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From the archive: Correa on Chandigarh

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In this article which first appeared in the Architectural Review in 1964, Indian architect Charles Correa takes a look at Corbusier’s Chandigarh

‘He flies through the air with the greatest of ease

That daring old man on the flying trapeze.’

(Ancient accidental folk-song.)

One arrives at Chandigarh. One travels through the town, past the houses spread out in the dust like endless rows of confidence-tricks, and down the surrealistic roads-V1’s and V2’s-running between brick walls to infinity. Chandigarh, brave new Chandigarh, born in the harsh plains of the Punjab without umbilical cord.

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

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

How does one project architecture at this decibel level? As an intelligent architect, Corb immediately perceived the necessity for a strong concept (‘the plan is the generator’); but concept alone is not enough, and as an artist he has become more and more aware of the importance of developing an impassioned visual language that would project these concepts. Thus each of Corb’s buildings has been a consecutive step in his search to develop the power - and further the boundaries - of his vocabulary and syntax.

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

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

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

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

Much has been written about the brutality of Corb’s architecture and, as evidence, is usually cited his handling of concrete. But Corb’s brutality is, in fact, only one side of the coin; he is much more than that. Any ape can be brutal, and Corb could never be exclusively brutal any more than he could be exclusively elegant. It is essential to his temperament that he expresses both qualities at the same time. (A glance at the Jaoul houses in Paris will illustrate this.) It has been said that one understands the hardness of rock only if one knows the softness of silk, and Corb himself reputedly sprinkles his biftek with large granules of kitchen salt. (‘This way I know what salt is and I know what meat is.’) Thus we find that at certain levels of the Assembly - as for instance in the bridge connecting the lift-tower to the top ofthe hyperboloid-the physical protection provided is completely inadequate. A sense of danger also exists in some portions of Shodan’s house in Ahmedabad, and the question is asked: Why has Corb done this? Yet try to imagine the same architecture with a safe 3ft high parapet providing uniform protection all around! Danger, perhaps, is the necessary concomitant of safety. (And danger has its own rewards: crossing the jungle at night may be a fearsome experience, but it gets you to keep your eyes open, your ears flapping, your senses alert. Corb, cunning as he is, has probably observed this.)

The use of contrast, then, to heighten meaning, is an essential technique of Corb’s, and it results in an architecture of great flexibility, making many simultaneous statements, thus covering a wide spectrum of human emotions. Mies - who may himself be brought in at this point to provide contrast - is an architect who plays a very limited range of the spectrum; and if he may, for the purpose of analogy, be described as an artist who can take a potato and boil it perfectly, then Corb is certainly the man for a really first-class curry. A Miesian plan brings the simplest elements together in an atmosphere of Olympian calm; it is a space at rest, devoid of any too particular orientation (unfortunately, through vulgarisation, this has popularised an effete symmetry that has swept America like diarrhoea). But Corb’s elements are seldom simple and crystal-clear; they are usually ambiguous with a myriad of overtones; and his buildings, like those of Wright, are never non-directional; they always emphasise their sense of orientation and therefore their sense of life. (The exception, perhaps, is the museum at Ahmedabad which is his blandest, and weakest, building.)

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

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

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

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

AR June 1964

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