The Capitol Complex at Chandigarh, A study of Aesthetics Scott Crisman Sworts

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Architect: Le Corbusier Building: The Capitol Complex at Chandigarh (Palace of the Assembly, Secretariat, and The High Justice) Theme: Aesthetics

In 1947, India gained independence from the British Empire. The resulting political situation created the need for numerous new civic projects and new capital cities for several provinces. Among the provinces needing an administrative center was East Punjab, where Chandigarh is located.

In 1951, Le Corbusier was appointed as the Lead Designer of the new city. For the urban plan, he worked with a team of architects that included his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. However, in designing the Capitol Complex, Le Corbusier worked alone, developing both the urban plan of this city sector and the structures. In 1962, work was completed on the Capitol complex at Chandigarh.

“Architecture goes beyond utilitarian needs.” -Le Corbusier1 THE AESTHETIC The design of the Capitol complex was perhaps Le Corbusier’s greatest opportunity. For the first time, he had a chance to put all of his theories on urban planning and architecture into practice. His charge was to create a center of government “. . .Where

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Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1923, p. 4
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state functions were not merely housed but celebrated and where an architectural statement could be created strong enough to embody a sense of power and permanence, of seriousness and exaltation.”2 In writing about this project Le Corbusier stated it was, “a great architectural venture, using very poor materials and a labor force quite unused to modern building techniques, with the tremendous obstacle of the sun and the necessity of satisfying Indian ideas and needs, rather than to impose Western ethics and aesthetics.”3

Despite stating that the project needed to satisfy Indian ideas, most of the aesthetic components of his work at Chandigarh are a continuation and development of his earlier work. An example is the use of rough concrete that showed the marks of construction. (See figure 1) This style was first fully expressed on the l’Unite de Habitation in Marseille. Discussing this form, Le Corbusier stated, “these are magnificent to look at, they are interesting to observe, to those who have a little imagination, they add a certain richness.”4 Another reiteration of a previous aesthetic form was his use of the BriseSoleil on the facades of the buildings. (See figure 2) He commented, “they take the place of the weather drips on a classical facade, but they cover and influence the whole structure.”5

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Norma Evanson, Chandigarh, 1966, p. 71 Norma Evanson, Chandigarh, 1966, p. 75 Le Corbusier, Oeuvre Complete, 1946 - 52, 1958, p 195 Le Corbusier, Oeuvre Complete, 1946 - 52, 1958, p 118
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FIGURE 1

FIGURE 2

The form of the Brise-Soleil is used as an element in molding the play of light on surfaces. For Le Corbusier, light is one the most important aesthetic considerations in a building. He stated it as follows, “Architecture is the masterly, correct and magnificent play of masses brought together in light. . . . Light and shade reveals these forms; cubes, cones, spheres, cylinders or pyramids are the great primary forms which light reveals to advantage.”6

Related to the play of light was the use of bold color, about which he said, “I have decided to make beauty by contrast. I will find its complement and establish a play between crudity and finesse, between the dull and intense, between perfection and accident. I will make people think and reflect, this is the reason for the violent, clamorous, triumphant polychromy.”7 (See figure 3)

Le Corbusier had a love of relating the design of machinery to architecture. He said, “Every modern man has the mechanical sense. The feeling for mechanics exists and is justified by our daily activities. . . . There is moral sentiment in the feeling for mechanics.”8 This was the concept behind one of the most visually striking pieces of the entire complex, the assembly space, the form of which was derived from an industrial cooling tower. (See figures 4 and 5)

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Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1931, p. 29 Le Corbusier, Oeuvre Complete, 1946 - 52, 1958, p. 195 Le Corbusier, Towards a New Architecture, 1931, p. 127
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FIGURE 3

FIGURE 4

fIGURE 5

Chandigarh is Le Corbusier’s aesthetic at its most refined and developed form. But, does it work?

“In India, I thought everything is elegant and refined; but here was something crude. I thought this building should have elegance . . . but it is a fist instead of a hand.” -Minoru Yamasaki9 ANALYSIS In Chandigarh, Le Corbusier imposed his will without consideration to the context of the project. He made no move to acknowledge the culture and heritage of India, a culture at least a thousand years older than that of Europe. Yet the Capitol Complex does not reflect the European culture either. It exists in a cultural void, a wasteland created by the rejection of any icon or symbol that spoke to the past.

The closest analogy to the architecture that Le Corbusier created is Newspeak, created in Orwell’s book 1984. Newspeak was a version of the language that removed all elegance and symbolism, leaving only cold functionalism. Le Corbusier created an architectural language that removed all ideas that he deemed inappropriate. Unfortunately, one concept that he disapproved was the use of references to past cultures. By not incorporating elements of culture, and advocating the notions of mass production, the architecture could be located anywhere in the world. Chandigarh would

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Norma Evenson, Chandigarh, 1966, p.89
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be as appropriate for Phoenix as it is for India.

The Brise-Soleil sun shade is an excellent example of this. The form has no heritage in Indian architecture, but was developed for Le Corbusier’s European projects. By obscuring where floors, ceilings and windows are, they destroy the scale of the exterior of the building. Only the people around the building and a few visible doors give any indication of the size of the structure. (See figure 2) One element of most traditional architecture is a well-developed sense of scale. Removing it leaves the building adrift in a sea of space, an effect heightened by the vast plaza spaces surrounding each structure.

Although the Brise-Soleil fails in many ways, it does create fascinating deep shadows. The way light hits the buildings is probably the best aspect of the entire complex. The building’s surfaces are articulated by the play of the shadows, creating dynamic buildings that seem to change as the sun moves across the sky. It gives the building a certain elegance.

Rough concrete, on the other hand, has no elegance of form, it does not speak of craftsmanship but of a lack of it. By calling it an aesthetic form, Le Corbusier is taking a flaw in construction technology and turning it into surface decoration. He says that they add “richness to a building for those who have a little imagination.” By saying this he seems to be making the arrogant statement “art can only be appreciated by the educated elite, and no one else really matters.” Appreciation of buildings should not be
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limited to people with a good imagination.

The use of color is jarring, which was Le Corbusier’s stated intent. It does not relate to the form or function of the building, nor is it in any way linked to the context. Like Harvest Gold and Avocado Green appliances, the colors chosen seem to have an element of fad to them. They do not reflect the timeless nature of an institutional building. Perhaps the worst example of this is the combination of magenta and red that dominates the color scheme of the Assembly.

The tower for the Palace of Assembly is the most dominant form in the complex, but it is a failure functionally. The acoustics inside are so poor that all speakers must have a microphone to be heard. (See figure 6) The building is also designed in a way that keeps the citizens, press and members of the Assembly separate. This design seems to say, “The people have no access to the workings of the government.” Interestingly, the Palace of the Assembly has one of Le Corbusier’s few gestures to Indian custom and tradition. He has created a separate gallery for women, hiding them behind glass. However, it should be noted that this custom of segregating women was falling into disuse even when the building was designed. (See figure 7)

On the whole, Le Corbusier showed contempt for the culture of India. A glimpse of this can be seen in the following statement, “The sun is so violent that until now the habits of siesta and laziness were inevitable in native architectural conditions which allowed no

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FIGURE 6

FIGURE 7

work whatsoever at certain hours and seasons.”10 In his writings, he seems to think of the Indians as a primitive, ignorant people who can only benefit from his greatness and intelligence.

He feels he can solve all of India’s problems with his genius. If the people are restive in the afternoons because it is so hot, he will create an architecture that allows activity in the heat of the day. Of course, by creating the vast open spaces, he has arrogantly ignored all traditional Indian methods of coping with the heat. Buildings built close to each other create shaded walks; in Chandigarh, half mile strolls in searing heat are necessary. Because of his assumption that he always knows the correct solution, he made an existing minor problem a major one.

Other examples of this refusal to acknowledge anything other than his own opinion are evident in the High Justice building. He indicated a wall of glass and stated, “It is all glass, but the sun will never be dangerous. He will not be the enemy, but the friend.”11 His shuttering did keep direct light out of the courtrooms until very late in the day, but reflected glare forced many judges to move their benches so as not to stare into it. The court entries lead directly outside, causing people to wait in areas directly exposed to the driving monsoon rain. Because Le Corbusier felt that the Entry hall should not be an indoor area, but a continuation of the exterior space, rain is also a problem in that part

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Norma Evanson, Chandigarh, 1966, p. 75 Norma Evanson, Chandigarh, 1966, p.75
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of the building. In fact, employees of the High Justice find it almost impossible to move around the building without getting wet.

Le Corbusier designed tapestries for the courtrooms that many judges declared were an affront to the dignity of justice. One judge even went as far as to say, “For God’s sake burn them or do something.” Two or three tapestries were removed, but were replaced when Le Corbusier appealed to Prime Minister Nehru.

Perhaps, if he could have laid his preconceived notions and western arrogance aside, he might have been capable of producing something wonderful at Chandigarh. Many of his aesthetic concepts are exciting, but fail horribly in their execution. The buildings do not convey the sense of timelessness inherent in much of India’s built environment, they appear very dated only fifty years after completion. The entire Capitol Complex is bleak, utilitarian without being functional, and devoid of any trace of humanity. In all, Chandigarh is little more than a monument to one man’s overwhelming ego.

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BIBLIOGRAPHY: Chandigarh Perspectives Website. http://www.cperspectives.org. March 19, 1999. Evanson, Norma. Chandigarh. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966. Kalia, Ravi. Chandigarh, In Search of an Identity. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1987. Le Corbusier. The City of Tomorrow. London: The Architectural Press, 1924 Le Corbusier. The Modulor. Cambridge: The M.I.T. Press, 1954. Le Corbusier. Oeuvre Complete 1952 - 57. Zurich: Girsberger, 1958. Le Corbusier. Towards a New Architecture. New York: Dover Publications, 1931. Orwell, George. 1984. New York: Signet, 1949.

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