Le Corbusier's 50th death anniversary: Behold the fascist who gave us a cold, joyless Chandigarh

"The City Beautiful" as tourism brochures cheerfully describe it? Or a glorified urban ghetto dressed up as a "bold" and "innovative" experiment in modern city planning?

The hype that has surrounded Chandigarh for close to half a century as independent India's first planned city has meant that nobody ever dared ask whether the emperor really wore any clothes. Of course, he did, the sceptics were told. And weren't they, "oh! so wonderful?" Designed as they were by one of the world's most renowned designers -Le Corbusier himself.

Now half a century later, it turns out that Le Corbusier himself wore slightly less pleasing garments than it had been assumed until now. According to two new books just out in France, the great Swiss-French architect was a "fascist" and his work was heavily inspired by his admiration for the "soul-destroying" Nazi art.

So, where does that leave Chandigarh acclaimed as arguably his most important project which gave him the opportunity to test his ideas on a scale he had seldom done before. He designed the city down to the doorknobs of its buildings.

Sculpture of 'Le Corbusier by a French artist in Marseille. Reuters

Sculpture of 'Le Corbusier by a French artist in Marseille. Reuters

In the light of these revelations, it would be interesting to take a fresh look and ask: how much of his allegedly Nazi-inspired approach which led to ghettoisation of many parts of Europe--notably in France and Germany-- rubbed off on Chandigarh?

There's a view that his politics had evolved by the time he came to Chandigarh, but this is not quite borne out by the city's cold cantonment-style layout which firmly belongs to the right-wing tradition of “pure’’ architecture. Experts say that he continued to see it as a function of urban planning to "organise" people around an “orderly’’ environment rather than the other way round.

American architect Brent C Brolin described Chandigarh as an “open laboratory’’ for Le Corbusier to “test’’ his concepts effectively using its people as guinea pigs.

In a major critique, “Chandigarh Was Planned by Experts, But Something Has Gone Wrong’’, published in Smithsonian magazine long before Le Corbusier was unmasked, Brolin suggested that the great Frenchman seemed to be interested only in experimenting with his own pet theories without any regard for the Indian tradition of living.

With its isolated, self-contained neighbourhoods divided into distantly located sectors, Chandigarh was a subversion of the traditional Indian city which encouraged greater social interaction among its citizens.

“In the old cities people are closer; in Chandigarh we do not share one another’s joys and sorrows,” people told Brolin besides recounting the practical difficulties of living there starting with houses whose design they found too alien to their way of life.

“We thought it was horrible when we first came, all (houses) like little biscuit boxes and everyone so far apart.,’’ said another family.

Chandigarh, according to Brolin, was “a classic example of what goes wrong when planners apply their own values indiscriminately’’. Le Corbusier “assumed in this case that the architecture would form people in its own image. It hasn’t.”

The vision that shaped Chandigarh is under fresh scrutiny in the wake of Le Corbusier controversy. Haaretz, Israel’s left-liberal newspaper, noted that the principles of urban planning that Le Corbusier championed “dismantled and undermined the (idea of) traditional city’’.

And those principles, at once subversive and totalitarian, are written all over Chandigarh. Epitomised by its hierarchical structure with the oddly-named Capitol Complex, the hub of political power comprising the State Secretariat, the Assembly and the High Court, designated as the "head" of the city; the commercial centre its "heart"; and housing and other facilities as "arms". People took a backseat in Le Corbusier’s scheme of things.

My acquaintance with Chandigarh is limited. But my first impression when I spent a few days there in 1990s was of a city which radiated coldness despite the enormous warmth of its people. At the time I thought maybe it was just me. But then many years later I read a blog by travel blogger Christian Wild in which he noted how “impersonal’’ the city was because of the way it had been designed.
“It is a vast impersonal grid… Distances are long and the urban spaces… are huge. The spaces seem to be empty…(have you ever seen empty spaces in India?)’’, he wrote (Chandigarh, Crumbling Concrete, Grids and Free Forms, June 9, 2012).

Britain’s Independent newspaper mockingly called it a “tribute to Le Corbusier’s eccentricity’’.

“Chandigarh's regimented grid layout, comprising numbered rectangular ‘superblocks’ …contrasts sharply with the chaotic feel of India's traditional urban destinations. Dominated by Brutalist concrete architecture, Chandigarh is a place that is likely to alienate some new arrivals,’’ it commented.

Well, not just new arrivals as Brolin noted all those years ago.

Meanwhile, even as the "unmasking" of the great Swiss-French architect as an ardent Hitler admirer and an anti-Semite has shocked Europe overshadowing his 50th death anniversary commemorations, surprisingly it has attracted little attention in India.

Even in Chandigarh, it has been greeted with typically Indian indifference to historical events. Some people I spoke to shrugged it off. How did it matter what Le Corbusier's politics was? they wondered.

"Ki faraq painda?’’ was the response of one Punjabi friend.

The row was sparked by two new books-- Le Corbusier, un fascisme francais (Le Corbusier, a French fascism) by journalist Xavier de Jarcy, and Un Corbusier by Francois Chaslin--revealing his close links with France's war-time collaborationist Vichy regime under which he held several important posts.

Although speculation about Le Corbusier’s dalliance with the Far Right has swirled around for long this is the first time that the scale of it is revealed in such detail culled mostly from his private correspondence and documents. They purportedly show that his sympathies for fascism were much stronger than previously thought.

"Personally I was very shocked I found it hard to accept. You need time to absorb that kind of information, " Xavier de Jarcy told the BBC.

Le Corbusier is also accused of “falsifying’’ his biography first to buy patronage from the Nazi puppet regime in France; and after the War to airbrush his Nazi links. The Pompidou Centre in Paris which has mounted a special exhibition to mark his death anniversary has been criticised for ignoring the darker side of his career.

How about re-assessing Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh legacy? Or is that asking too much of his starry-eyed admirers?

Updated Date: Jun 14, 2015 09:44 AM

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