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Le Corbusier's Masterpiece, Chandigarh, The Capital of Punjab: Up For Grabs




It is a last-ditch effort to save a city built as a monument to modernity and hope but now threatened by neglect and the fierce demands of the global art market. Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab, was built by Le Corbusier 60 years ago [after Punjab was partitioned and Lahore, the capital of the original Punjab, was lost to Pakistan.]

Since then, many of its finest buildings, recognised as modernist masterpieces, have been neglected.

Recently, international art dealers have made substantial sums selling hundreds of chairs, tables, carvings and prints designed by Le Corbusier and his assistants but obtained at knockdown prices from Indian officials often unaware of their value.

Now a group of local architects, art historians and officials are hoping to mobilise international help to prevent further damage to Le Corbusier's unique Punjabi legacy. A report commissioned by the government in Chandigarh has recommended a campaign targeting the U.N. heritage agency, Unesco, as well as foreign governments, especially in Europe, where many of the items have been auctioned.

Informal approaches to embassies in Delhi have failed, the unpublished report, seen by the Guardian, says.

The campaigners are led by Manmohan Nath Sharma, who was the first assistant of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh and later took over as chief architect of the city.

"What is being lost is irreplaceable," he said, speaking in the home he designed in the centre of Chandigarh and surrounded by prints and paintings given to him by Le Corbusier.

"Our heritage is going to be gone forever. This matter is being taken very lightly by the authorities, so now we need international help. This is a handmade city. It is unique. It can never be replaced."

A Chandigarh manhole cover recently sold for £15,000, although there is no suggestion the furniture was bought or sold illegally.

Professor Rajnish Wattas, a former principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, is also calling for international intervention.

"We were stunned when we heard the prices for manhole covers or chairs that you can still see watchmen sitting on outside offices. This was a wake-up call but what we are losing still hasn't sunk in," he said.

Le Corbusier was commissioned to build a city that would replace Lahore, the capital of the Punjab lost to newly created Pakistan after partition in 1947. The new metropolis was to be of a design "unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation's faith in the future".

Working on the principle that every detail had to be meticulously planned for the whole to function, Le Corbusier's team designed everything from the vast sculptures outside the monumental high court and local assembly to the door handles in the offices within.

Last year, the Chandigarh authorities approached the British High Commission in New Delhi in a bid to halt the sale in London of dozens of items including chairs from the assembly buildings. Indian diplomats in London also claim to have intervened. Neither attempt was successful.

Many of the items for sale in Europe come from stocks "condemned" as unfit for use by the local administration and sold off at auction to junk dealers. Others have been bought from officials often unaware of their international value.

Campaigners hope that with international support the auctions can be halted until new laws are passed.

"We have to act before it is too late," said Sharma, 87. "The Taj Mahal was made by foreign craftsmen and admired by foreigners before Indians saw it as a major attraction. Today the Taj is a symbol of India. Tomorrow it will be Le Corbusier's work in Chandigarh."


[Courtesy: The Guardian]

March 8, 2011

Conversation about this article

1: Jasbir Singh (India), April 26, 2011, 6:26 AM.

I was in a group of students visiting the complex recently. We were in total shock when we arrived on the roof for a view of the complex. On top of the High Court roof, used tires and other junk are stored and the roof has almost no room left to walk. Two French and a Korean architect were also visiting at the same time. I felt ashamed. Where are the building administrators?

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