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Photo courtesy Cristian Chironi
Photo courtesy Cristian Chironi

A city, two architects and a traveller

An exploration of the architectural lexicon of Chandigarh

Chandigarh, the first planned city of modern India, is struggling under the swelling pressure of development. 

It aspires to be another Gurgaon, if not a Singapore. But the designer tag attached to it carries Le Corbusier’s name. In addition, a Unesco world heritage tag—for the time being limited to the Capitol Complex and the high court building—forces the city to conserve its heritage as also find ways to accommodate expansion. 

Corbusier designed only a few buildings for the city he planned. Several others of exquisite design dot Chandigarh—the lotus shaped Gandhi Bhawan as though floating in water, the university museum, the spiral-shaped student centre and other government buildings and houses—none designed by him. 

The planned, over-regulated city and its buildings speak in different dialects, even though the syntax seems to be same. And when Italian artist Cristian Chironi came to the city to stay in Le Corbusier’s house for a month, Chandigarh's architectural lexicon left him baffled. 

Chironi is working on a project “My House is a Le Corbusier"—supported by Le Corbusier Foundation, Paris—that developed across 12 countries. He is studying the changing dynamics between Corbusier’s architecture and the inhabitants around the housing complexes, buildings, industrial projects, townships and more planned and designed by him, spread across Japan, Russia, Europe, the US and Asia. 

Opportunity in a new nation 

The son of a watchmaker, Corbusier was born in Switzerland in 1887 as Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris. He moved to Paris aged 20 and in 1920, adopted his nickname Le Corbusier from an ancestor. A decade later, he took French citizenship.

His modern architecture influenced France’s post-war planning policy for decades—like his idea of functional apartment blocks with parks. The policy ended in 1973 after claims that these buildings were soul-destroying and led to urban ghettos. 

In fact, if one of his “plans" succeeded, he would have wiped off the historical centre of Paris, including the famous Notre Dame—he found it too ornamental to be functional. He was also accused of having Nazi connections that influenced his architecture, but that remains a contentious allegation. 

While Europe could not offer him the opportunity he was seeking for a grand expression of his creativity, Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, was looking to make a statement for a free and modern India. Additionally, he wanted to offer balm to the people of Punjab, who had lost Lahore to Pakistan in the Partition. 

Nehru had selected American architect Albert Mayer’s plan for what would become Chandigarh, but after his partner, Polish-born architect Matthew Novicki, died in an airplane crash in 1950, it offered Corbusier an opportunity to realize his dream of planning a township. 

He would have liked to do things on a grand scale, but the opportunity came from a recently liberated third-world country, which forced him to scale down his plan. Later, when he came in contact with the local engineers and planners, he was greatly influenced by the concepts incorporated in the Vaastu Shastra of Indian architecture, which synced with his ideas of space and light. 

House projects

For “My House is a Le Corbusier", Chironi plans to live in 30 houses across 12 countries designed by Corbusier. The 12-year-long project is in its fourth year. 

He has documented his impressions of living in a house designed by Corbusier in Italy, at his studio apartment in Rue Nungesser-et-Coli near Paris, and at Maison Curutchet, Argentina. 

While working in these houses, to understand the changing dynamics between the resident and the house, he would invite people over a cup of coffee to talk and document their experiences.

In Chandigarh, he changed his strategy—he would go to people’s homes or to public places. He documented the “Chandigarh Carnival" in a space created by Corbusier in Sector 10. It showed how well the local population adapted to new spaces, and created their own traditions around the spaces. 

Though the idea of houses having separate doors for staff and guests has been unsettling to him, he assumes the ill practice is added to new architecture due to cultural traditions. 

“My House is a Le Corbusier" was conceived in 2014 at a time of market instability and high mortgage rates. It treats architecture as social theory with Le Corbusier as its modern founder. 

Pilgrim’s tales

When he came to Chandigarh in November, “like a pilgrimage", Chironi was shocked to learn that Corbusier didn’t build a house for himself, nor did he design any other residential building in the only complete township he planned towards the fag end of his life. 

Corbusier was 63 when he started work on Chandigarh, after several of his plans to reconstruct cities of Europe, after World War II, were rejected. 

Chironi chose No. 57 in Sector 5 for his month-long stay, in the same room where Corbusier used to live. The house belonged to Pierre Jeanneret, Corbusier’s cousin, whose contribution to modern architecture and design is coming out of the shadows of the towering presence of Corbusier. 

Jeanneret, a Swiss architect, and Corbusier set up an architectural practice together, which worked for about 20 years. Their working relationship came to an end when Jeanneret joined the French Resistance while Corbusier did not. But Corbusier invited him again for Chandigarh, which he could not handle alone. 

Jeanneret was greatly influenced by M.K. Gandhi and lived on the bare minimum. He never married and wished his ashes to be spread in the Sukhna Lake after his demise—he died a year after leaving Chandigarh. 

He stayed on in Chandigarh after its construction was over, advising the local government in his appointed capacity as chief architect of the city. He was also the first principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture. 

As a tribute to his contribution, Jeanneret’s house was turned into a museum in March this year, after successive bureaucrats—custodians of the heritage value of its architecture who also happened to be the residents of the house—destroyed its heritage features to acquire a more “modern" look. Deepika Gandhi, architect, director of Le Corbusier Centre and Chandigarh Architecture Museum painstakingly restored the house.

Chironi, a Corbusier fan, is a bit shocked seeing concrete walls being plastered, ribbon windows being closed to make room for air-conditioners and spaces reduced by raising walls. More surprising to him is a complete absence of Corbusier’s influence on the buildings and towns on the periphery. 

“Chandigarh College of Architecture (CCA), doesn’t have a single semester dedicated to the architects who made this city, it never had," says Gandhi. 

That explains all sorts of architectural influences on the new houses in the city and the periphery, barring that of Corbusier and Jeanneret. 

New addition to the pantheon

In the exhibition “My House is a Le Corbusier" of videos, collages, installations etc.—held at Jeanneret Museum till 11 December—Chironi playfully used the city designed by Corbusier as the backdrop. He placed the furniture designed by Jeanneret upside down to create fresh architectural interventions. 

In a way, he was paying homage to Corbusier’s cousin, who remained in the background and unsung despite planning and designing four townships—Sundarnagar, Pandoh and Slapper Colony in Himachal Pradesh and Talwara in Punjab. 

Apart from that, he designed several important buildings of Chandigarh, like the entire Panjab University, 14 types of residential (13,000 government houses) and several other government complexes in the city. 

The furniture pieces designed by Jeanneret are smuggled out of the country and sell like hot cakes in European markets. 

“Jeanneret lived in Chandigarh for 20 years, visited rural areas and integrated local materials and sensibilities in his design," observes Surinder Bahga, who co-authored Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret: Footprints in the Sand of Indian Architecture in 2000, when few had heard of Jeanneret. 

While Corbusier famously said, “A house is a machine to live in," Jeanneret struggled to integrate the concept of “development" of the 1950s and ’60s with Indian culture, ethos and cultural peculiarities. For example, most inhabitants of the townships he planned were averse to having a toilet inside the house and didn’t know what a wash-basin was meant for. 

The fusion of the two sensibilities in Chironi’s exhibition—the heritage and the contemporary, ornamental and functional, rural and urban, old and new—reflect playfulness. At the same time, it offered his perspective on the interface between modernity and heritage, space and occupants.

On bricks placed in a manner of rural jaalis, used in houses designed by Jeanneret, he placed video recordings made inside the houses of Corbusier in Italy, France and Argentina. The stool placed in front to watch the video is designed by Jeanneret using local cane. 

Two brands of manholes

Chironi also designed a manhole cover, using motif of the eye windows used extensively by Jeanneret, instead of the plan of Chandigarh found on the original Corbusier-designed manhole covers smuggled and sold in the international market. 

Chironi donated the manhole cover to the Jeanneret Museum. Even though he denies it, there is a playful twist in the act of creating fresh manhole covers—local visitors to the museum did not miss the pun. 

The Chandigarh administration realised the value of the manhole covers only after one of these was sold for 10.87 lakh at an auction in Paris. In 2014, two manhole covers were stolen from the CBI office in Sector 30, and have remained untraced since. 

A lot of energy of the entire administrative machinery is concentrated on finding the exact number of manhole covers of heritage value and segregating them from the fakes. The manhole covers are counted by two departments in Chandigarh—the municipality counts the ones on the roads and in the open, the office of the chief engineer counts the ones that fall inside the boundary walls. By a rough estimation, there are still about 2000 original manhole covers, but their authenticity is yet to be verified.

The Chandigarh Heritage Conservation Committee has even come up with the idea of putting GPS chips on the manhole covers to ensure their heritage presence in the “city beautiful". 

Half-a-century after his death, Jeanneret’s place is restored in Chandigarh pantheon—his 50th death anniversary was observed by CCA in the first week of December by holding a symposium on his works. 

Chironi says No. 57 is like “a grandfather’s house—warm and spacious and cosy. Jeannette’s approach to design is domestic because he moved around a lot in villages, among people. Corbusier’s is more institutional," summed up the artist. 

He observed, on his arrival in the city, that, “Chandigarh is a living work of art and a work of art can’t be altered."

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