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Lightning at Chandigarh
Time, Apr. 21, 1958
Photo: Le Corbusier
'The world's architects come to see what is going on in Chandigarh,' said India's Prime Minister Nehru. Then, before a vast crowd of officials, clerks, laborers, housewives and children, Nehru troweled mortar from a silver bowl and set the cornerstone for a gigantic, tower-topped legislative hall. The building will be the latest major edifice to get under way in the new capital of the Punjab, a site that only seven years ago was a cluster of mud hut villages on the grassy plain southwest of the Himalayas. Now one-third completed, Chandigarh (pop. 50,000) ranks as one of the century's boldest schemes for a new city. (Another, Brazil's capital city of Brasilia.)
Judges of What?
But behind the glowing words of Jawaharlal Nehru all is not well in Chandigarh. Some of the clients are in strong disagreement with the architect - a man described by Nehru as 'one of the world's great men' - France's dogmatic, bespectacled Le Corbusier, 70. The first of 'Corbu's' Chandigarh buildings - the massive, sculptural High Court - has won ringing praise from architects and critics. But the men who use it most, the High Court judges, have handed down some sharp dissents.
The judges have openly defied Corbu's decree that all vehicular traffic approach the building on a sunken drive. Instead, they drive up on the paths the architect laid out for pedestrians, and park their cars under the great arches that rise to the building's parasol roof. Le Corbusier indignantly photographed the grease spots left by the cars beneath his splendid arches, and snapped: 'What sort of judges are these who do not obey the traffic laws?' Five of the eight judges decided that they did not like the abstract cubist tapestries Le Corbusier designed for their courtrooms, had them hauled down. 'They should confine themselves to being judges of law,' growled Corbu, 'not set themselves up as judges of art.'
Some Indians of lesser status also disagree with the great architect. A public-opinion poll published by Punjab's leading English-language newspaper, the Tribune, favored postponement of the legislative building as an economy measure. (Retorted Le Corbusier: 'What do grocers and peasants know of the work I am doing?') Chandigarhians protest that the plan of the city, built from the periphery inward, leaves too great distances between the buildings. While Le Corbusier is not personally designing the housing, residents complain that his plan results in a built-in caste system, with income groups divided block by block and identified by the color of their water cisterns. Another objection: the plan makes no provision for that old Indian custom of keeping a buffalo around the house.
Although they complain about these features of their new capital, the people of Chandigarh are gradually developing a local pride, and are beginning to look down on other Indian cities. They take pleasure in pointing out in New Delhi some architectural features, e.g., sun-breakers and louvers, copied from Chandigarh. Architect Le Corbusier, often the center of controversy, claims to dislike the furor, but clearly is not surprised by it. 'I am like a lightning conductor,' he declares. 'I attract storms.'