The Governor’s Garden which fuses architecture and landscape in a way unparalleled in Le Corbusier’s ouvre is set in the context of his changing attitudes to landscape.
Originally published in AR January 1987, this piece was republished online in June 2011
Le Corbusier’s contribution to the modern landscape has drawn little critical attention, since the landscape was not a primary concern of either the Modern Movement or his particular theoretical position.
Although Modernism adopted a critical attitude toward history, it did not challenge the eighteenth-century separation of the disciplines of architecture and landscape. Yet there were individual attempts to reintegrate the two domains. Such a conceptual unification, fundamental to the organic expression of Frank Lloyd Wright and Alvar Aalto, and even to the abstraction of Mies van der Rohe, was achieved only late in life by Le Corbusier, whose early Purist works stand in contradistinction to the Virgilian qualities of untamed nature.
Le Corbusier rarely wrote about the landscape, yet it was inextricably linked with his desire to reconcile man, nature, and cosmos through architecture. Examination of his early works reveals an interest in assimilating traditional landscape principles in a manner appropriate to the new age. From here his attitude develops in no single, consistent line. Rather than start from a set of rules that invert historical principles, as he did in architecture, Le Corbusier often adopted historical landscape techniques without modification, questioning them only in later projects.
If his architecture derived from a priori theoretical concerns, his attitude toward the landscape evolved a posteriori from practice. Though his treatment of the landscape was initially eclectic and schematic, it evolved to encompass a symbolic dimension. Only after his architecture transcended its seeming negation of history and his landscape its diagrammatic relationship to history could the two domains meet in conceptual unity.
Unlike Wright or Mies for whom the landscape was an extension of architecture, Le Corbusier ultimately treated them as parallel symbolic forms, united conceptually as well as visually. Indeed his design for Chandigarh’s Capitol complex may be the modern era’s most cogent and convincing testimony to the reintegration of architecture and landscape. There Le Corbusier recovered a line of inquiry pursued only intermittently since the eighteenth century, when landscape design emerged as a separate discipline. In light of this, Le Corbusier’s treatment of the Capitol complex landscape merits critical analysis. While it departs from his earlier attitude toward the landscape, the design is rooted in his persistent enthusiasm for untamed nature.
NATURE AS IDEAL
In Le Corbusier’s writings, nature is a prevalent theme, often imbued with semi-religious overtones. His understanding of nature was complex and often contradictory. Sometimes he invoked it as a force antithetical to the works of man, equivalent to chaos or the Romantic notion of the sublime; yet in its essence he understood nature as a system of which man is part and an embodiment of order-an analogue of modern engineering, the beauty of which derives from adherence to natural laws: ‘The objects of nature and the results of calculations are clearly and cleanly formed; they are organised without ambiguity. It is because we see clearly that we can read, learn and feel their harmony.’
This dual interpretation of nature, as original condition and emblem of rational order, is one of many polarities Le Corbusier sought to integrate within his architecture. Nature was also central in his social aims. He considered it an agent for the moral regeneration of mankind, capable of rekindling humanitarian values lost to industrialised society: ‘Man is a product of nature. He has been created according to the laws of nature. If he is sufficiently aware of those laws, if he obeys them and harmonises his life with the perpetual flux of nature, then he will obtain (for himself) a conscious sensation of harmony that will be beneficial to him.’
In evoking a state of consciousness that was simultaneously primordial and millenial, Le Corbusier infused modern rationality with a primeval mythos. He thereby sought to endow his architecture with universal and eternal validity ‘There is no such thing as primitive man; there are primitive resources. The idea is constant, in full sway from the beginning’. This Modernist conflation of radical new beginnings with the quest for universal truths implied a return to nature and the natural landscape as an essential point of departure.
For Le Corbusier the source of man’s alienation from human nature and from nature itself was the city. By bringing nature into the city he hoped to relieve the ills of traditional urbanism without sacrificing its cultural possibilities His utopian urban proposals dissolve the polarity of city and country, merging the density of the former with the ‘soleil, espace, verdure’ of the latter. He sought to elevate the quality of modern life by providing a setting conducive to creative thought, encouraging both collective interaction and solitude through a combination of density and proximity to nature. Yet his urban proposals with their Virgilian overtones fail to adequately conceptualise the designed landscape, which remains more diagrammatic than aesthetic, more eclectic than symbolic.
Le Corbusier’s interest in the natural landscape as integral to an architectural idea is evident in his early travel sketches. He was particularly awed by the Acropolis, which he claimed to have visited every day of his four-week stay in Athens. He extolled the way ‘the Acropolis extends its effect right to the horizon’: ‘The Greeks on the Acropolis set up temples which are animated by a single thought, drawing around them the desolate landscape and gathering it into the composition. Thus, on every point of the horizon, the thought is single. It is on this account that there are no other architectural works on this scale of grandeur.’ This image of the Acropolis remained embedded in his imagination, profoundly affecting the spatial and symbolic role of the landscape in his work.
An obsession with the horizon pervades his architecture, whether intensified through the geometric contrast of Poissy or the more analogous plastic expression of Ronchamp. The horizon is a visible embodiment of the cosmological unity that Le Corbusier sought in architecture, a metaphor he invoked shortly before his death in reiterating his metaphysical aims: ‘We must rediscover man. We must rediscover the straight line wedding the axis of fundamental laws: biology, nature, cosmos. Inflexible straight line like the horizon of the sea.’
ARCHITECTURE AND NATURE
The search for a modern architectural language initially diverted Le Corbusier from this endeavour. His theoretical principles, conceived in reaction to Beaux Arts academicism, inverted the traditional relationship of building to landscape Instead of a rusticated base, thematically linking building and ground, Le Corbusier proposed to elevate buildings on pilotis to provide a continuous ground plane. The natural landscape, isolated from the building volume, became an object for contemplation from within the architectural frame. He transferred the landscape as finite figure to the roof garden, domesticating nature in a room open to the sky. Le Corbusier’s dramatic roof gardens imbue his urban dwellings with the isolated quality of a rural villa. They are compelling explorations of the designed landscape, demonstrating his quest for primordial values, which led him to transcend his radical theoretical methods and ground his work in the more permanent symbolic dimension.
In his first significant garden, the de Beistegui roof terrace above the Champs-Elysees (1931), Le Corbusier was inspired by an eccentric client to use architectural forms to surreal ends. Through this pictorial device, which he soon renounced, Le Corbusier expanded the expressive possibilities of the architectural landscape beyond the dialectical opposition of man-made and natural that characterises his Purist villas. On the penthouse roof he accentuated the rupture between garden and nature through formal manipulation: reflective glass paving stones set in a carpet of grass stand for water; hedge walls in mechanically operable trays act as draperies to control the view; and a fireplace in the wall of the upper terrace transforms sky into ceiling, supported by columnar trees. The ordinary scalar understanding of space is suspended. The wall is a tilted ground plane elevating the horizon, on which the Arc de Triomphe appears as an isolated element in a continuous landscape. The uneasy equation of fireplace and urban monument enhances the sense of withdrawal from the space of the city, underscored by the periscope entombed on the lower terrace. Mechanical means convey a paradoxical isolation from and longing for city and nature. While detachment from the urban condition was to remain a prevalent theme in his work, Le Corbusier rejected such overt Surrealist strategies, since the language of the de Beistegui garden countered his aim of reintegrating man and nature.
Instead, on the roof of the Unitè d’habitation at Marseilles (1946-52) he evoked archaic values with primal natural forms. Their deliberate ambiguity amplifies the mythopoetic potential of the roof top landscape. Totemic exhaust stacks evoke the presence of man, while irregular cooling towers recall nature. The ramped plane, understood simultaneously as ground and wall, transforms the horizon and is identified with the distant mountains, which are both ground and vertical backdrop against the sky. Here Le Corbusier recovered the spirit of integration with nature that he admired in the Acropolis. Le Corbusier’s shift during the mid-1940s from an idealist preoccupation with prismatic solids contrasted with nature to a more poetic concern for integration with natural forms had foundations in his earlier work. Of his three housing prototypes formulated by 1920, only the Maison Monol with its traditional Catalan vault was firmly embedded in the earth.
Le Corbusier began to exploit the Monol prototype only as integration with the landscape became important to his architectural ideas. In the Maison de Weekend (1934-35), he made a pivotal attempt to unite building and site by combining the Monol system with a warped plane of sod extending from garden to roof. The warped ground plane derives from the ramp connecting roof terrace and ground that Le Corbusier used in his Purist villas to establish the conceptual and spatial unity of the promenade architecturale. While the gesture appears isolated in the Maison de Weekend, the warped ground plane attains iconic signficance in two public projects, the Congress Hall at Strasbourg (1964) and the Firminy Church (1960-65), where it dramatically merges building and site.
While Le Corbusier claimed to base his architecture on a set of idealized assumptions, he always adjusted his formal principles to the particular circumstances of the site. He advised architectural students: ‘…the site is the nourishment offered by our eyes to our senses, to our intelligence, to our hearts. The site is the base of the architectural composition.’
In the exceptional case of his mother’s house (1925), Le Corbusier first evolved a rigorous, functional, and efficient plan and then sought an appropriate site on Lake Geneva for its realisation. This procedure led to the critical displacement of the modest structure by its garden elements, scaled to the vast alpine landscape. That the site be appropriate was also a condition for two projects realised in alternate locations, the Villa Shodan (1956) and Maison des Jeunes (1960-65), and for the Firminy Church, which he contemplated building outside Bologna1 8 In 1961 he rejected the opportunity to design a church for La Chaux-de-Fonds because he found the site inappropriate to the symbolic programme. In a letter to the pastor, Louis Secretan, he explained: ‘Had you said to me, “Will you create a place open all the year, situated on the hilltops in the calm and the dignity, the nobleness of the beautiful Jura site?” the problem could have been considered. It was a problem of psychic nature, and, for me, of decisive value.’
More than any of his buildings, the pilgrimage chapel at Ronchamp (1950-54) was inspired by the contemplative qualities of its natural setting. Built in the clearing (rond champ) on an ancient hilltop used in pre-Christian times for ritual sun worship, the chapel is, in Le Corbusier’s words, ‘a vessel of intense concentration and meditation. References to nature abound, from the abstract, geometric forms of the cistern to the alternative landscape of the roof, which he claimed was inspired by a crab shell. Le Corbusier rationalised his inspiration for the chapel’s complex form: ‘One begins with the acoustics of the landscape, taking as a starting point the four horizons.’
If he first achieved such a fusion of architecture and nature in this religious building, it was probably because Le Corbusier endowed nature with a spiritual significance that was in itself religious. In the Capitol complex at Chandigarh (1951-65) he extended that fusion with nature to the fusion of architecture with a designed landscape. He accomplished this synthesis, influenced by the symbolically explicit model of the Mughal paradise garden, by transferring his mythopoetic treatment of the roof top landscape back to the ground plane.
THE DESIGNED LANDSCAPE
The government centre at Chandigarh is set in a vast plain against the dramatic backdrop of the Himalayan foothills. Le Corbusier separated it physically and conceptually from the rest of the city by a series of artificial mounds, a canal, and a roadway, to effect an isolation reminiscent of the Athenian acropolis. This separation from the more mundane sectors of the city, reiterated by the monumental government buildings, is accompanied by a corresponding synthesis with the landscape. The fusion is both spatial and symbolic: it is a site dedicated to the reconciliation of man, nature, and cosmos.
First, Le Corbusier established corner posts or obelisks to mark the limits or boundaries of the Capitol city and to demarcate 400m and 800m square zones within the complex itself. These boundary markers are abstract points on the ground plane, disconnected visually. Their meaning is revealed only in the conceptual overview of the plan: no buildings are to transgress the imaginary lines connecting these points. The boundary between the landscape of the Capitol complex and the natural landscape is rendered imperceptible.
The overlapping squares derive from the Modulor and also from traditional Mughal gardens, in which the square is equated with the ordered universe. Despite parallels drawn between the dimension of 800m and certain monumental distances in Paris, Le Corbusier’s spatial intentions deviate sharply from the traditional city. The buildings are positioned within geometric fields. Space, rather than object, is the primary datum. The Classical origins of the initial layout are explicit. The modified symmetries of the final version increase the dynamism among the buildings and their integration with the broader landscape. The shifted ground plane, with its artificial mounds, reflecting pools, and sunken courts, represents a sacred landscape created ex nihilo. At Chandigarh Le Corbusier infused modern spatiality with mythopoetic content.
His spatial vision was profoundly affected by modern aviation. The aeroplane expanded perceptual possibilities, providing man with an experience hitherto impossible, the bird’s-eye view, thus transcending the limitations of humanist perspective to achieve a new legibility that he associated with the cosmic: ‘But we have left the ground in an aeroplane and acquired the eyes of a bird. We see, in actuality, that which hitherto was only seen by the spirit… The whole spirit of our plans will be illuminated and amplified by this new point of view.’
Le Corbusier was conscious of the difficulty in reconciling the spatial potential of the ‘fifth facade’ viewed from above with the experiential implications of his plan. The monumental pedestrian plaza linking the major buildings is vast. Reflecting pools reduce the visual distance between the Assembly and High Court buildings. A series of monuments articulate the plaza: the Tower of Shadows, Trench of Consideration, Monument to the Martyrs of the Indian Partition and Monument of the Open Hand. Each suggests myriad nuances of meaning, amplifying its spatial significance. Large earth mounds positioned to enhance the perceptual sequence allude to the distant mountains and contribute to the primal imagery.
Throughout the Capitol complex cosmic references affirm the unity of nature and human consciousness. Several monuments in the central plaza and hieroglyphs cast in the concrete surfaces refer to the sun, its daily path, and radiance. For Le Corbusier the sun was a primal force ruling all life, an emblem of harmony between man and nature. ‘The 24 hours of the solar cycle constitute the measuring rod of all human activities; they are what gives our lives their scale and their perspective.’
He invoked this theme in the Tower of Shadows, a lofty volume for meditation at the heart of the government complex, oriented to the path of the sun and the axis of the earth. In the adjoining Fosse de la Considération (Trench of Consideration), Le Corbusier inscribed a monumental inclined plane with the path of the sun and the play of two solstices, while he placed his symbols of proportional laws, the harmonic spiral and the Modulor, in the pedestrian plaza. He associated the Monument of the Open Hand, set amidst irregular groves of mango trees to the east of the Governor’s Palace, with the forces of nature: it was designed to rotate with the winds.
Le Corbusier often infused such references to nature with ritual intent. The ceremonial door of the Assembly Building is enamelled with various cosmic symbols, including the sun in its diurnal revolution, the pyramid/mountain, and the tree of life. It is used only once a year, on Republic Day, to admit the Governor for the opening of Parliament, when the skylight over the assembly hall was to cast a beam of sunlight on the speaker’s platform, in the spirit of the celestial observatories at Jaipur and Delhi.
On the Assembly roof-top the truncated tower and pyramid duplicate at a monumental scale the primal elements of the Ronchamp cistern, while the elements intersecting the skylight symbolize the crescent moon and the path of the sun. Le Corbusier elaborates: ‘…this framework will lend itself to possible solar festivals recalling to men, once a year, that they are children of the sun (entirely forgotten in our unfettered civilisation crushed by absurdities, particularly in architecture and city planning). Through such cosmic references the Assembly roofscape is the psychological culmination of the promenade architecturale, rather than a substitute garden. Ritual and symbolic functions supersede the purely visual qualities of Le Corbusier’s earliest roof terraces; it is a space of psychic as well as physical occupation, challenging the observer to engage in its interpretation.
Le Corbusier’s success at Chandigarh in uniting a mythopoetic conception of space with a modern expression of the space-time continuum was ultimately limited. He reflected on the unprecedented nature of the task: ‘There was anxiety and anguish in taking decisions on that vast, limitless ground…. The problem was no longer one of reasoning but of sensation. Chandigarh is not a city of lords, princes or kings confined within walls, crowded in by neighbours. It was a matter of occupying a plain. The geometrical event was, in truth, a sculpture of the intellect…. It was a battle of space, fought within the mind. Arithmetic, texturique, geometrics: it would all be there when the whole was finished.’
Indeed, as many critics have noted, Le Corbusier was unable to accommodate the monumental scale that he associated with the aspirations of modern India to the realities of perceptual experience. Furthermore, his vision of the Capitol was significantly altered in execution. Plans for the Governor’s Palace and adjoining garden to crown the complex were abandoned because Nehru considered their inclusion with the government buildings unsuited to a democracy. Le Corbusier’s landscaping scheme was never completed, and the existing planting has not been adequately maintained. Of the series of monuments that he designed for the central plaza, only the Monument to the Martyrs of the Indian Partition was realised during his lifetime. This significantly compromised the spatial and symbolic potential of the whole.
THE ARCHITECTURAL LANDSCAPE
For the Governor’s Palace precinct, Le Corbusier proposed an architectural landscape to mediate the monumental scale of the government buildings and the more modest volume of the palace. This is particularly appropriate since the name Chandigarh (Hindi for ‘fortress of the war goddess’) and the word garden derive from the same Indo-European root gher, meaning a place set apart, walled off.
Instead of using traditional garden walls, Le Corbusier conceived a dramatic drop in the flat terrain to render the palace forecourt sacred. In this way he achieved the bounded quality of a garden without interrupting the spatial continuum. This transformation of the ground plane through changes in level and scale is reinforced by the formal imagery. Mock mountains are created from the excavations of the ground plane, on which are also placed a totemic column, water course, and reflecting pool. Rather than mimic architectural forms, as in the de Beistegui roof terrace, Le Corbusier evoked natural forms and man himself in this garden.
The imagery may be interpreted on many levels; its roots are culturally diverse. In an early sketch, the garden and crowning Governor’s Palace evoke an aircraft carrier. Like the cruise ship, the aircraft carrier was for Le Corbusier an important symbol of the modern age; both served as paradigms of the engineer’s aesthetic and the autonomous communal structure. Unlike the cruise ship, the aircraft carrier is analogous to a landscape; it symbolises the integration of nature and the machine.
On a more primitive level the garden evokes the sacred landscape of an Egyptian temple complex; the stepped contour of the palace resembles a pyramid, symbolizing the axis of the universe and the cosmic mountain linking heaven and earth. Yet the spirit of this garden reflects its more immediate heritage- the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Mughal gardens of India. In 1951 Le Corbusier visited two of these gardens, the seventeenth-century Pinjore gardens near Chandigarh and the Baradari gardens in Patiala. For the roof terrace of the Ahmedabad Museum (1951- 56), he created an abstracted version of the Mughal garden, using a geometric arrangement of flowers, shrubs, and 45 reflecting pools. For the Governor’s Palace he evoked the essence of the Mughal garden rather than reiterate its form.
The charbagh, or Paradise Garden, was the distinctive creation of nomadic Mughal tribes, built to serve in lieu of buildings as an open-air palace. The charbagh (literally, four gardens) was divided into four quadrants by water channels, representing the four rivers of life, and terraced to correspond to the Koran description of paradise. At the Governor’s Palace Le Corbusier transformed the geometric structure of the Mughal garden, adapting the formal precision of the original to the ambiguities of modern spatial expression. Intersecting walkways at grade suggest the paradigmatic four divisions, displaced by shifting geometries based on the square and golden section. But in place of lush vegetation are paved terraces, which he deemed more appropriate to the arid climate. Yet he retained the traditional iconographic elements of the charbagh: the terraced levels, water courses, mountains of paradise, and the cosmologically sacred tree, symbol of regeneration, immortality, and ascent to the heavens.
Mughal gardens were precincts for contemplation, sensual delight, and sedentary retreat from the intense heat, rather than for appreciation through three-dimensional experience. Walkways were raised to allow irrigation of the planted areas and varied in height to align with the tops of plants, thus creating the effect of a Persian carpet, the patterns of which often reflected paradisal garden plans.
By keeping his causeways at grade while sinking the reflecting pools and terraced courts, Le Corbusier could fuse traditional Mughal motifs within a modern spatiality. The gardens’ contemplative qualities are revealed through the perceptual sequence. From the lower levels the man-made landscape supersedes the natural horizon and frames the palace, in turn brought forward by its own reflection in the pool of water. This oscillation between foreground and background exploits a tension between traditional perspectival space and Modernist space, which is collapsed and rendered ambiguous thereby teasing the mind as well as the visual sensibility.
This approach dramatises the spatial and symbolic role of the Governor’s Palace, which crowns the composition in volume and plan. Its form recalls the silken awnings set on platforms that provided temporary shelter in the earliest Mughal gardens. While the palace is the smallest building in the Capitol complex, it commands attention through its distinctive profile and integral relationship to the garden, capturing the essence of the Mughal charbagh. The complementarity of interior and exterior in the traditional garden is here achieved by the free plan organisation of the palace and its massing.
The stepped terraces, alternating solid and void, also suggest the ritual levels of selfdiscovery on the Hindu path to unity with the Divine. These culminate on the roof in an upturned crescent, silhouetted against the Himalayan foothills, which serves as viewing platform, shading device, and trough to catch the monsoon rains. The singularity of this form contrasts with its deliberate ambiguities of meaning; it cradles the sky, simultaneously suggesting a crescent moon, mountain, and horns of the sacred ox, yet also refers to Le Corbusier’s favourite symbol of Chandigarh, the Open Hand.
The complex is steeped in a monumental tradition common to East and West. The garden, a haven from the hostile forces of nature, commonly symbolises the creative potential of life and the reconciliation of man with the profusion of nature. The form of the Mughal garden, derived from the mythological structure of the world, connotes the universe in microcosm. The crossing of the two major axes, creating the four-part subdivision, is a cosmic form associated with the Buddhist mandala; it is related to the ritually conceived pattern of ancient Indian towns as well as to the founding rites of the Roman town. In India the crossing of the major streets traditionally marked the elders’ meeting place and the quarters of the highest caste, while in ancient Rome it was the site of the Forum.
At Chandigarh Le Corbusier transformed this paradigmatic structure to relate three distinct scales of landscape: the garden of the Governor’s Palace, the pedestrian plaza of the Capitol complex, and the organisation of the city.
By fusing Mughal symbols with primal imagery, imperial ritualistic space and with Classical architectural principles, Le Corbusier sought to conflate the traditional Indian concept of the sacred with a modern metaphysic, thus the cultural with the universal. He noted the congruence of his ideal with the aims of Hindu philosophy: ‘fraternity between the cosmos and living beings…’ In addressing fundamental human concerns-the relationship of man to nature, and of architecture to landscape- he employed a degree of abstraction that transcends the iconographic roots of any particular element. Ultimately the significance of the Capitol city rests not on its formal iconography, but on ‘the highly structured, ambiguous union of form and content’ that renders its meaning universal.
The significance of the Governor’s Palace garden is both universal and particular: the garden unfolds as a microcosm of the Indian landscape. The juxtaposition of the garden with the natural terrain-via the landscape of the Capitol complex-reinforces the dialogue between man-made and natural, microcosm and macrocosm. By separating out a discrete landscape from the general spatial continuum, Le Corbusier rendered meanings more intensely, while in the vast landscape of the Capitol city such symbolism is diffuse. The effect is reminiscent of Le Corbusier’s description of the Acropolis: the architecture extends its influence to the horizon. In a fitting final tribute, at his last rites the Greek architects deposited a portion of earth from the Acropolis on his grave, while those from India offered water from the Ganges.