Unpublished text, 1988.
“…truth is not to be found at the extremes. The truth flows between two banks, a tiny rivulet or a mighty torrent… and different everyday…”
Le Corbusier (1957)
“There was a time when human races lived in comparative segregation and therefore the art adventurers had their experience within a narrow range of limits, deeply cut grooves of certain common characteristics. But today that range has vastly widened, claiming from us a much greater power of receptivity than what we were compelled to cultivate in former ages. If today we are a living soul that is sensitive to ideas and to beauty of form, let it prove its capacity by accepting all that is worthy of acceptance, not according to some blind injunction of custom or fashion, but in following one's instinct for eternal value, the instinct which is a God given gift to all real artists. Even then our art is sure to have a quality which is Indian, but it must be an inner quality and not an artificially fostered formalism, and therefore not to be too obtrusively obvious and abnormally self-conscious...”
Rabindranath Tagore, The Meaning of Art
“I do not want my house to be walled in on all sides and my windows to be stuffed. I want the cultures of all the lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.”
Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi
“The march of time will wait for no man and these who cannot fall in step will perish, I do not intend to get India perish while I am around. She will adapt herself now as she has done many times before and she will survive.”
Uttered at various times, the above statements sum up the dominant political and intellectual context of India in the twentieth century. As the architect of the new capital of the Indian state of Punjab, Le Corbusier faced that ideational context. The political situation of that time involved the emergence of India as a new nation-state within the world economic and political matrix following the Second World War, and a dominant leadership that foresaw the future in the treasury of modernity: industrial progress, democracy and international fraternity.
At the same time, vestiges of an ancient civilisation remained deeply entrenched in the niches of the society along with anomalies that have accumulated over time. It was those anomalies, along with colonial consternations, that fanned contemporary progressive thinking in people like Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of India. In being invited to plan for Chandigarh by Nehru, Le Corbusier was thrust into the heart of that contradiction.
In Chandigarh, at the foothills of the Himalayas, the plains trodden by waves of historical movements, where Buddhist culture once flourished with a Greek flavour, Le Corbusier was given the opportunity, so many times frustrated before – during the League of Nations, the Palace of the Soviets, and the UN Headquarters – to construct a monument for a new nation-state. Chandigarh, the “temple of New India” became Le Corbusier’s first real opportunity to concretise his idealisation of a new age. In Nehru, he finally found “a political leader whose outlook was in tune with his own architectural philosophy and whose authority was strong enough to put it to work.”
Even if Nehru’s ideology became the dominant aspiration for post-war India, the Gandhian philosophy of returning to roots, finding self-sufficiency in vernacular means, and perpetuating ancient myths, remained quite operative in the production of another reality, and against which Corbusier’s architectural production in India will continually and finally be perceived. Le Corbusier’s work in India also becomes significant in stirring certain fundamental issues in contemporary architectural consciousness. Even without really settling the matter whether his production in India is really modern/European, Indian, or purely Corbusian, the work jeopardises the homogeneity of “modernism,” and undermines the modernist idea that architecture in the age of industrial progress is justifiably ahistorical, acultural and international. It is more than coincidental that the reductive internationalism of the post-war years received its major contrapuntal twist in the Indian sub-continent, through the work of Le Corbusier in India and Louis I. Kahn in Bangladesh.
Le Corbusier’s “prehistory”
A dual sensibility pervades the thoughts of Le Corbusier from the very beginning of his entry into architecture, starting with his voyage to Eastern Europe and Turkey. In Greece, on the heights of the Acropolis, he perceives architecture as a rationally crystallised human artefact located in nature with a brazen disposition. While in Istanbul, architecture appears to him in passivity, as sinuous shapes mediating between the spirit of the human and nature, and as part of mythic folk cultures nurtured through centuries.
While the Acropolis is, to Le Corbusier, the total affirmation of will and power over nature – a stark clarity borne out of intellectual reason – Istanbul is popular memory characterized by a pluralistic, malleable and passionate spirit. The Acropolitan mode is in a sharp contradistinction with nature, while Istanbul seeks “closeness to the soil and the earthly sensuality.” Whether mediative or conflicting, dualism becomes a recurrent trope in Corbusier’s architecture at a number of levels in which the Acropolis and Istanbul remain as perceptual sources, and the Apollonian and Dionysian notions as intellectual motives. A tension of the ‘“pair” of concepts’ may operate at the broadest scale, in the opposition of nature with geometry, or at a building scale within the frame of a form itself as in the distinction between rectilinear and curvilinear elements. Both as an artist and an architect, von Moos notes, Le Corbusier wants to include the element of contrast – the clash of thesis and antithesis, of order and disorder, of seriousness and humour – as a necessary factor in the formal whole. With dualism as a tool, an ideological tension runs as the main thread in Corbusier’s philosophy and production, and may actually explain what appears to be shifts or oscillations in his position. The compositional and formal whole, for any particular time and project, depended on the positioning of either mode, whether of dominance and balance. Although such a mode often subsumed the finer nuances of places, Corbusier used this strategy to confront various conditions of his architectural undertaking, whether they came from program, site or cultural settings.
For Le Corbusier, the 1920s involved a closer relationship to the peer group of the European avante-garde and its vociferous claims for modernism. This situation brought to the foreground the Acropolitan mode and a suppressing of the Istanbul sensibility, although by that time Corbusier has given tentative architectural expression to both: the Citrohan project for the Acropolitan (1922), and the Monol houses for the Constantinopolitan (1919). There was always the tendency in Le Corbusier for the surfacing of heterogeneous sensibilities in various shades, sporadically before the 1930s, as in the Mundaneum project and the projects for Algiers, and as a more reconciled thrust in the 1950s. Such tendencies make understandable some of the primary aspects of Le Corbusier’s work in India.
The seeming irreconcilability of dualism in Le Corbusier led to the adoption of juxtaposition as a compositional mode to accommodate the identity of each realm. Thus, while “Frank Lloyd Wright fused, Mies neutralised, and Corbusier juxtaposed leading to a kind of tension in his ensemble. It was almost the exteriorisation of his inner ideological polarities,” as von Moos observed. “No doubt that some of his paintings can be understood as reflections of strong and unresolved inner tensions.” Le Corbusier himself, time and again, confirmed his dualistic proclivity: “This prodigious spectacle has been produced by the interplay of two elements, one male, and one female: sun and water. Two contradictory elements that both need the other in order to exist,” and again, “in the one, strong objectivity of forms, under the intense light of a Mediterranean sun: male architecture. In the other limitless subjectivity rising against a clouded sky: female architecture.”
Juxtapositional composition allowed Le Corbusier to appropriate and invest ideas and icons from diverse sources, even if a-historically: from Western Europe to Africa, from “high classical” to vernacular, from machine imagery to folk art, and from archaic sensibility to contemporary ideology. The original source was always transformed and ‘meaning transposed’ before becoming an architectural reality in the Corbusian schemata. As a rule, the appropriated source was always passed through the Corbusian filter to ultimately render its origin incomprehensible. The strategies of juxtaposition also accommodated what Stanford Anderson calls the independent and continuing “architectural research programmes” of Le Corbusier. The evolution of his personal typologies (construction theme, architectural promenade, and climate response) allowed fresh inspiration to and newer dimension in his consistent cores. The strategy also permitted the retaining of the identity of elements even when they were contradictory, and became effective when ideological and cultural collisions came to play. Such juxtapositions also led to an ambiguity producing eventually a multiplicity of meanings, and interpretative richness.
“India the Humane and Profound Civilisation”
“She is waking up... intact at a time when all is possible ... But India is hardly a brand new country: it has lived through the highest and most ancient civilisations. It has an intelligence, moral philosophy and conscience of its own.”
-Le Corbusier, 1950s
Le Corbusier arrived in India in 1951 to begin his immediate responsibility – the design of Chandigarh, the new capital city for the state of Punjab and its key components. While the city plan was carried out by a team following an earlier idea by Albert Mayer, the design of the Capitol and its buildings was executed solely by Corbusier. Besides the Capitol he also designed two museums, two colleges, houses for peons, and a clubhouse. Corbusier was also invited to Ahmedabad, a city of both past and recent significance in terms of commercial, cultural and political prowess, to design the city museum, a building for the powerful mill-owners, and two villas.
Chandigarh and Ahmedabad posed two very different priorities: one was for the state on a blank terrain, but resonant with overt political, ideological and mythical tones, and the other in an existent urban milieu with more modest motivations. Chandigarh was a high representational task, while Ahmedabad involved exploring the nature of dwelling and living. Chandigarh was heroism on a national scale, while Ahmedabad involved heroism, if it did, on a smaller and personal level.
Even if Le Corbusier participated as a member of a team in laying out the master plan of the city, he has to eventually bear the responsibility of the urban prospect of Chandigarh. After all, it was his urban visions that spurred off the planning and its realizations. In India, the mood about Chandigarh the city is highly polarised. While William Curtis may claim that the axes and sectors resonate with the plan of Jaipur, it is actually the quality of openness, greenery and sunlight – as an alternative to the grubbiness of cities like Calcutta and Bombay – that many perceive as a positive alternative. In claiming the city as a social and urban disaster, some people have demanded: “Leave Chandigarh alone!” Some are less concerned about the squabble over the appropriation of the new city as capital by the two states of Haryana and Punjab.
In thinking of Chandigarh as an architectural ensemble, one is automatically drawn to the symbolic “head” of the city and the architectural tour de force: the Capitol. The compositional organisation of the Capitol had its fundamental problem – it had to be part of a city built instantly, and yet myths had to be provided, the stuff that drives all cities. Le Corbusier himself expresses the struggle: “There was anxiety and anguish in taking decisions on that vast limitless ground... The problem was no longer one of reasoning but of sensation.”
The composition of the Capitol is informed by two sources: first, Corbusier’s twenty-five years of research through continuous attempts in his life to give expression to the collective ethos of “the new epoch” through its various institutions: cultural, as in the case of the Mundaneum project; political, as in the League of Nations project; and, administrative and communitarian, as in St Die in France. In the Capitol at Chandigarh, functionally an administrative seat of the state, Le Corbusier brings forth the potency of all three institutions, and his typological instruments to sustain them.
Secondly, the geographical setting of the Capitol urges Corbusier to take an unprecedented strategy in constructing scale and meaning in his architecture. There, meaning is not generated by the visual and symbolic relationships of the architectural figures alone, but equally from the tension of their relationships with nature, the plains on one side, and the hills on the other. The consideration for the arrangement was more mythopoetic than urbanistic. A convention is implied for that arrangement which is neither Indian nor European, but totally Corbusian in the mythical engagement of a dialogue of the three colossi: the Himalayas, emblematic of nature; India, the ancient human civilization; and Le Corbusier himself, the protagonist of the new epoch.