Le Corbusier bleeped on my radar when I was 18 and studying the history of architecture. When I saw black and white images of his church at Ronchamp, France, it was a hallelujah moment. I haven’t yet seen the real Ronchamp, but Le Corbusier, arguably one of last century’s greatest architects, also designed and supervised the building of India’s Chandigarh city between 1950 and 1965. And I’m here to see it. The guide ushers me through the form-filling for the permits to visit the Assembly, High Court and Secretariat, Le Corbusier’s three major buildings. He tells me the story of how Chandigarh came to be. During the partition of India in 1947, Punjab was sliced in two. It lost its capital, Lahore, to Pakistan and was left without a government administrative centre, a high court, museums, universities and state parliament buildings. It gained millions of homeless refugees, Hindus and Sikhs, who fled across the new border from Islamic Pakistan.
In 1950, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru sent an emissary to Paris to offer Le Corbusier the job of designing a new city. The pay was miserable, but the prospect of designing a city, especially the major government buildings within it, was irresistible. Le Corbusier was 63, but he was determined to leave a city as part of his intellectual and aesthetic legacy. We start with the Secretariat, the administration building. When Le Corbusier looked at the completed building in 1958, he would have seen it in its entirety, a great horizontal slab with a modular exterior and a lively pattern of horizontals and verticals creating forms and voids. Now the trees are so tall it reveals itself slowly from behind a widening frame of greenery as we walk towards it.
It’s almost identical to pictures of the 1958 model; some of the exterior brises-soleil (sun breakers) have been glassed in and oblong air-conditioning units perch on many of them. The units don’t look out of place, though; their shape works well enough with the oblong shapes and shade on the building’s exterior. Security is strict. Military women pat my body thoroughly and search my camera bag. Once inside, more permits are required. I wait in a large room where 15 middle-aged Sikhs, wearing pink, orange or green turbans, sit around desks crowded with piles of files. They chat in Punjabi while taking tea from small white porcelain cups edged with roses. With the soft grey concrete walls and ceiling and the defused light coming through the brises-soleil facade, the scene could be from a faded sepia photograph – except for the brightly coloured turbans.
The roof has a number of classic Corbusier concrete shapes juxtaposed artistically. It was to be a place where some of the building’s 3000 occupants took in winter sun and summer breezes, a rooftop relaxing space with a view, but these days two military tents and their machinegun-toting occupants dominate. Security again and fair enough; a bomb killed 16 people here a decade or so ago. There’s a terrific view of the Assembly from the roof; it looks like a great square slab of modular-patterned concrete with a giant cooling tower thrust through the centre. Security is extreme at the Assembly and my passport and camera bag are taken before I enter. The entry hall is cathedral-like in size and ambience, complete with heavenly rays of light. Adjoining it, the gathering hall is another space broken by long slender pillars that widen at the top. It has the beauty, coolness, columns and filtered light of a Northland kauri forest.
The Assembly chamber is a massive round interior with an extraordinary interplay of shape, space and light. There is a feeling of being pulled up the giant vortex that tops out at 40m from the floor. Le Corbusier attached his crazy dreams to lower parts of the curved ceiling. There are cloudlike relief sculptures in the colours of wine, mustard and spinach, which apparently assist acoustics. Parliament is not sitting, so the electric lights are off and I see a darker, softer version of the space. The High Court was completed in just 15 months, impressive considering the circumstances under which Le Corbusier and his team of engineers and architects worked. There was unlimited manpower but little equipment. Concrete was mixed in hand-turned barrels, carried in baskets on women’s heads and hauled up lashed-bamboo scaffolding by block and tackle. Wooden boxing was used and reused as the building grew.
Le Corbusier, famously a prima donna in other circumstances, happily adapted to creating buildings that suited the circumstances. The ponds outside the High Court that normally have double reflections have been emptied for cleaning, which is disappointing. An overarching double roof shelters three distinct features: the main courtroom, the giant ground-to-roof piers of the entry area and the eight smaller courtrooms. It’s perfectly modular, with the courtroom areas having Le Corbusier’s trademark interplay of form and void, dark and light. The grey concrete is broken up by the three piers painted the colours of the Indian flag: yellow, green and red.
I walk between the piers and up switchback ramps. Oval-shaped voids in the structure frame views of lawyers in black gowns lingering outside to smoke, of old cars collecting and dropping off passengers and of the distant Assembly building. The city, which spreads southeast of the government buildings, has been criticised by Westerners as too spread out, soulless and boring, but the most honest measure of its success is that Indian people love to live here. Of all Indian cities, Chandigarh has the highest per capita income and the highest house prices; it is the only city without traffic chaos; and its low-density apartment housing, reviled by critics for its concrete-tediousness, is hidden behind trees lining the wide streets. Its one million or so occupants delight in 8km of interlinked parks that weave through the city and appreciate the convenience of its precisely planned sectors, each with a school and a little market within easy walking distance.
The Open Hand, Le Corbusier’s 26m wind-turned monument, stands off to the side, beyond the Assembly and the High Court, looking lonely and misunderstood. I thought it was a symbolic dove. No matter, the message is similar: open to give, open to receive. Crotchety Corbusier, in his seventies by the time his work here ended, gave the people of Chandigarh light, space, nature and order – rare things in Indian cities. And he gave them architecture that is art.