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The Politics of the Open Hand: Notes on Le Corbusier and Nehru at Chandigarh

The present paper is based upon notes for a lecture given at the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts, Harvard University, April 1973.

Published onApr 23, 2021
The Politics of the Open Hand: Notes on Le Corbusier and Nehru at Chandigarh

Le Corbusier in his studio at 24 Rue Nungesser-et-Coli, Paris XVIe, 1963. (Photograph courtesy of M. Pichon, Paris.)

Chandigarh is not only the best documented urban venture of recent history,1 it has become a byword. For some, Chandigarh means progressive, socialist planning, crowned by outstanding architectural achievement; for others, it is a symbol for the arrogance of Western planning ideology inflicted upon the Third World. Is it correct to establish the physical form of a city in terms of Western standards of social progress and economic growth, partly, if not totally, at the expense of the traditional way of life of those who have to live in the new environment? Such questions polarize most discussions on Le Corbusier’s work in India. They deserve to be pondered, especially if one happens to be an architect or a planner involved in the creation of other Chandigarhs in Asia and elsewhere. As for the historian, it is his job to wonder about the background and the context that made possible such a highly controversial artefact.

It takes a minimum of social awareness, two or three rolls of Kodak film (and possibly an American travel grant) to demonstrate that the physical form of Chandigarh has but little to do with any current notion of “the Indian way of life.” But what does such a statement prove? Needless to say, for an enlightened Western commentator of the late sixties and the early seventies, this observation comes close to a diagnosis of failure, the tacit implication usually being that if only the government had appointed a team of up-to-date, progressive sociologists and planners, the situation would probably be all right and nobody would have to suffer.

Description should not be taken for analysis. At this moment in time, barely twenty years after building at Chandigarh has begun, no description of and no judgment on the social quality of the city’s equipments can claim to be really conclusive. For, if the people of Chandigarh have been given a physical framework of urban life that is inconsistent with their traditional expectations and immediate needs, one cannot, at least theoretically, exclude the possibility that, in another twenty years, their children might have overcome some of the difficulties of adaptation experienced by their parents. The question is what the critic accepts as the relevant framework of reference: the reality of the status quo or the ideal of another improved state of affairs, to be reached some time in the future. It is, indeed, the same dilemma that the planner has to face when he starts to work on his project.2

Today, Chandigarh’s problem obviously resides in the fact that it has been built on the basis of a prospective utopia that we find increasingly difficult to consider realistic. But who is to blame for this state of affairs? We are frequently given extensive comments on Le Corbusier’s authoritarian habits as the city’s head planner, and we are given lengthy dissertations on urban “malfunctions” that might have been avoided with the help of more professional goodwill, understanding, and competence of the planners with regard to the people’s needs.3 And so the whole argument comes down to a debate among experts.

Not that all this is irrelevant; but it seems to the outsider, in this case an historian, that the question goes deeper. As long as a plan remains on paper, it can at least partly be judged as a matter of professional expertise. But when, as is the case at Chandigarh, the government and the ruling class of the country decides to realize such a plan in full scale, it does so because it accepts it as the embodiment of its own social and political philosophy. And that is the point where a town-planning policy ceases to be a matter of the professional competence and responsibility of planners and architects alone; it then becomes a means of a society’s struggle for images that counterfeit and stabilize its basic beliefs, its ideology.

Thus, Chandigarh’s master plan might be appropriately interpreted within the context of Le Corbusier’s work; its realization is correctly understood only as a response to the political situation of India at a particular moment of its history: its recent independence from British rule, its subsequent search for national identity, and its struggle with Pakistan. And in such a perspective the current rhetorics (Western, technocratic, and bureaucratic ideals versus Indian way of life) become a weak and hypothetical basis for any serious discussion: for the “Indian way of life” is not a static reality but a dynamic process, whose content and direction are determined not by vernacular traditions alone, and even less by architects and planners, but by the ideology of economic progress, welfare, and social order that the state has adopted as a guideline of action.


When, in July 1947, the Independence Bill was signed, decades of revolutionary struggle, successfully repressed by the British rulers during World War II, finally came to an end. Mahatma Gandhi (1869–1948), head of the “Quit India” movement, was the leading figure and the symbol of that struggle. It is universally known that he attempted to reach the goal of national independence on the basis of nonviolence, but it is not equally well known that he considered a radical change in the economic pattern of his country as the necessary premise for social and political progress.4 The system established by the East India Company had led to a steady decline of India’s traditional economy. The pressures of industrialization in England had given the colony its economic role within the Empire. While the English market was closed to most of the traditional products of Indian manufacture (especially silk and cotton work), it developed a voracity for raw materials, which explains, among other things, the rapid growth of the Indian railway network, efficiently connecting the interior of the subcontinent with the great harbors. The price of this progress is known: the almost total ruin of the traditional agricultural and manufacturing economy of the country.

Gandhi’s program—renunciation of advanced technology and capitalist trade, return to agriculture and rural manufacturing—was to resolve the social and cultural crisis created by the colonialist exploitation and the dynamics of industrial growth. “Our concern is to destroy industrialism at any cost,” he proclaimed in 1926; “Machinery is the chief symbol of modern civilization. It represents a great sin,” he said in 1938.5 He admitted that industrialism and machinery are not evils in themselves, but only insofar as they were responsible for the impoverishment of India. He never ceased to believe that the self-sufficient village should again become the pivot of Indian economy, that large enterprises such as the cotton mills of Ahmedabad are a potential danger for national economy, since they help concentrate wealth in the hands of the already rich, at the expense of the poor. Rather than to promote industrial growth in the cities, the country should follow his “message of the spinning-wheel” (Khadi) and reestablish the preindustrial equilibrium beneath production of manufactured goods in the villages and their consumption in the cities.

When, however, India gained its political independence (in 1947) and became a sovereign democratic republic (in 1950), things occurred in a slightly different manner. The British, uninterested in the resurrection of a strong and united Indian nation, wanted, as a condition of their departure, the country to be divided into two parts: Pakistan and India. Whatever the reasons given for this decision—among them, the British concern for the Muslim minorities and their potential repression under Indian hinduistic rule—the result was a weakened subcontinent, immersed for many years in ongoing war and bloodshed.6 Gandhi was radically opposed to that arrangement; but the creation of a Muslim-ruled Pakistan was not the only aspect of the new political reality that was in contradiction to his gospel.

Gandhi’s model of socioeconomic reform has only had a limited effect upon the policy of India under its first national government. “Pandit Nehru wants industrialization because he thinks that, if it is socialized, it would be free from the evils of capitalism. My own view is that the evils are inherent in industrialism, and no amount of socialization can eradicate them.”7 This statement of 1940 anticipates what may have been Gandhi’s feelings a few years later, when the new nation established its economic priorities.

“We cannot keep pace with the modern world,” Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, insisted in a speech, “unless we adopt the latest techniques. We cannot keep pace with the modern world unless we utilize the sources of power that are available to the modern world.”8 Thus, the production of electric power and large-scale industrialization received top priority. Political independence had to be reinforced by a firm position within the international capitalist market: “I shall venture to say that we cannot even maintain our freedom and independence as a nation without the big factory and all that it represents….”9

The situation recalls that of Russia around 1921, when the earlier plans for a direct transition to socialist economy, formulated by Nikolai Bukharin and others, had to surrender to the necessity of centralized economic planning and industrialization. What Vladimir Lenin’s New Political Economy10 (not to talk about the later five-year plans, 1928 onward) meant for Russia in the twenties, Nehru’s and the leading Congress Party’s economic policy meant for India in the fifties: the establishment of an economy that would enable the new nation to survive within the given system of the industrialized world. The fifties in India were great days for foreign investment and for an Indian bureaucracy that had been trained under the British rule, if not directly at Oxford and Cambridge.

In any case, Gandhi’s dream of a return to a pan-Indian economy based upon agriculture and upon the spinning wheel seems almost forgotten. Gandhi himself remained loyal to the new government and to Nehru, whom he had earlier described as his spiritual heir. Had he not been assassinated in January 1948, it would have appeared to him as if the Indian revolution had been carried through only halfway, allowing a new Indian elite to fill the structures of power and management left behind by the British. He once said that he had purchased a ticket to the holy city of Hardwar, where the Ganges breaks out of the Himalaya, while most others left the train at New Delhi.11 When asked by the BBC for an interview, he declined: “They should forget that I learned English.”12

The regime, in turn, considered the “father of the nation” as the hero of Independence, and by making him the object of national worship, it succeeded somehow in removing him from the political discussion. It is interesting to note in Nehru’s speeches a subtle criticism of Gandhi’s economic thought. While Gandhi’s economic policy aimed at providing subsistence for all, but only “at a low level of life,” Nehru aimed at higher living standards, with the risk that such progress would only be attainable for few. His declared policy was to achieve both goals,13 but the latter seems to have preoccupied him most. Thus he tended to explain Gandhi’s adherence to “economic or other approaches [which] did not fit in with modern ideas” as the result of his ability to adapt to changing conditions and states of mind of the people.14

For Nehru, “the essential and most revolutionary factor in modern life is not a particular ideology, but technological advance.”15 This belief in the pure and salutary nature of technological progress not only brings him in close spiritual neighborhood with other leaders of the Third World, it also illustrates the gap between the now established state ideology and the beliefs of the father of the nation.16 “Countries of the West may have been colonial powers,” Nehru affirmed in another of his speeches. “They may have done injury to us. But the fact is that they have built a great civilization in the last 200 or 400 years.”17

In short, the state that made Chandigarh possible is not that which Gandhi had anticipated in his thought. It was a new nation, eager to become a grown-up member within the family of industrialized powers to which it had been attached for so long as a mere servant or slave; a nation whose leaders were waiting for an occasion to create a monument to the new national self-consciousness. And Chandigarh seems to have been this occasion, for the causes and circumstances of the city’s foundation were of the highest national significance.


As a result of the 1947 treaty, the Western part of the Punjab, including the old capital of the state, Lahore, was ceded to Pakistan in 1948. This left the Indian part of the Punjab without a capital and millions of refugees from Pakistan without a home. After a few months of hesitation as to whether the state government should be permanently accommodated in one of the existing rural centers, the decision was taken to build a new town. P. L. Varma, chief engineer of the Punjab state, and P. N. Thapar, a former member of the Civil Service and at that time the State Administrator of Public Works, chose the site and the name.18

From the beginning, the central government in New Delhi was involved. At the suggestion of Nehru, an American planner was hired to produce a master plan: Albert Mayer, whom Nehru had known and appreciated as a lieutenant-colonel of the American Army in India (Fig. 119).19 The central government also agreed upon covering one third of the estimated building costs ($34 million) and upon the appointment of the architect Matthew Nowicki, a former coworker of Le Corbusier, who was to be responsible among other things for the design of the government buildings.20 His sketches show, unlike Mayer’s initial plan, a marked interest in a monumental orchestration of the Capitol complex. The Assembly was throned like a mastaba in a ceremonial plaza (Fig. 120), while the Secretariat was to be covered by a shell structure that combined the elegance of Oscar Niemeyer’s Pedregulho Chapel with the grandiloquence of the huge exhibition hall in Paris’s Quartier de la Défense. In any case, both Mayer’s master plan and Nowicki’s sketches for the Capitol area illustrate to what degree the general concept and layout of the city was established around 1950—well before Le Corbusier took over the command.

Figure 119
Two master plans of Chandigarh: Alfred Mayer’s plan of 1950 and Le Corbusier’s modified plan of 1951. (Drawing by Narindar Lamba.)

Figure 120
Matthew Nowicki: sketch for the Secretariats and (in the background) the Assembly in Chandigarh’s Capitol complex, circa 1950. (Source: Evenson, Chandigarh, plate 6.)

This occurred late in 1950. By then, the planning of Chandigarh had been interrupted by Nowicki’s sudden death in a plane crash over Egypt (spring 1950) and by the difficulties incurred in coming to a financial agreement with Albert Mayer. It was then that the two Punjab officials traveled to Europe in search of a new team of planners and architects. Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew were among those they visited first, and they suggested to the Indians that they contact Le Corbusier. His reaction was all but encouraging. Apart from his general skepticism regarding the project’s chances of being realized, he considered the proposed honorarium as well as the time allowed for planning “ridiculous.”21 At last though, he yielded to the temptation of the enterprise, but when he was asked to move to India, he answered: “Your capital can be built right here; we, at 35 Rue de Sèvres, are perfectly capable of finding the solution to the problem.”22

In any case, Le Corbusier finally agreed, at a monthly salary of $420 (and with the injunction to spend four weeks twice a year in Chandigarh during its construction), to become the Architectural Advisor of the Punjab Government for the Creation of its New Capital and, in addition, the architect of the Capitol complex. In February 1951, he flew to India. There he met Pierre Jeanneret and Maxwell Fry and later Jane Drew. In a small hotel on the road to Simla, the new plan for Chandigarh was drawn up within four days.23

The New Imperial City

It was not a new layout but a revised version of the already existing and accepted master plan by Albert Mayer. All the distinctive features of Mayer’s plan were carefully taken over: the arrangement of the Government center outside the city, as its “head” (an idea that happened to coincide with earlier town planning concepts of Le Corbusier himself [Fig. 121]); the creation of a business center within the city and the division of the territory into sectors.

Figure 121
Le Corbusier, plan for an organic, extensible city. (Source: Le Corbusier, La Ville radieuse, 1935, p. 168.)

The changes to Mayer’s concept hardly justify Le Corbusier’s implicit claims to be the author of the plan. These changes mainly concerned the size of the neighborhood units, which now received roughly rectangular outlines, measuring about 4000 × 2600 feet: Le Corbusier’s “module” of a “sector.” The most obvious modification, however, was with regard to roadways. While the Mayer project envisaged them as large curves, Le Corbusier established a system of rectilinear axes. Only the lateral streets that cross the Jan Marg, the grand avenue of the city, are slightly curved for better protection of the traffic from the sun (Fig. 122).

Figure 122
Chandigarh: the Jan Marg, with brick walls separating the sectors from the traffic artery. (Photograph by S. von Moos.) Compare with Figure 127.

The monumental axis has literally been a central aspect of Le Corbusier’s urbanistic proposals ever since the project of a Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants (1922), loaded with moral, aesthetic, and functional symbolism (Fig. 123). “Man walks straight ahead because he has a goal; he knows where he is going”—such was the gospel preached in Urbanisme.24 Although Le Corbusier’s obsession with monumental axes was rationalized in terms of utilitarian necessities, it was obviously based upon emotional preference. Paris, the Champs-Elysées, Haussmann’s breakthroughs are the points of reference, if not, ultimately, La Chaux-de-Fonds, Le Corbusier’s home town itself.25

Figure 123
Le Corbusier, Contemporary City for Three Million Inhabitants, 1922. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1910-29, p. 35.)

Thus, in the Contemporary City and in the Plan Voisin, images and ideals of classical urbanism intermingle with those of the machine age. The city is defined by its traffic pattern; the fast-running traffic is as essential to it as the water to the fountain. One has to consider the quasimagical character that Le Corbusier ascribed to speed. “The city that has speed has success,” he claimed.26 This is a Futurist theme, celebrated, as early as 1914, in Sant’Elia’s Città Nuova projects (and it is no coincidence that the thirties in Italy produced the most powerful images of the motorized city, based upon the Italian love story with triumphal and imperial viali animated by Fiat traffic [Fig. 124]). But I still believe that Italian Futurism was less important for Le Corbusier than more immediate inspirations like the rhetorics of French automobile advertisements and the like.27

Figure 124
Rome, E.U.R.: master plan for the Esposizione Universale, to be held in 1941-1942 (project: 1937). Architects: Giuseppe Pagano, Marcello Piacentini, Luigi Piccinato, Ettore Rossi, and Luigi Vietti. (Source: La Casa, no. 6, Milan.)

Be that as it may, for Le Corbusier speed and motorization are factors of the “lyricism of modern times,” a lyricism too Olympic to be judged on utilitarian grounds. Thus, one of the sketches of the Contemporary City shows how the urban superhighway connects the two triumphal gates; outside the city, where a highway would be justified, the urban axis reverts into a simple cross-country road.

This is the background to Le Corbusier’s master plan for Chandigarh. The reality, today, matches the utopia of 1922: after six hours of bumpy country roads, the bus from New Delhi suddenly rolls onto a well-paved highway; the traveler thinks that he is now finally approaching Chandigarh, but he is actually riding through the city’s main street (Fig. 125).

Figure 125
Chandigarh: view of the Jan Marg, the city’s main axis. To the right, the Museum and Art Gallery. (Photograph by S. von Moos.)

Le Corbusier’s idea of changing Mayer’s original layout seems to have been readily accepted by the Indian officials. Mayer’s plan is reminiscent of the organic patterns of the English garden cities and their American descendants (Mayer had played a considerable role in introducing Ebenezer Howard’s ideas to America). Le Corbusier’s modification brings the plan back into the tradition of Western pre-Howardian town planning. His project evoked the grandiose urban geometries of L’Enfant’s Washington or Haussmann’s Paris. Moreover, the axis must have caught the eyes of the Indian officials through its implicit analogy with the plan of New Delhi and its King’s Way, India’s showpiece of enlightened though colonial planning (Fig. 126).28

Figure 126
New Delhi: aerial view of the King’s Way and the Capitol. (Source: Butler, The Architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens.)

Through such analogies the plan was able to become a symbol of national self-consciousness. Not that the gridiron plan had been introduced to India by the British Empire. The city of Jaipur dates from the early eighteenth century: it is as Indian an ancestor for Le Corbusier’s master plan as one may wish, but its avenues are not traffic arteries alone; they are the multifunctional public spaces that Chandigarh has not created (Fig. 127). The axis, self-sufficient in its declamatory gesture, is a legacy of New Delhi.

Figure 127
Jaipur: typical street scene. (Photograph by S. von Moos.)

Many other monumental aspects of Chandigarh can be understood in terms of their often-concealed analogy with the Indian capital. The vast pedestrian plaza of the City center in Sector 17, stretching out its arms toward the surrounding (empty) traffic arteries, is Le Corbusier’s only realization of an enclosed urban space.29 Its monofunctional character as a mere business district derives from the Charte d’Athènes; its form—the vast open space surrounded by long, arcaded office buildings—reflects Le Corbusier’s delight in French squares and Roman fora, a leitmotiv in his sketchbooks and early publications. It is, in short, a colonial variation on the theme of the Venetian Piazza S. Marco: functionally desiccated, dramatically overscaled (the plaza is 1,800 feet long from street to street, while the Piazza S. Marco is “only” 650 feet deep), and lacking the densely packed cluster of the surrounding city, which gives the Italian piazza its meaning as a public amenity and meeting place.

The core is the opposite of what the Western tourist expects to find in an Indian urban center, the opposite of the bazaar, shaded and noisy, crowding a maximum of people and goods into a minimum of space. And yet, these vast plazas, which become ovens under the glaring sun, are the administration’s pride. Many among the Indian visitors from Calcutta and Bombay seem to experience the spaciousness and openness of this plaza as a promise of relief from age-old poverty and overcrowding. And one remembers that the praise of “wide open spaces,” of “space, air, and light” and the condemnation of the “horror of slums” is a recurring theme in Nehru’s speeches.30

The city center, too, has its counterpart in New Delhi: its scale and neoclassical serenity (though stiffened by the narrow-minded repetition of an elevation code, which was meant by Le Corbusier to be used in a varied and flexible fashion)31 recalls Sir Herbert Baker’s Palladian arcades of Connaught Place (Fig. 128).

Figure 128
New Delhi: Connaught Place. Architect: Sir Herbert Baker. (Photgraph by S. von Moos.) Compare with Figure 110.

Finally, in the Capitol lie the palaces of the three powers (Fig. 129). The architecture marks a high point, probably the climax of Le Corbusier’s oeuvre as a designer—the fulfillment, in many respects, of ideas and concepts developed, questioned, and redefined in a long and partly obscure process, which covers the whole span of the architect’s creative lifetime. These palaces have their architectural prehistory in Le Corbusier’s previous work, not in an established imagery of monumental building: they are unique in their typological context.32

Figure 129
Chandigarh: plan of the Capitol complex. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1957-65, p. 73.)

In their uniqueness and bold originality, however, these buildings participate in the great theme of Chandigarh: the old architectural and urbanistic metaphors of rule are appropriated and transformed by the new political establishment. And they even perform this appropriation in terms of architectural ideals that correspond with some of the essential cultural beliefs upon which the new society is built. The Capitol houses the judiciary, legislative, and executive powers of the Punjab. (At least it was designed for this purpose.)33 But its powerful imagery aims beyond the glorification of a provincial government; it celebrates the recently established independent rule of the young Indian nation.

This theme is not new in Le Corbusier’s work. Some of the architect’s most spectacular projects grew out of similar programs. His fame in the twenties is intimately connected with his untiring and finally frustrated efforts to become the builder of the League of Nations headquarters in Geneva. Not just the size, but the political significance of this program explains his fanatic struggle to get the commission. Le Corbusier was interested not only in winning an international competition and defeating Academia; he wanted to become the builder of the first world parliament. The solemnity of the task inspired the humanist character of the project, a project whose layout was, despite its avant-garde features, classical enough to serve as the basis for the Beaux-Arts complex that was finally built (Fig. 130).34

Figure 130
Geneva: projects for the Palace of the League of Nations, 1927-1928; comparative study showing the similarity between Le Corbusier’s project and the finally chosen plan. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1910-29, p. 173.)

Creating an acropolis of modern, enlightened mankind was the underlying idea of the Mundaneum complex designed with Paul Otlet in 1928 (and re-elaborated in the following years). On the institutional level the prefiguration of UNESCO was architecturally a clear anticipation of Chandigarh’s Capitol. With the Mundaneum, the world was to receive a “sanctuary, inspiring and coordinating great ideas, noble activities.”35 It is no coincidence that some of the Mundaneum’s key concepts, such as the Museum of Knowledge, finally found their way into Le Corbusier’s Capitol project for Chandigarh. The Soviet Palace (1931) would have been in many ways to the USSR what Chandigarh’s Capitol is to India: a grandiloquent symbol to the consolidation of a new technology-oriented, political order. One has to measure the Capitol of Chandigarh against this grandiose sequence of never-realized palaces for the state, a sequence that had its climax of political ambition in Le Corbusier’s projects for a World Capital, seat of the United Nations (1946).36

From the League of Nations project to the Capitol of Chandigarh Le Corbusier’s style has undergone modifications. The basic philosophy, however, has remained the same: an uncorruptible belief in universal salvation through modern technology. In the twenties as well as in the fifties, Le Corbusier’s stated intention was to create architectural machines, serving the purpose of government and administration with the greatest efficiency—so much the better if these machines became, as it seems, almost automatically monumental images of their content and function. In Chandigarh’s Capitol the form claims to be born out of practical needs. The canopy of the High Court is a colossal shading and cooling device, with its arches, undulating from pillar to pillar, inviting the winds to air the structure. The complicated system of sunbreakers serves not only to perform but also to visualize its essential “biological” function of heat control. It is the manifesto of an architectural language created as an answer to the reality of the subtropical climate: an air-conditioning apparatus defined in structural and architectural terms, with no mechanical help.37 The same is true of the Assembly, whose Forum is not only a cool and shaded interior, but a cathedral of shade, a celebration of crepuscular relief in the midst of the heat and glare of the surrounding plains.

Le Corbusier’s style at Chandigarh is of a strongly (but by no means exclusively) symbolic and declamatory nature—so is its underlying program, inspired by the political background and circumstances. At Chandigarh the purpose of government was one of celebration and persuasion, not just smooth-running administration and bureaucracy. Among the symbols cast in the concrete walls and knit in the tapestries of Chandigarh’s palaces, the sign of the sun, determining night and day on earth, plays a central role (Fig. 131). It summarizes the distribution of light and darkness and heat and coolness, which is the basic theme of Le Corbusier’s architecture at Chandigarh. And it gives this theme the irrefutability of a cosmic law.

Figure 131
Signs drawn by Le Corbusier, to be cast in the concrete walls and knit in the tapestries of the palaces in Chandigarh’s Capitol. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1957-65, p. 111.) Compare these signs with the detail in Figure 142.

Not only the architecture, but the society that built it is placed under the sun’s ultimate irrefutable command: in the Assembly building Le Corbusier moves his sun symbolism from the area of poetic architectural mythology into the realm of political symbolism. He revives the idea of the roi soleil. The sun sign dominates the large enamel door to the Assembly, the ceremonial gate, opened once every year for the Governor of the State (Fig. 132).

Figure 132
The Capitol, Chandigarh: view of the Assembly with ceremonial gate. (Photograph by S. von Moos.)

The larger of the two chambers of the parliament was to be equipped for a mysterious solar ritual to be held every year (Fig. 133). Its sculptural envelope, the cooling tower-type volume at the center of the building, suspended into the dark space of the Forum like a giant entrail, rising above the roof like a chimney, is topped by an oblique cover. Sculptural forms, reminiscent of the observatories of Jaipur or Delhi, emerge on the slanted surface as a colossal, vaguely cosmological still-life (Fig. 134). “This cap,” Le Corbusier explains, “… will become a true physics laboratory, equipped to ensure the play of lights…. Furthermore, this cork will lend itself to possible solar festivals, reminding man once every year that he is a son of the sun.”38 It is a cosmological sanction of earthly power, like at Abu Simbel, where once every year a sunray reaches into the back of the mortuary cave and touches the forehead of the Pharaoh’s effigy. The scientific imagery of Siwai Jai Singh’s observatories (Fig. 135) is reinstrumentalized for the celebration of a political myth.

Figure 133
Le Corbusier, studies for the light equipment of the Upper Chamber in the Assembly, 1954. (Source: Le Corbusier, My Work, 1960, p. 210.)

Figure 134
The Capitol, Chandigarh: view from the High Court toward the Assembly. (Photograph by S. von Moos.)

Figure 135
Jaipur: astronomical observatory, 1718-1734. (Photograph by S. von Moos.)

Without the Imperial Capitol of New Delhi in the background, however, Le Corbusier would never have been able to realize at Chandigarh what he had dreamt of ever since 1927: a monument to the machine age, its supposedly universal values and its political institutions. From the beginning, the Capitol was to be the Indian answer to the Capitol at New Delhi, with its domes and colonnades, its avenues and enormous squares glorifying the British colonial Empire (Fig. 136). Photographs cannot convey the spectacle of grandeur that this complex must have offered to the British visitor of the thirties; what its monumentality may have signified to the Indian people is of course another question. To quote Robert Byron’s report in the Architectural Review (1931):

The road describes a curve and embarks imperceptibly on a gradient. Suddenly, on the right, a scape of towers and domes is lifted from the horizon, sunlit pink and cream dancing against the blue sky, fresh as a cup of milk, grand as Rome. Close at hand the foreground discloses a white arch. The motor turns off the arterial avenue, and skirting the low red base of the gigantic monument, comes to a stop. The traveller heaves a breath. Before his eyes, sloping gently upward, runs a gravel way of such infinite perspective as to suggest the intervention of a diminishing glass; at whose end, reared above the green tree tops, glitters the seat of government, the eighth Delhi, four square upon an eminence—dome, tower, dome, tower, dome, tower, red, pink, cream, and white-washed gold and flashing in the morning sun.39

Figure 136
New Delhi: aerial view of the Capitol complex. (Source: Butler, The Architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens.)

Twenty years after Byron’s visit, Le Corbusier paid his tribute to the work of Sir Edwin Lutyens and Sir Herbert Baker: “New Delhi …, the capital of Imperial India, was built more than thirty years ago, with extreme care, great talent, and real success. The critics may say what they want: to do something forces respect (at least my respect).”40 In fact, as Allan Greenberg has noted, Le Corbusier’s early studies for the Chandigarh skyline could easily double as illustrations for Robert Byron’s description of Lutyens’ palaces and domes: “The essential ingredients are common—the picturesque skyline of government buildings, the flat intervening city, and the monumental connecting axis.”41

In an early version of the Capitol project, established after that “pathetic soliloquy,” that “battle of spaces fought inside the head” which Le Corbusier later described,42 he seems to have envisaged a complex similar in scale to Delhi’s palaces and domes. Later, as the program became more specific, the size was reduced and the symmetries within the complex (especially the axial alignment of the Assembly with the High Court) were modified.

But through all these stages of its elaboration, the complex remained visually dominated by the Governor’s Palace (Fig. 137). This building, drastically overscaled in the initial stages of its planning, was designed to “crown the Capital”43 in a similar way as the Viceroy’s House of Lutyens crowns the city of New Delhi. Above the roof, a huge concrete clamp grasps into the sky (Fig. 138), similarly potent in sculptural presence and symbolic if not ritual overtones as the grandiose St. Paul’s-type dome of the Viceroy’s House (Fig. 139).

Figure 137
The Capitol at New Delhi; Le Corbusier’s first project for the Capitol at Chandigarh; Le Corbusier’s final project for the Capitol at Chandigarh; all drawn to the same scale. (Source: A. Greenberg, in Perspecta, no. 12, 1969.)

Figure 138
Chandigarh: Le Corbusier’s project for the Governor’s Palace, “crowning the city,” May 1953. (Source: Le Corbusier, Oeuvre complète 1946-52, p. 151.)

Figure 139
New Delhi: the Viceroy’s House, overlooking the Capitol. Architect: Sir Edwin Lutyens. (Source: Butler, The Architecture of Sir Edwin Lutyens.)

There are more analogies. The gardens of the Governor’s Palace, extending toward the city and toward the rear, were to be organized in terms of terraces and fountains; the access roadways in terms of depressed channels serving and piercing the building on its cross axis—Lutyens’ brilliant and multilevel arrangements at and around the Viceroy’s House must have inspired the concept.44

The Governor’s Palace was not built. Nehru is said to have considered a Governor’s Palace within the Capitol area unsuitable for a democracy.45 Nehru had a lively interest in Chandigarh’s Capitol, and his interventions were numerous and decisive, given the central government’s important subsidies to the enterprise. Usually, he backed Le Corbusier’s proposals against the objections of the local officials; he supported a green carpet in the Upper Chamber, despite the Punjab’s desire for a red carpet to correspond with the British House of Lords; he insisted that Le Corbusier’s tapestries remain in the High Court, although they seem to have been criticized as aesthetically unacceptable by some judges.46

In short, it is through its dialectical commitment to continuity as well as to innovation that Le Corbusier’s city, and above all the Capitol, could become, in the eyes of the Indian officials, a symbol of the new state. Or that it could become, as Nehru had said in an address at the official Inauguration of Chandigarh (1953), “the first large expression of our creative genius, flowering on our newly earned freedom, … unfettered by traditions of the past, … reaching beyond the existing encumbrances of old towns and old traditions” and even, finally, the “temple of new India.”47

Convergence of Ideologies

Thus, besides or rather before being a tool for specific bureaucratic functions, the Capitol is a monumental apparatus, glorifying the two great themes underlying the program of the whole city: first—the establishment of a new, powerful, efficient state order, capable of guaranteeing political stability and independence after the disorders of the Civil War; second—the promotion of modern technology (“the big factory and all that it represents”), as the basis of economic and social progress. It is, of course, no coincidence that Le Corbusier proved to be the right man at the right moment, that his urban imagery and his architecture were capable, more than Mayer’s or Nowicki’s, of dramatizing the ideas and values that the new Indian elite wanted to celebrate. These values had been central to Le Corbusier’s political philosophy since the beginning of his career.

Le Corbusier’s enthusiasm for authority—for strong leadership, for great men at the head of important tasks—is proverbial. In the early twenties, Paris confronted him with the deplorable living conditions of the underprivileged, the poor. His commitment to improve their situation was honest and strong. But he perceived their conditions and their problems from above; he thought (as most housing agencies in the industrialized world have ever since) that the solution of the urban crisis is above all a technical, not a political problem. Thus, he addressed himself not to the people, but to those in command. And he recommended his solutions not as the pretext of revolution, but as a means of avoiding it: “Architecture or Revolution. Revolution can be Avoided” was the slogan in 1922.48 The call for a strong political authority is a permanent motto in his pamphlets and books. In order to realize the new architecture of collective happiness, society needs a strong, well-informed government with Pleins Pouvoirs, to quote the title of a book by Jean Giraudoux (1939) that was highly appreciated by Le Corbusier. Thus his book La Ville radieuse of 1935 is dedicated to Authority. He cultivated a paternalistic, more, a patriarchal conception of state rule; he liked to compare it to the authority of the père de famille who knows what is best for his children.49 At the end of Urbanisme (1925), he reproduced a print: Louis XIV ordering the construction of the Hotel des Invalides (Fig. 140). The caption says: “Homage to a great urbanist.” Later, he confessed: “I have been haunted for years by the shadow of Colbert.”50

Figure 140
Louis XIV ordering the building of the Hotel des Invalides. The caption reads: “Homage to a great urbanist.” (Source: Le Corbusier, Urbanisme, 1925, p. 302.)

With that in mind one understands what Nehru must have meant to him. After his frustrated attempts to become a Colbert of the League of Nations, of Joseph Stalin, of Henri Pétain, and of the UN51 he finally met a political leader whose outlook was in tune with his own architectural philosophy and whose authority was strong enough to put it to work (Fig. 141).

Figure 141
Le Corbusier explaining the High Court drawings to Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. (Photograph by Narindar Lamba, 1952.)

It is easy enough to ridicule Le Corbusier’s enthusiasm for authority, this Olympic determination to operate “par-dessus la mêlée.”52 To judge the ideology in terms of abstract social theory or vaguely anarchist religion is one thing; to ponder its implications within its historical context is another.53 Le Corbusier’s context offered limited alternatives. His alternatives were not between popular self-determination or “freedom now” versus authoritarian “law and order”; they were between the laissez-faire of advanced capitalism and a controlled economic and social progress based upon modern technology put at the service of the masses. He chose the latter alternative.

His insistence upon the nonpolitical, “purely technical” nature of his strategy did not prevent him from being judged upon the level of day-to-day politics. In the twenties and the early thirties his technocratic views placed him, in the eyes of conservative critics, among the bolsheviks.54 More recently the same aspect of his work has qualified him as an accomplice of advanced capitalism; so the themes of conservative and reactionary antimodern propaganda, typical for the late twenties, have been inherited by the sociological critique of the New Left.55

Le Corbusier was certainly a protagonist of the ideology of the modern welfare state,56 and part of his personal drama was that his early architectural and urbanistic concepts were elaborated some twenty years before their underlying ideology became universally accepted in the industrialized world. It is interesting to note, in the context of Chandigarh, how he has always naively admired Western colonization as a spectacle of “force morale.”57 His book Précisions, written after his first trip to South America (1929), abounds in sickening statements about the great effort of investors and industrialists to “make up America”: “In the offices, I have seen that the Germans and the English had sent technicians in order to equip the country; and especially I have felt the enormous financial and industrial power of the USA. From the four corners of the world one comes to Argentina, for all efforts are useful.”58 It sounds as if he wanted to advertise himself as a new Columbus. And it is no coincidence that, in 1930, a century after the French military takeover of Algeria, he travels to Algiers in order to announce “the hour of urbanism.”

Most of these earlier statements on the salutary nature of modern technology and industrial development for the well-being of mankind would probably have found the approval of Prime Minister Nehru. In India, Le Corbusier was frequently blamed for not having been interested enough in local customs. When an Indian visitor asked him why he had not stayed longer at Chandigarh, he answered, “I was frightened of a snake biting me,” but he added, “What is the meaning of Indian style in the world of today, when you accept machines and trousers and democracy?”59

Machines, trousers and democracy are, however, not the only elements of that universal mythology of which Chandigarh was to be a monument. This mythology has broader outlines, deeper reaching roots. It is based upon Le Corbusier’s well-known dogma of les joies essentielles; it is inspired by the virtues of simple rural life in preindustrial society;60 it is oriented toward and qualified by eternal cosmic laws, summed up in the sign of the “solar day of 24 hours.” A catalogue of symbols to be cast in the concrete walls of Chandigarh’s palaces and to be knit in the tapestries decorating their ceremonial chambers illustrates this cosmology. It is the legacy of an artist who conceives himself as a magician and a prophet of a new myth, if not as a legislator of a new society; of an artist, indeed, who in his youth had read Nietzsche, who had participated in the aesthetic and symbolistic rituals of Art Nouveau, and who dreamed of an integrated society. There is a direct connection between the ornaments of the Villa Fallet at La Chaux-de-Fonds (1906-1907) (Fig. 142) and the decorative program for Chandigarh. Here and there appears the fiction of a state art, elementary and nevertheless occult, because there is no state religion behind it.61

Figure 142
Detail of the main façade of the Villa Fallet, La Chaux-de-Fonds, 1906-1907. Architect: Charles-Edouard Jeanneret (Le Corbusier). (Photograph by S. von Moos.)

There is reasonable hope that the blownup trademarks symbolizing Le Corbusier’s architectural mythology (the sign of the Modulor, the harmonic Spiral, the tower of shade, and so on), a rather curious parade of devotional art to be displayed in a “ditch of contemplation” in the Capitol complex, will never be executed.62 There may even be a fit of uncertainty in Le Corbusier’s comments on this pretentiously ritual display: rarely was he so eager to credit one of his collaborators, in this case Jane Drew, with the original idea.63

The Open Hand sums it all up. It is no doubt the most powerful, poetic sign among these monuments, for it transcends, in its evocative plainness, the idealistic abstraction of the other elements of this private decalogue. By its ultimately Ruskin-inspired symbolism of fraternity, it even brings in a subtle though indirect and certainly unintended allusion to Gandhi’s philosophy.

In various letters to Nehru, Le Corbusier comments on the origins and on the personal implications of this symbol. But he is also eager to make it acceptable as a metaphor of what Chandigarh, “the temple of new India,” stands for. Thus he reiterates, in one of these letters, a theme that has always been important equally to him and to Nehru. The real dilemma in the modern world, he says, is not between the USA and the USSR, but it is of a more general, human, and technical nature: “The modern world has made ail things interrelated. The relations are continuous and contiguous around the globe, affected by nuances and diversity…. The question is man and his environment, an event of local as well as of global order.”64

And in an earlier letter, never published in extenso, he is even more explicit as to the fundamental role of technology in building up a new solidarity among men:

India was not forced to live through the century, today gone, of the troubles of the first machine age….

India might consider precious the idea of raising in the Capitol of Chandigarh at present under construction, among the palaces which will house its institutions and its authority, the symbolic and evocative sign of the “Open Hand”:

open to receive the newly created wealth,

open to distribute it to its people and to the others.

The “Open Hand” will assert that the second era of the machine age has begun: the era of harmony.65

Such a commitment to technology as the premise of a new and universal social harmony may have sounded quite familiar to Indian ears. It corresponds with Nehru’s own stated philosophy of progress. The belief, however, that technology would be able to create a universal brotherhood of men, that it would enable men at last to understand one another, that it would guarantee once and for all peace on the globe has not been introduced by him. It is at least as old as the Victorian Age, which so deeply shaped the Indian infrastructures. But in the nineteenth century, technology in India turned out to become a servant not to human brotherhood, but to British imperial dominance; it has served as a proof of the gulf existing between Englishmen and Indians, rather than as a means of bridging it.66

In fact, Le Corbusier’s statement that “India was not forced to live through … the troubles of the first machine age” acquires, if seen in the context of economic and political history, an almost cynical meaning. While the country was forced to bleed under the machinery of Western capitalism, it has preserved its older, autocratic, basically feudal power structure and class hierarchy. Almost untouched by the struggles toward democratization, which throughout the nineteenth century changed the political scene in England, India remained, in the eyes of many British conservatives, the model of political order and stability. Thus, it could become, in the twentieth century, the scene of the British Empire’s most spectacular building campaign. Chandigarh is unimaginable outside the system of political hierarchy which made New Delhi’s Capitol possible; it celebrates the new elite. And thus, even within an independent India, technology and the myth of the Open Hand might well remain an instrument and a symbol of a political strategy, which, up to now, seems to be more successful in keeping people apart than in bringing them together.

Nevertheless, within the “mafia” of Corbusier fans67 the Open Hand has in fact been able to inspire a sort of universal camaraderie, even though it has not been built. Has it perhaps been designed for us?

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