Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh is controversial, but his leading Indian disciple remains an eloquent advocate, writes Raymond Whitaker

It is ironic that the greatest monument to the work of Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, better known asLe Corbusier, should be in India, a world away from his origins. Though he was one of the most influential architects and urban planners of the 20th century, most of the Swiss-French visionary’s grand designs for modern living were never realised.

It was not until Jawaharlal Nehru invited Le Corbusier to take over the design of the new city of Chandigarh that the architect, already in his sixties, gained a canvas large enough to implement many of his ideas, and the result is as un-Indian as could be. Nowhere is this moretrue than in his capitol complex, from where the judicial, legislative and administrative affairs of both Punjab and Haryana states are run.

A visit to the complex, declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco last year, arouses mixed emotions. The Palace of Justice, the Palace of Assembly and the Secretariat, the largest edifice of all, are sculpture-like in form, but Le Corbusier’s love of raw concrete is not to everyone’s taste. The buildings are linked by a vast plaza, made of yet more concrete, which even in springtime bounces heat into the faces of those who have to cross it. And not all the materials have stood the test of time: workmen were tending one spot where concrete had crumbled away to reveal rusted reinforcing bars.

The most visible clash between aesthetics and practicality comes in the form of the air-conditioning units which now sit outside every window, even though Le Corbusier, designing in the era before air conditioning, took pains to keep his buildings cool with double roofs and deep window recesses. ‘You must also remember that global warming has made the climate hotter since his day,’ said the architect’s greatest Indian disciple, Balkrishna V Doshi.

Most of the Swiss-French visionary’s grand designs for modern living were never realised

Doshi, who turned 90 in August, was speaking in London, where the august Royal Academy had invited him to deliver its annual architecture lecture. He is a living link to Le Corbusier, with whom he worked as a newly-qualified young architect in the early 1950s, both in Paris and Ahmedabad. His mentor, 40 years his senior, designed several buildings in Ahmedabad, where Doshi set up his own practice, and the two worked together in Chandigarh as well.

Before Doshi spoke, the Royal Academy audience learned of his eminent career, both as an architect and educator. He not only founded and ran schools of architecture and environmental planning in Ahmedabad, he designed them too. One of his most famous projects is the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore, which he developed over 25 years from 1975 to 2000, but it was the low-cost Aranya housing project in Indore which won him the Aga Khan award forarchitecture in 1995. He has also been honoured by the Indian and French governments.

‘I accepted Le Corbusier as my guru,’ the veteran told his listeners in London. ‘I learned from [him] the beauty of form, proportions, light and space.’ He watched Le Corbusier for hours: ‘He would start drawing, and gradually the space would appear… Because of his buildings in Ahmedabad and Chandigarh, I began to change my attitude to design itself.’

Balkrishna V Doshi speaking at the Royal Academy (l) and his award-winning Aranya housing project in Indore
Balkrishna V Doshi speaking at the Royal Academy (l) and his award-winning Aranya housing project in Indore

But as Doshi himself emphasised, he came from a very different background and culture from the European genius. He was born into an extended Hindu family, where the different generations lived together in his grandfather’s house. Birth, death, and everything in between were ‘natural events’. He is on record as deploring the ever-increasing domination of Western culture in India, saying: ‘We lose what we have, and borrow what does not suit us at all.’

And the more the gentle, quietly humorous nonagenarian talked, the more it became apparent how divergent his approach was from that of the austere master of modernism. Though Doshi is unquestionably in the same tradition, making plentiful use of concrete, he insists that India cannot simply import modern architecture; it has to be adapted to Indian ways of life.‘Ultimately you don’t notice my buildings as being dominant,’ says the Indian architect. ‘What you notice is the life around them.’

Critics claim that Chandigarh is in danger of becoming a museum piece

Contrast this emphasis on the human with the attitude of Le Corbusier, who flirted with authoritarian politics and once described the pavement cafés of Paris as ‘a cancer’. Though the Swiss-French architect was engaged to supervise the development of the whole new city of Chandigarh, some claim he showed little interest in the project beyond his own buildings. He refused to move to India, choosing instead to visit a number of times a year, though his cousin and collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret, lived in the city for many years, and held the position of Chief Architect.

Half a century after its establishment, Chandigarh continues to be the subject of debate. Some lament that its grid pattern of carefully-planned neighbourhoods, connected by wide, tree-shaded boulevards, has never been imitated in India, even though it was admired elsewhere, most notably by Oscar Niemeyer, who designed Brasilia, Brazil’s purpose-built capital. Others argue that the city’s dependence on the motor car disadvantages the poor, and is outdated in an era when pollution and global warming are of far greater concern than they were in the 1950s.

Although Chandigarh has the highest per-capita income in India, critics also claim that the city is in danger of becoming a museum piece. Its stringent restrictions on high-rise building should be relaxed, they urge, to stimulate economic development. They would get short shrift from Doshi, who was asked in London about the skyscrapers now proliferating from Mumbai to Delhi. ‘They are cut and pasted from Google,’ he said. ‘Many of my own students are doing this too.’ Such buildings were ‘disconnected from society’.

There was no need to allow Le Corbusier’s creations to decay, Doshi told me afterwards. ‘He was using the materials of the time, which have not always lasted well, but the buildings can be rehabilitated. I redid one of his houses in Ahmedabad. It would be possible to modernise the capitol complex in Chandigarh, but they need an architect to do it.’ Unfortunately, the occupants seem happy to stick an air-conditioner on every window ledge, regardless of appearances.This is a surprise, given that one witnesses a degree of civic pride in Chandigarh that is not always notable in other Indian cities.

Alien as it might appear, and the subject of mockery as ‘India’s Milton Keynes’, Chandigarh’s inhabitants like living there – indeed, it has been voted the country’s happiest city. For a humanist like Balkrishna Doshi, what higher endorsement can there be of an architect’s work?

A former Asia Editor of The Independent and Foreign Editor of The Independent on Sunday, Raymond Whitaker is Editor of Asian Affairs

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