The Marseilles Unite and the monuments of Chandigarh have been held up as an example of Le Corbusier’s interest in passive energy control. Christopher Mackenzie questioned these assumptions on a visit to India
Originally published in AR February 1993, this piece was republished online in June 2011
During the 1930s, Le Corbusier was working largely in hot countries, and the invention of the brise-soleil seemed to be the answer to problems of heat gain.
Clive Entwistle, the British architect, who translated several of Le Corbusier’s books, wrote to him in August 1946: ‘I take this opportunity on behalf of young people here to thank you for your latest gift to architecture: the brise-soleil, a splendid element, the key to infinite combinations. Now architecture is ready to take its place in life. You have given it a skeleton (independent structure), its vital organs (the communal services of a building), a fresh shining skin (the piloti). And now you have given it magnificent clothes, adaptable to all climates! You must be a little proud!’ (Oeuvre Complete. Vol.IV. p113).
In 1933 he developed horizontal, movable shutters for a housing scheme in Barcelona - (the year in which he proposed respiration exacte and the mur neutralisant for the Geneva Life insurance office building). In that year, he proposed a block of flats in Algiers with sheer glass walls on the north and east sides, and brises soleils on the south and west elevations.
In 1935, Le Corbusier went to Brazil and acted as consultant architect for the Ministry of Health and Education in Rio de Janeiro. The result was an office building with brises soleils on the north (sun-facing) elevation. This was the first time he gave this treatment to an office building, perhaps as a result of his observations of the conditions suffered by the office workers in New York, due to the lack of protection from direct sunlight.
He was not, however, altogether happy with the result: ‘The Ministry of Education and Public Health at Rio … offers the first example of brise-soleil in modern architecture. But a mistake was made. The horizontal panels of the brises soleils are movable. The real principle is this: it is the sun that does the moving, never once occupying the same place in the sky for 365 days. A scheme can therefore be devised, based on precise data: a) the course of the sun on every day of the year; b) problems of the latitude of the place under consideration: for instance, the sun must never touch a pane of glass during the summer period, between the two equinoxes, but in winter the sun may be perfectly bearable. On the one hand, one absolute: among cosmic values; on the other, one relative: human predilections, freedom of choice’. (My Work. 1960. p111).
This observation is significant as it demonstrates that Le Corbusier did not understand his own invention properly: it should be pointed out that under some circumstances, moveable brises soleils may be the only way to achieve ‘at least two hours of sunlight per day at the winter solstice’ (Charter of Athens 1951) - and protection from direct sunlight during the warmer months: the sun is in the same position in the sky on the two equinoxes (i.e. solar geometry is symmetrical on either side of the solstices) but the temperature is, in most places, different. The sun may be desirable at the winter solstice, but be intolerable at the summer solstice. Therefore fixed brises-soleils are not entirely appropriate.
After the War, Le Corbusier’s work made a change in direction away from the unquestioning faith in Modernism and the new machine age towards a more responsive architecture, with more aesthetic emphasis on the crude and rustic, rather than the pure machine aesthetic. Even in the pre-war designs of the machine aesthetic, Le Corbusier showed a great interest in control of the environment, but the emphasis was on literally overpowering the natural environment with mechanical technology (mur neutralisant). This fitted in very nicely with his predisposition for the machine aesthetic, which was undoubtedly the generator of the technology.
But the difficulties of relying on mechanical environmental control were very apparent, and Le Corbusier’s work began to get more involved with more passive means of environmental control, and ideas like the brise-soleil, and the grille climatique were adopted more often. There are sketches showing sun path diagrams, and ClAM’s 1951 Charter of Athens prescribed that at least two hours of sunshine per day on the shortest day of the year should be allowed to enter every dwelling.
These are doubtless sound objectives by today’s standards, but there is some evidence to suggest that the ideas were often severely compromised by Le Corbusier’s compositional concerns. To give one example, one of the main compositional elements in the designs for the Unité d’Habitation in Marseilles was his invention of the brises-soleils. For best results the rectangular buildings should be oriented so that the long facade should face south or even slightly south-east, so that the low morning sun can enter the building, but the hot midday sun can be excluded by the brises-soleils and therefore only the shortest elevations face the low and intense evening sun.
Le Corbusier’s first scheme for the Marseilles project shows three rectangular apartment blocks, the two smaller blocks oriented correctly with their long elevations facing more or less north-south, but the main block is oriented with the principal facades facing east-west, where the brises-soleils will be almost useless. The solar conditions for each facade are very different, but the balconies seem to be the same depth for the north and south elevations. These brises-soleils are more to do with decorating the elevation than solar control.
This flaw was not corrected in the final scheme, which, by the evidence of the shading diagram (developed by Olguay and Olguay) shows that the west facing elevation, (the longest side), allows two hours of solar penetration from 3pm to 5pm in the summer months and only about 20 minutes of direct sun per day in the winter months. By contrast, the shading mask shows that the south (short) elevation works admirably, allowing up to eight hours of sunlight penetration in the winter months, and complete shading from April through to September. In other words, if the building was rotated through 90 degrees the brises-soleils would work much more effectively.
Of course, the commissions that Le Corbusier and his team undertook in India have to be considered in the context of that country. In a letter to Jane Drew, Maxwell Fry and Pierre Jeanneret (December 1951) Le Corbusier described their task as: ‘To give India the Architecture of Modern Times, Modern Techniques, Modern Mind, and adaptation to the surrounding conditions that are extreme over there. The climate is wonderful, heroic and at times overwhelming.’ (Oeuvres Completes. Vol VI p51).
A common factor in Corbusier’s buildings in India is the way in which the buildings seem to catch and funnel air through them. This is very welcome, and although the weather is at its hottest in Chandigarh in May and June, the climate in August is still nearly 40 degrees with over 95 per cent humidity.
The slightest breeze is probably the most welcome contribution to comfort as it helps evaporation and therefore cooling. It is a perk of only the most senior officials to have an air cooling unit in their office, and not many people can afford them at home. Most public buildings have ceiling fans, but these are not nearly as effective as a breeze. The ability of a building to benefit from a breeze is something that was not apparent to me without the benefit of first-hand experience. Perhaps the orientation of the Marseilles Unite has more to do with catching sea breezes and turning its back on the Mistral than solar geometry, though there is no evidence to confirm this.
But to a large extent, the same criticism of reality not living up to expressed intentions of dealing with the problems of climate still apply. Le Corbusier’s sketches show how the layout of the city is oriented to take account of the direction of the sun, but this is at best only a qualified success, as the width of the road ensures that most of it will be in permanent sunshine. Most of the traffic is of the two-wheeled, pedaled variety and in practice these take up most of the road that was intended for cars, especially during the rush hour. During the main part of the day, it is possible for the bicycles to stick to the shade, but at rush hour there are just too many of them. Perhaps it is just another example of ideal being overwhelmed by circumstances.
The ordinary buildings of Chandigarh seem to have worked and survived. Somehow Drew and Fry and the rest of the team seem to have managed to provide a fairly successful mix of buildings to suit the needs of Indian life, and the buildings they designed have proved flexible enough to accommodate the demands put upon them. They are poorly maintained, but to the western observer, the way in which accommodation is arranged gives a sense of dignity and privacy.
The main buildings designed by Le Corbusier are certainly a case of ideal being overwhelmed by circumstance. I started with the idea of trying to test whether or not the brises-soleils were, as Charles Correa described them ‘dust catching, pigeon infested contrivances, which gather heat all day, and then radiate it back into the building at night causing indescribable anguish to the occupants …’ But by the time we got to Chandigarh all that seemed pointless. One of the main problems of the place, from the point of view of the architecture achieving its objectives, is the need for a huge security presence, which not only made attempts to get the co-operation needed to do experiments impossible but also meant that the buildings were surrounded by barbed wire. Another major problem was overcrowding.
The Secretariat building, built as the administrative HQ of the Punjab with 3000 staff, now contains two complete sets of bureaucrats. Punjab was divided into two states, Haryana and Punjab, the former being predominantly Hindu, and the latter Sikh (the cause of political tension, with both states laying claim to the city) and the building now contains about 10 000 staff. The building is unbelievably chaotic, with balconies being enclosed for more space and in a completely anarchic way that could only happen in India. The same is the case for the High Court building, with the space beneath the parasol roof being glazed in (I feel sorry for the occupants who will surely suffer horribly) and the General Assembly building, being used by two separate parliaments, has its marvellously spacious foyer filled with camping soldiers - string beds and washing lines of brown underwear.
The Capitol complex suffers from the familiar problem of buildings not being oriented for their best advantage from the solar control point of view, but this seems irrelevant in the context of India. With terrible overcrowding inside the buildings, and the tens of thousands of bureaucrats, the fact that we did not see one single gardener was all the more poignant. There is a lot of open space in Chandigarh, particularly around the Capitol complex, and it is just an overgrown wasteland.
In criticising the design of a city made only three years after Independence, we should bear in mind the optimism for the future that was felt by the people who commissioned the design, to reflect and demonstrate their optimism for Modernism and the new nation. The design of the city, as well as this optimism have been overwhelmed by the weight of history - Chandigarh was an heroic attempt to achieve something that never quite came off. Yet India is still a country of contradictions and great hope. Maybe Chandigarh’s day has yet to come.