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1964 June: Chandigarh, The Assembly

The third of Le Corbusier’s major buildings on the capitol at Chandigarh - The Assembly - is discussed in this article by Charles Correa, the Indian architect who practiced in Bombay

‘He flies through the air with the greatest of ease. That daring old man on the flying trapeze.’
- ANCIENT OCCIDENTAL FOLK-SONG

One arrives at Chandigarh. One travels through the town, past the houses spread out in the dust like endless rows of confidence-tricks; and down the surrealistic roads- V l’s and V 2’s-running between brick walls to infinity. Chandigarh, brave new Chandigarh, born in the harsh plains of the Punjab without umbilical cord.

Then in the distance, like an aircraft carrier floating above the flotsam and jetsam of some harbour town, appears the Secretariat. From miles away one sees it, white in the sunlight, racing along with the car riding high above the rows of gimcrack houses that make up the foreground. Gradually this proscenium clears, and the other two elements of the Capitol appear: the Assembly and the High Court; and the three buildings ride together against the grey-blue foot-hills of the Himalayas.

Ride together, swinging sometimes in front of each other and sometimes behind enormous banks of earth. One approaches closer and closer to the complex, and the bleached whiteness deepens slowly into the grey-green of concrete, the simple outlines of the masses dissolve into an astonishing, voluptuous complexity of shadow and substance.

Incredible, evocative architecture! ‘Stones are dead things sleeping in the quarry, but the apses of St. Peter are a passion!’ Throughout his life, Corb has sought to create an architecture of passion. His buildings- both in concept and visual language- have always been presented at a certain decibel level. No sotto voce, no politeness, but-like Wagner-thunder in the concert hall. This is probably the single most important fact about Corb because it necessitates his discarding any solutions which cannot be projected at the decibel level he favours. (It is interesting to note that when Corb sometimes intentionally lowers the volume, as for instance in the new extensions to the High Court, he achieves an architecture not unlike that of Louis Kahn.)

How does one project architecture at this decibel level? As an intelligent architect, Corb immediately perceived the necessity for a strong concept (‘the plan is the generator’); but concept alone is not enough, and as an artist he has become more and more aware of the importance of developing an impassioned visual language that would project these concepts. Thus each of Corb’s buildings has been a consecutive step in his search to develop the power- and further the boundaries- of his vocabulary and syntax. Other architects from Brazil to Tokyo have created buildings which can be termed ‘applied Corb’; Corb himself has never applied what is safe and proven. He has always sought to demonstrate something we did not know.

In 1922, Cocteau wrote in Vanity Fair:
‘Genius, in art, consists in knowing how far we may go too far. “Don’t touch it any more” cries the amateur. It is then that the true artist takes his chance.’

And Corb himself has written in Acrobat:


An acrobat is no puppet.
He devotes his life to activities
in which, in perpetual danger of death,
he performs extraordinary movements
of infinite difficulty, with disciplined
exactitude and precision… free
to break his neck and his bones and
be crushed.
Nobody asked him to do this.
Nobody owes him any thanks.
He lives in an extraordinary world, of the
acrobat
Result: most certainly! He does things
which others cannot.
Result: why does he do them?
others ask. He is showing off;
he’s a freak; he scares us, we pity him;
he’s a bore.

Concept and language; in his work up to the Unite d’Habitation at Marseilles Corb gave weight to both these aspects of architecture. (In fact, the Unite is an astonishing complex of spatial, structural, economic, and perhaps sociological, relevance.) Since then- and especially in his buildings in India- Corb has become more and more absorbed in his visual language; and however masterful this language may have become, it is still only one aspect of any great architecture. So we have the High Court: a building where large areas were ill-planned and badly lit, but with a spell-binding entrance where a whole new aesthetic world came into being; and the Secretariat: a structure with a magnificent façade, almost like a stage-set. Did not the earlier Corb promise something less skin-deep, something more conceptual?

The third building in the complex, the new Assembly, is- in this sense- a return to the earlier Corb, for in this Assembly he has produced an architecture that is not restricted to an entrance, nor to a façade, but to the functions of the programme and to the very spaces within the building itself.

The idea behind the Assembly is extremely simple: along three sides of the building, 300 ft. square, are located offices and conference rooms; the fourth side is an enormous portico which ‘orients’ the building towards the High Court. In the centre is an interior court, 200 ft. across, ranging from 35 ft. to 45 ft. in height, where are located the hyperbolic form of the assembly chamber, the rectangle (surmounted by a skew pyramidal roof) of the council chamber and the extraordinary collection of spaces, ramps and platform levels that make up the forum. (Corb has provided the principal users of the building-the legislators, the office workers, the press and the visiting public-each with their own system of entrances, lobbies, stairs, etc., thus ensuring their separation.)

The drama of the building starts with its skyline. Corb has always placed the greatest emphasis on the total volume of a building and its silhouette against the sky; as, for instance, the ramp on the roof of the Secretariat which acts like an immense spine holding the marvelously long, fractured, ungainly façade together. (Eliminate the ramp and the façade disintegrates into several different buildings.) So also the Assembly; the three elements on the roof: the hyperboloid, the pyramid and the lift-tower play out a dance-drama against the sky. The hyperboloid is inexpressibly beautiful from a distance-white in the sunlight, yet soft as snow. The three elements pirouette around each other as we approach the building, exchanging positions and crossing back and forth. Finally they recede behind the enormous sweep of the portico.

The other three façades (which form the base of this ‘stage’) are simple; necessarily so, for they must also provide counterpoint to the façade of the Secretariat next door. And so it is the gargantuan portico which gives the building direction, turning it to face the High Court. One enters under the 50 ft. high canopy and through the pivoting door (25 ft. square!) and the drama of the interior spaces commences. (Corb certainly knows how to provide an entrance; one thinks of the mill-owner’s building in Ahmedabad with its ramp reaching out like a long hand to pick passers-by off the road.)

How can one begin to convey a sense of so complex an interior? Study the sections and plans. Even a cursory glance will illustrate how very cunning and sensitive is Corb’s handling of spaces; e.g. his continuous use of the L-shape- (the leg of which forms an escape-valve to what would otherwise be a static square). In other words, Corb, like Frank Lloyd Wright, is keenly aware of the distances that can be seen from any given point. By never defining the limits of this vision (the sections and plans are co-ordinated so that the eye can always see beyond and around the corner), the spaces remain dynamic and uncontained. As one traverses the ramps and platform levels of the forum one builds up a series of images which are superimposed on the brain, creating an overall pattern of incredible richness.

This is a fundamental technique of Corb’s. The complexity of his architecture is not due to the creation of one single intricate pattern but is rather due to the creation of several different patterns which, through superimposition, generate an indescribable complexity. This can be illustrated by the river façade of the millowners’ building in Ahmedabad (four separate patterns playing together like instruments in a band), and by the façade of the Secretariat, where a complete landscape is created by juxtaposing brise soleil grilles of various patterns and scales. (This technique is often used in the marble grilles of Fatehpur Sikri and the shoji screens of Japan.) This is not to say that Corb could really have calculated all these effects. What he has done is this: he has been shrewd enough to establish a situation where different patterns can interact. The miracles follow of their own accord, and a complete landscape is generated.

And the finest landscape of all lies within the forum. Here all the major elements are self-supporting, thus necessitating a great many columns rising to a great many different heights. Yet this articulation of the structural system never borders on mannerism, for Corb is working at a vast scale, and he knows just what he can and cannot do. The columns give rhythm and scale, rising like a great forest in the dulcet light. And it is this light, filtering from above, washing the concrete surfaces, that draws us upward into the higher reaches of the building.

Here the light gets dimmer, the spaces more diffuse. One is walking across large desolate areas, and down strange alleyways, between giant concrete forms. Where are we? At the top of the Duomo? It is a strange moment, an eclectic moment, deeply evocative of an architecture past. Then we emerge on to the roof level and into the dazzling sunlight. Here we are on an immense cobbled piazza, the landscape of Chandigarh lying all around; and like monsters rising above the surface of the sea, emerge the hyperboloid, the pyramid and the lift-tower. The last act of the drama- like the opening of the drama- is played out here against the sky.

How does so complex a building hold visually together? Primarily through the near-exclusive use of a single material: concrete. Much has been written about the brutality of Corb’s architecture and, as evidence, is usually cited his handling of concrete. But Corb’s brutality is, in fact, only one side of the coin; he is much more than that. Any ape can be brutal, and Corb could never be exclusively brutal any more than he could be exclusively elegant. It is essential to his temperament that he expresses both qualities at the same time. (A glance at the Jaoul houses in Paris will illustrate this.) It has been said that one understands the hardness of rock only if one knows the softness of silk, and Corb himself reputedly sprinkles his biftek with large granules of kitchen salt. (‘This way I know what salt is and I know what meat is.’)

 

Thus we find that at certain levels of the Assembly- as for instance in the bridge connecting the lift-tower to the top of the hyperboloid- the physical protection provided is completely inadequate. A sense of danger also exists in some portions of Shodan’s house in Ahmedabad, and the question is asked: Why has Corb done this? Yet try to imagine the same architecture with a safe three-foot-high parapet providing uniform protection all around! Danger perhaps is the necessary concomitant of safety. (And danger has its own rewards: crossing the jungle at night may be a fearsome experience, but it gets you to keep your eyes open, your ears flapping, your senses alert. Corb, cunning as he is, has probably observed this.)

The use of contrast, then, to heighten meaning, is an essential technique of Corb’s, and it results in an architecture of great flexibility, making many simultaneous statements, thus covering a wide spectrum of human emotions. Mies- who may himself be brought in at this point to provide contrast- is an architect who plays a very limited range of the spectrum; and if he may, for the purpose of analogy, be described as an artist who can take a potato and boil it perfectly, then Corb is certainly the man for a really first-class curry.

 

A Miesian plan brings the simplest elements together in an atmosphere of Olympian calm; it is a space at rest, devoid of any too particular orientation (unfortunately, through vulgarization, this has popularized an effete symmetry that has swept America like diarrhoea). But Corb’s elements are seldom simple and crystal-clear; they are usually ambiguous with a myriad overtones; and his buildings, like those of Wright, are never non-directional; they always emphasize their sense of orientation and therefore their sense of life. (The exception perhaps is the museum at Ahmedabad which is his blandest, and weakest, building.)

The Chandigarh Assembly has, in a very large measure, this sense of life. It is an exuberant building, and its impact-its decibel level-is perfectly gauged in scale to its size. In fact, throughout the building, the sense of spatial control is so masterful that it is perplexing that at the climax of the composition, the Assembly chamber itself, Corb falters.

One enters this chamber and one is at the bottom of a gigantic well. The walls swerve upward to a height of over 100 ft. In an attempt to kill this height Corb has painted the walls in three horizontal bands-red, yellow and white. In an attempt to increase the amount of light reaching the floor (the natural light in the chamber is painfully inadequate), he has used yellow wool carpets, and further, to break up the monumental space, he has installed green and brown seats alternately in a sort of checker-board pattern. But to what avail? Even what Mumford has called the ‘overingenious’ mind of Corb cannot gainsay these facts: the Assembly chamber is an unhappy place to step into, and it is a near impossible Parliament to deliberate in.

What is the reason for this seeming failure? The fluid shape of the hyperboloid is hardly to blame. On the contrary it is a surprisingly sensible choice and perhaps the only static space which could climax the dynamic images of the forum areas. Instead, a likely reason for the unhappy state of affairs is the light; Corb has inserted only three openings in the circular roof, and they are supposed to let in direct sunlight only on particular days -i.e., the equinox, the solstice, etc.

 

While this surely will make a charming story for a guidebook a hundred years hence, it makes impossible conditions for those using the chamber right here and now. One thinks of Steen Eiler Rasmussen saying that Corb’s buildings are sometimes like games children play with chairs and boxes. The children set these up in a certain way, then they cry: Look at the Motor car! If you say: How can it be a motor car? Does it move? They do not understand. To them it is a motor car.

This analogy becomes even more pertinent if we consider Corb’s buildings and their relevance to the Indian climate. In spite of the double roofs and brise-soleil and umbrellas, Corb’s buildings in India are particularly ill-ventilated (the exception is the Sarabhai house in Ahmedabad). Yet an architect of Corb’s inventiveness could have made considerable progress in developing a modern vocabulary that could deal with India’s climate (as was done by the great architects of the past), if only he had wanted to actually solve the problem of climate rather than play at solving it.

So Corb has his failures; yet somehow, in so glorious an architecture, they do not seem to matter. Like any major artist, his idiosyncrasies and his mistakes are part of his character. Thus one derives as much pleasure from the minor houses of Wright, the lesser plays of Shakespeare and the earlier quartets of Beethoven as one does from any of their masterworks. It is a curious point, worth a text of its own, that in art at this level a certain amount of ambiguity and error makes for reality- reality being the antithesis of slickness. The great buildings (and cities) of the past were a collection of a good many decisions-some right and some wrong; this is what makes them so human. And in India there is a saying: ‘An architect should complete only 60 per cent of his building and leave 40 per cent to God.’

The muses of architecture ride the centuries on a pendulum. In the West the pendulum swung all the way to functionalism and now it is swinging back. This puts it exactly 100 per cent out of phase with the state of events in India. Here the majority of older architects practice an architecture that seems a cross between the Beaux-Arts and Ajanta. Yet Corb, who should have come along loaded with twentieth-century-type logic (like the domes of Buckminster Fulier), can actually be used to vindicate them all the way down the line. The younger architects are not much better. Many of them imitate Corb as though his visual language was an entity in itself, like General Motors styling. These architects are perhaps more dangerous, for they exploit Corb’s photogenic mannerisms without even beginning to understand either his sense of space or his control of light.

The result of all this is that the public is antagonistic to Corb. They dislike’ his lack of climate control. They dislike his concrete. But more than anything else, they dislike his aesthetics. Recently a New Delhi housewife said to me: ‘Those buildings in Chandigarh! They are huge, clumsy, awful athletes.’ And an American photographer cried angrily of ‘the Assembly: ‘It’s just a very fancy jungle gym.’ (Of course these are both, unwittingly, compliments.) More important, perhaps, is the fact that the Governor’s Palace will never be built- the Governor having rejected the design. He- says he would rather stay on in his Jeanneret-designed bungalow.

Yet, in spite of these antagonisms and misunderstandings, there is no doubt that Corb’s work has been of considerable benefit to India. It has stimulated a whole generation of architects. And it has given them a sense of their past, because in some inexplicable way Corb is tuned to this country. It is alleged that Edward Stone’s embassy in Delhi is ‘Indian’- if it is, then it is the fake India of the Taj Mahal and Hollywood. Corb has evoked a much deeper image. His is a more real India, an India of the bazaars, sprawling, cruel, raucous in colour, with a grandeur all its own. His aesthetic evokes our history, and Chandigarh finds echoes in Fatehpur Sikri, in Jaiselmer, in Mandu. Surely this is why a building of Corb’s sits so well on Indian soil, whereas at Harvard it seems an affectation.

Perhaps Chandigarh is the last great work of Corb. In some of his other projects since, as for instance that at Harvard, one cannot avoid feeling that he is straining his visual language without extending it. Yet again at other times, as in the Unite at Berlin, he seems merely to have produced a work of ‘applied Corb.’ Is the great period, the golden age, over? There will, for sure, be those who do not agree, those eyes that will not see. In Boston, in Berlin, in Tokyo, they will continue to search the sky, stubbornly seeking the tension-wire and the lonely figure of the balancing acrobat. Where has he gone? Perhaps he is old; perhaps his act is over; perhaps he is on earth again, among us.

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