the result? The inevitable result would be war. Therefore every step that takes place in reducing that area in the world which may be called the unaligned area is a dangerous step and leads to war. It reduces that objective, that balance, that outlook which other countries without military might can perhaps exercise.

In other words, my main point here is that for Le Corbusier and for Nehru, to be modern was not to slavishly imitate others or to accept false choices and solutions that other might propose – but to think for themselves. To be modern was not a style, or a fad, or the way of the Western world, or the anti-thesis of things Indian. It was a way of thinking, a way of life, that was ultimately driven by ideals and the strong desire to take charge of one’s own destiny. Everyone, for modernists of the Le Corbusier and Nehru kilt, needed to be hit on the head and to think for themselves.

We live today in the 21st century in a world that once again – or perhaps still – offers us false choices. Us versus them. ‘You are either with us or against us.’ And they still offer war as their only solution: fanatics on suicide missions in passenger planes or ideologues with itchy fingers on laser guided bombs. Not much has changed. And the urgent questions still remains: is there not a third way? Why must we be forced to choose between one man’s warped conception of tradition and another’s one-sided vision for the future? We need to think. We have once again been hit on the head, and we need to assemble the thinkers.

This, then, is the relevance of Le Corbusier today, in the context of Chandigarh. In my opinion. As architects, planners and thinkers, many of us have tended to become complacent, happy with the sureties of making good money, comfortable in our modernist bungalows, content with hurling armchair daggers at misguided souls with pedimented façades and other ‘bania-baroque’ (in Gautam Bhatia’s memorable phrase) hybridisations. Don’t get me wrong: I abhor the ‘bania-baroque’, because usually it is a consequence of a slavish imitation of the ‘rich man’s architecture’. Many chastise modern architecture for being similarly motivated. Perhaps for some it was. To that extent modern architecture, and Le Corbusier, is irrelevant for Chandigarh today. But to the extent that we still consider ourselves to be enlightened citizens of the world, and of a free-thinking, independent, secular, democratic India, to such extent Le Corbusier, Nehru and the dream that was Chandigarh remains as important as ever.

                    

  1. Interviews with Aditya Prakash, Chandigarh. Le Corbusier also notes that the “style” of architecture was very important for Thapar. (FLC P2-12 p.120)
  2. Kiran Joshi has recently published a documentary book on the architecture of Fry, Drew and Jeanneret. Nangia (1999)
  3. Correa (1987) p.202.
  4. Prakash (1980) p.45.
  5. Correa (1987) p.201.
  6. Correa (1987) p.201.
  7. In Bhatia (1991) p.246.
  8. Most of the following was published previously as an op ed piece in The Tribune (newspaper),Chandigarh, India (September 2003)
  9. Nehru (1959) p.49.
  10. Fondation Le Corbusier (FLC) File P2-13 p.253.
  11. FLC P2-13, sid. 253

                                                   

VIKRAMADITYA PRAKASH