As the armed soldier smiles for the first time I finally start to relax and take in the surroundings. Standing on the roof of Swiss architect Le Corbusier’s immense Secretariat, we look down and into the distance, past the huge State Assembly building towards the front of a court fronted by enormous coloured pillars. To the left of the court, a vast sculpture of an open hand turns slowly in the hot wind, waving us welcome to the Capitol in Chandigarh, India’s modernist dream. The soldier smiles again and, with his gun barrel, points to the moving palm, the symbol of Corbusier’s vision, one that the architect said was “open to give and open to receive”. Rather like our mouths, wide with amazement.
The reason for the military presence is that one can’t visit the Capitol without several signed letters of introduction from the Tourist Office, interviews with several stern-looking officers and an armed escort. These letters charmingly present my partner and me as representatives of British Architecture, which could hardly be further from the truth. Fortunately, nobody asks us searching questions about pilotis or buttresses. The nearest we get to being embarrassed is when a group of soldiers all stand stiffly to attention and salute as we approach the building. I’m about to reciprocate when a man with braid on his shoulders strides past, glaring at the tourists spoiling his moment of superiority.
Following independence in 1947, the Indian government, and Pandit Nehru in particular, were keen to show that the new country was just that. Nehru called Chandigarh a city “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future”. That faith was largely invested in Le Corbusier, who took over the project when the American architect Albert Mayer pulled out following the death of his partner. Students would probably point out that, despite the unflinching modernity of the buildings, the architect was far from unfettered by the past. Academics drool over the placing of buildings in the asymmetric tradition of classical antiquity and so on (and on). Unburdened with all that knowledge, we just want to look at the buildings and do a bit of gawping.
And there’s plenty to make the jaw drop. The Assembly building contains a debating chamber that’s a treasure trove of modernist furniture – enough painted, bent ply to fill all the loft apartments in Manhattan and then some, designed by Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. This vast chamber is decorated with abstract blobs of colour, reminiscent of Miro’s tapestries and irregular shaped acoustic panels, all designed by the architect. Sadly, one’s not allowed to take pictures inside but if you can imagine our own House of Commons, doubled in size and given a make-over by a surrealist with a yen for rocking furniture you may get the idea. Outside, the roof along one side forms a scooping curve looking down on some garages (yes plain old garages) that are decorated with perforated concrete panels and bright splashes of primary colours.
The High Court building is as unlike London’s Gothic temple of justice as it’s possible to be with its immense slabs of vivid concrete and a wild geometric shell, picked out in the sorts of colours that make me want to re-decorate my bathroom (again). We walk to the top, 100 feet up and more, via a series of sloping pathways rising to give a view of the Open Hand twisting and blinking, rather like us two. Never mind machines for living in, this collection is enough to make you gasp, more like being in church than any sort of domestic environment.
Guidebooks to India can be sniffy about Chandigarh. It’s not uncommon to see it called “Un-Indian” (whatever that is supposed to mean in a country with more than 20 languages) or to imply that the place is somehow a failure, because Le Corbusier’s designs have proved impractical in some ways. It’s true that the concrete structures have problems in the heat and that the city itself seems to be reliant on a series of interconnected roundabouts (Sectors, they call them) that mean walking is a nuisance. But Chandigarh is one of the cleanest and richest cities in India, with good housing and a good deal of civic pride. Compare that with the truly horrific shanty dwellings in turbo-capitalist Delhi or the embarrassingly twee colonial representations of “The Old Country” in hill stations like Shimla and Chandigarh emerges pretty well. It has an Open Hand. All we need is an open mind.
Matthew Loukes flew to Delhi with Go Air www.goair.com. Matthew is the author of the Slim Gunter detective novels, published by Soul Bay Press www.soulbaypress.com.
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