Arrogant, self-centred, overpowering, confident, assured about himself, Unconcerned about others, abrasive…
Yet for all that…
An enlightened person, enlightenment achieved after a lot of Tapasya (a self imposed discipline), a self-educated man who discarded bookish knowledge, went around to observe, to experience, and to imbibe what he felt was right and inevitable. Built a philosophy of architecture, art and urbanisation and even a way of life for himself out of that experience. When he wrote, I think, he never referred to what others have said. He only sought views on what he said. An open mind when in search of knowledge, and accepting only that which appealed to him, no matter what other’s opinion might be about what he thought.
His arrogance had a base, a sort of pedestal on which he could and did stand with his head held high—uncaring for the rest of the world. If someone were to meet Le Corbusier now in the heaven (or wherever he has landed himself) and say that Corb. Is now passe, he would assuredly shake his shoulders and say, ‘couldn’t care less. Right is right’.
Mind, somehow travels to the personalities like Budha and Mahatma Gandhi. They are said to be compassionate, perhaps mild and caring—the epithets which do not seem to apply to Le Corbusier. Why does my mind travel to these personalities while talking about Le Corbusier? I think it is because in my minds eye they must have been stubborn and self centred and confident like Le Corbusier. They would not budge from their points of view because the views had been achieved after TAPASYA.
Whatever may be the personality of Le Corbusier, he gave to Chandigarh, his disciple—Pierre Jeanneret—a person who can be described as a total opposite of the master. Pierre Jeanneret was mild, considerate, sweet tempered, willing to understand your or anybody’s point of view, mould his own attitude if he felt that there is something in what you have to offer.
Corbusier was like a rock. Anything hitting him would richochet. Pierre Jeanneret was like a pin-cushion. Anything hitting him would sink into him without leaving any abrasion. Pierre Jeanneret was like a bastion to withstand all the storms caused by Le Corbusier. if it was not for Pierre Jeanneret’s presence in Chandigarh, I have a feeling, Le Corbusier could not have lasted long. He ruffled many feathers with his headstrong ideas. Somehow Jawaharlal Nehru fell for them and shielded him at many a crucial moments, for initially everyone in power was aghast at what he was doing. Only charm and tact of Jawaharlal Nehru saved him. On the inauguration of the High Court building he said something like this ‘I do not understand Le Corbusier, I do not like everything he does, But, in what he does, there is something which hits you on the head. Makes you think, makes you stand up and look. It is something extraordinary, something which no one has seen or tried before. It is original.
In the epic poem Mahabharata there is a story about the great teacher Dronacharya and a low caste person Eklavya. Dronacharya was the teacher of the Pandava princes and he had vowed to make Arjuna the greatest archer. Eklavya also wanted to be an archer and he requested Dronacharya to accept him as his pupil. Dronacharya refused. We neednot go into the reasons of the refusal. After some time it so happened that during their sojourn in the forest the great guru and his disciples were faced with a curious situation—a barking dog. The dog could not be silenced by any means inspite of the efforts of all his princely disciples. Then it happened that the dog was silenced but not of its own volition. The dog appeared before the guru with a number of arrows stuck in its mouth but without any injury to its person. This amazed the guru, and he wondered who could be that archer that had carried out this feat. On search they found the archer was no other than the discarded disciple Eklavya. In his hut Eklavya had drawn a portrait of the guru, and thereby made him his guru and learnt archery and achieved the amazing proficiency. The story beyond is of no interest to our subject.
What I want to say is that a guru, in my concept, does not teach, but only inspires you to learn. You may or may not be in the presence of a guru, but if you place him in your heart then your receive inspiration to learn, to discover your own potential to acquire skill and to create through your own genius. Corbusier did not teach me. For a long time I had no direct contact with him. Yet his presence in Chandigarh and his works in Chandigarh and by direct contact with his disciple Pierre Jeanneret, I was able to discover my own potential of design and creativity, of comprehension and analysis.
It happened like this:- After some time of my being in Chandigarh, I was asked to prepare the design of the District Courts and Treasury building. I went through the usual exercise of collecting the brief and prepare a plan by putting together on a plan the requirements as given to me. In about a month or so I had a plan ready which I took to Pierre Jeanneret for him to see and approve or comment upon. He briefly looked at it and said, ‘A bit chaotic. What is the system?’ he asked. In my entire education of architecture of over ten years before that event I had not heard about the ‘system’ with reference to the design of any building. This was a revelation, namely that before you design you look for the ‘system’ to which the building in hand would repond. In a sense that was the beginning of my education as an architect. All that I had gone through before I had to set aside and begin all over again to learn the rudiments of architecture. I discovered that for every design there has to be a ‘GENERIC’ principle. Every life form carries that generic principle in its genes. When a life is born, be it human, or animal or vegetable, in the beginning it has nothing much visible actually invisible. But the generic principle is in-built. As it grows within a certain environment, the generic principle takes shape, and the potential of the life form is revealed. You can see how a butterfly is formed from an egg, to larva to pupa and then to butterfly. Or a plant from the seed to full grown tree to flowers and fruits, Or a human being from an embry to child to adult and then to full grown man or woman.
With the building it is the same sort of search for the generic principle. Corbusier seldom if ever asked for the brief of a building. He only wanted to know (if he did not know Already) what sort of functions a building is supposed to perform. Thus he considered the Secretariat building a sort of ‘Beehive’ in which various types of bees performed various types of functions. For them he created a system into which they could move occupy a certain space (lighted, ventilated, and serviced) and perform the assigned function.
When I was asked what is the system, I searched for the system for the Courts building. I discovered that for the City Centre Le Corbusier had already laid down a ‘system’ within which I had to function. It is upto me what I can do within that system. It is the same with life forms. They function within a ‘system’. The life has to find its generic principle within a system. Can I create a suitable design within that given system. Needless to say I did, and that is part of the history. With that design I was able to establish my identity as someone who can design. Later on I was to look for systems for many other forms of buildings. One such system refers to the design of hostels. Hostels are multi-storeyed. Besides the rooms, in our climate, we required outdoor sleeping place. A verandah which was the usual answer did not provide a suitable answer as compared to an open-to-sky terrace. So I hit upon staggered balconies, namely the roof of the balcony above will be two floors above and thus give enough openness to the person sitting or sleeping there. This principle was extensively applied in the design of numerous hostels that were designed. I applied this very principle for the design of multi-storeyed flats also.
I got opportunity to prepare several other designs like the Janj Ghar (marriage Hall), Sainik Rest House, Central Craft Institute etc in which I applied the same approach. But my great day came when I undertook the design of the Tagore Theatre. Tagore centenary was due in 1961. Govt. of India decided that the best way to perpetuate the memory of the great Guru would be that each state of the country build one theatre for ‘live’ drama performance. I got the opportunity to try my hand at it. But then every architect has the wish to show his competence. Pierre Jeanneret, my boss and guru, also worked on an idea of his own while I was busy in my studio. All of a sudden he called me and placed before me the sketch he had worked out with a view that I work on it further. I picked up his sketch and just before leaving said, ‘Monsieur, I also have a sketch. Would he please have a look at it’. I think, it was providential help that just before being called I had sketched two inter-locking squares—one for the auditorium, 2nd for the actors, and the interlocking area for the stage. I put that sketch before Pierre Jeanneret. He looked at it, and the comprehension creeped through his mind. I do not think many words passed between us then. He simply asked for his own sketch back, and asked me to proceed with my own design.
At this point I must pay tribute to the magnanimity of the little—GREAT man Pierre Jeanneret. Any other person would simply have dismissed my idea as in significant (even idiotic for no theatre had ever been built like that) and insisted that I work further on the idea of the boss. Needless to say that Tagore Theatre of Chandigarh is a significant feather in my architectural career. It has been exhibited in the world exhibitions of representative Indian Architecture. But there is a further corollary to this design which I shall come to later.
About this time I had done enough worthwhile work to qualify (I think) to be put before the grand master Le Corbusier to work for him. That was a singular honour for me. Before I come to my actual direct work with L.C. let me go back to the year 1949. I was then in London as a student of architecture. Le Corbusier was then the rage in architectural circles particularly with the younger generation. He was then building the famous Unite de habitation at Marseilles. A statement of his, ‘A house is a machine for living in’ had rather disturbed me. I could not associate a house with a machine then. But now in retrospect I see the significance of that statement. To L.C. machine is not just a machine as we normally see it. It is a device in the hands of man which he can use to his benefit if he uses it with discretion. But if he becomes a slave to the machine then he would lose his freedom. Thus a house is a machine to live in. it is for the man to make it into a ‘home’ by proper use. With new technology a house has actually become like a machine. You handle it like a machine.
That was the year (1949) I took a holiday to France, to Paris ofcourse. There I found my way to 35 Rue de Serves the office of Le Corbusier to feel the presence of the great man—the legend of architecture. No one prevented me from going in. It was a long cloister like office, not particularly well organised as one might expect a great architects office to be. A study model of the Unite was there, not for display, but for study of its functions. I do not think there was any ‘finished’ model of any building in his office. It was like a pilgrimage for me, even as Chandigarh now-a-days is for many an architect. I talked to a few fellows there and asked about the L.C. buildings in Paris which I did go to see afterwards. When I asked where Corbusier was I was told he was ensconced in his cubicle and would not like to be disturbed. I was not disappointed. Perhaps facing him directly at that stage would have been too much for me. In that sense, perhaps I was relieved that I did not get to see him. But to have been there was something to remember.
Now here I was in Chandigarh ready to be presented to him and to work for him. Having been in Chandigarh I had got to know some of the curious things about L.C. He called himself a camel. He wore khaki shirt and trousers to work, and his pockets were bulging with the equipment (tools of the trade) he always carried with him. They consisted of a bundle of coloure pencils held together with several rubber bands. It was said that he liked the resistance (due to the rubber bands) that the pencil offered when he pulled it out, because it gave him time to think before he actually used the pencil to demarcate something. Then there was an eraser, a penknife to sharpen the pencils. He would never sharpen a pencil to a fine point. He did not seem to like fine lines. He preferred rather textured lines. Once I made a fine drawing for him. He did not like it. Then there was always his diary in one of the pockets and a measuring tape. He also carried a strip on which ‘MODULOR’ dimensions were marked on it. He mentions that he lost that strip in the bed of Sukhna lake when it was being made. I cannot say whether he later made that strip for himself or not. But another curious thing he always carried was a shoe horn or shoewear. When asked what was that for, he is said to have replied, ‘if you have to wear shoes what do you do if you do not carry this’. The upshot of all this is that he probably looked upon himself like a well armed soldier or a well equipped craftsman. He carried his tools about his person all the time, perhaps with a view that you never know when you may have to use them. He was always curious to know, to observe, and to note all that he observed by sketches with measurements and application of colours to distinguish various functions. He seems to have built up a vocabulary of colours which he used at will without having to think what colour to use for what purpose. Whenever he came to Chandigarh, he stayed with Pierre Jeanneret, not, I think, with any sense of gratitude for him, but as a matter of right or priviledge. His mornings were spent making paintings. Pierre Jeanneret would come to the office early, leaving L.C. to himself to do what he pleased. Corbusier would saunter into the office at about 11 o’clock having spent the morning in doing some creative work on paper which had no bearing to his professional duties as the architect of the city. I do not think he carried the paintings he made with him. They were given away to the people here. Anybody having any of those now possesses a fortune. He would often find time to go to the nearby villages which he seemed to like very much. He was not much disturbed by the filth or poverty or the roaming animals. He made sketchers of what he saw and felt interested in. The cows, the bulls, and the wheel of a bullock cart seem to have interested him very much. He used these symbols as murals on his buildings. He got templates made of his sketches (modellor Rattan Singh did that) and used them in the shuttering pattern on his buildings. We also used them in other buildings.
In a sense he was a loner, setting himself in nature, to sense its beauty, its significance and its potential. He seems to have been quite at peace with himself—unconcerned about what others think about him.
In this frame of mind was I presented to the master. I did wonder what it would be like to work for him. What sort of sketches he would have which I will have to develop further etc. but when I did stand in front of him he simply took out his measuring tape, a stub of a pencil and a scrap of paper, and began to draw a column 3’ 8½” X 1’ 6” and then another at a distance of 12’ 0” and thus he went on till the rudiments of a GRID were formed. I had not the faintest idea of what he had in mind. Then he projected those lines of the grid vertically to reveal a sort of a section. On the section he explained how the light will enter and how the artists can work and how the air will flow and how the section can generate various type of spaces for different types of activities e.g. circulation, painting, sculpture, mural etc. This seemed to make sense. Anyhow, he then asked me to enlarge the grid i.e, to multiply it. Apparently he had the whole concept in his mind. He had only exposed to me the emryo of the idea. I enlarged the grid on a sheet of foolscap paper. On that he marked in colour the sources of natural light, flow of air and possibilities of circulation areas and the working areas etc. Then he tried to fix the limits of a UNIT, a unit of structure which can be expanded if necessary, but which forms a minimum unit for realisation. That done he removed a few grids from the unit to create an internal courtyard. That is probably all the work he did in the first stage. It was left to me to develop the whole section and the plan and demarcate the areas for studios, for circulation for administration and for workshop and toilets etc. when I pointed out that certain areas will not have sufficient light and air if isolated, he simply cut out an opening in the roof to provide that facility. Then he had the plan of the UNIT placed in juxtaposition with the rest of the Cultural Complex (Museum, Art Gallery and Miracle Box) to see the overall setting and to examine the possibilities of future expansion of the Arts College (which he preferred to call Audio Visual Training Institute) Making elevations and working drawings was left to me. The main thing I remember of that period when the construction had started was that I had the full scale section of the roof outline transferred on the ground to check the aesthetic quality of the curvature and to show it to Le Corbusier. he readily approved it. There are two other incidents worth relating in connection with this design and building. During the construction when he was in Chandigarh (he used to visit Chandigarh twice every year and stayed for one month each time) He called me and said he wants to see something. He fancied that the area behind the courtyard should be made into a small auditorium and therefore should have somewhat different roof. So got me to change the configuration of the grid and introduced a conoid roof form. I liked the conoid roof because it had a structural advantage in that the form gave the strength. But then it appeared to me that the roof form will be visible only from the interior, and the exterior facade will remain practically unchanged. So I said to Corbusier, it is not visible. His reply was “Good, God sees it”. At that time this statement bewildered me. But later I came to realise that ‘things’ are not made only as show pieces. They are made to ‘live’ an existence of their own. For instance, look at the beautiful sculptures inside an Indian temple—south Indian temple. They are there not for show but to have an existence of their own. This is in contrast to Greek sculptures which are put up for show. If you want to see the sculptures inside a Hindu temple you have to ‘go’ there to find them. If you want to see them more in detail then you have to arrange for special light also. For example look at the caves of Ajanta. There are many things in Indian ritual and thought which are done in privacy of the individual. For example the Devdasis danced before to gods and not for the pleasure of a congregation. I wonder whether that statement of Le Corbusier had been generated by his contact with India, or whether he imbibed the Indian ethos in his psyche.
The second incident is more interesting. I had the wall of my studio (one whole wall) painted black with chalk-board paint. Those days Tagore theatre was also under construction. I was studying the design of the auditorium chair and had drawn it to full scale on the wall. I had learnt to make drawings to large scale from Pierre Jeanneret. So I felt that the design of a chair should be studied in full size. I did many other studies in full size. One day Corbusier walked into my studio. I cannot say what brought him there. But he looked at the black painted wall and smiled with, what appeared to me, appreciation. I cannot say whether he had that on his mind before he came to my studio, or whether he thought of it on the spur of the moment. But he said he wants to rethink the design of the brise soleil (Jali) in that after they had left, he walked into the offices of various airlines In Paris, and asked their opinion of the Air India. They all said next to ours, Air India is the best. So he concluded Air India should be the best and safe. So I decided to accept.
The 2nd is about a measuring tape. It must have happened quite early on my joining the project. I had brought a steel tape with me from England. It so happened, one day, that Corbusier looked for his tape and could not find it. I was nearby and quickly took out my tape and handed it over to him to do what he wanted. Next day or the day after I asked for my tape. Corbusier retorted, “What tape” ? I of-course, said the one I gave you the other day. “I have no tape of yours. You think I am a thief.” That silenced me completely. Anyhow it gave me the satisfaction of thinking that my steel tape which I had liked very much went to or lost by no less a person than Le Corbusier.
The third is about a Journalist friend of mine. He was then the representative of Hindustan Times or Statesman in Chandigarh. Now he is Chief-de-Bureau of HINDU in Delhi. He expressed a desire to interview Le Corbusier. It was the time when I was on the job of the Art College. I spoke to Corb. About it. “I have no time for the journalists” he said rather disdainfully. Then added, “When does he want to see me”. “Anytime you say”. “Ask him to come tomorrow at 11 o’clock.” I thanked Corb. Profusely and ran back to phone my friend about the appointment. Next day Corbusier arrived in the office early, must be about 10. He usually did not come before 11. Immediately he called me and asked, “where is your friend”. I tried to remind him of the time he had given. No, No, I want to see him now. Okay, I ran back to the telephone and asked my friend to come immediately. When he arrived and was presented to Corbusier, he did not wait for him to ask any questions, but said where are you paper and pen. “Please sit down and write what I have to say”. He began to dictate:- “Chandigarh was created out of……” and then looking at my friend said, “why are you not writing”. I had a pen and paper so I took notes of what he was saying, and that saved the situation. I gave a transcription of what Corb. Had said to my friend to use it as he wished. He never did. But it became clear to me that after I spoke to Corbusier about the interview with the journalist, he must have become excited and turned over in his mind what he would like to tell to the journalist. Next morning he must have been so full of it that he could not have done anything else until he would spill out what he had worked out in his mind. That done he never enquired about his interview. Did it see light of the day or not.
I was given to thinking that Corbusier liked precision. When I discovered that the layout of the Arts college (AVTI) which was oriented North-South, was 10 degrees out, I approached the master expecting a pat on the back on supplying the information, and hoped that he would correct the mistake. But I got the retort “We are not astronomers”.
Once on reaching a dead end during a discussion, Corbusier asked me to come ‘tomorrow’. When I asked at what time I should come, he almost shouted back, ‘Don’t break my head for what time. Just come tomorrow’.
Corbusier was so full of self confidence or ego that he told a colleague that you are like one baby in front of me. That was true enough, But when the colleague said that we are all like babies in front of the God, … he did not like the response.
Pierre Jeanneret, whom we liked very much, was apparently much awed when Corbusier used to be in Chandigarh. He would almost shout down Pierre with the use of words like meard (rubbish) or tempeah (Does not matter). Pierre never retorted back. He was often seen visiting the toilet during that period.
I would like to end this discourse by describing the incident promised earlier in which I had to invoke Le Corbusier for support. Thagore Thetre was under construction…. Nearing finishing stage. People did not like the sight of open roof trusses. But I had always felt that they are an integral part of the design. One day P.L. Verma, the celebrated Chief Engineer came to me and said, ‘You know God provided bones in the human body, but covered them with skin. Similarly the trusses should be covered with a false ceiling. ‘I did not agree. He went to Pierre Jeanneret, and said the same thing. Jeanneret had great regard for Verma. Till that time, he was on my side with regard to the provision of false ceiling, then his stance wavered. He called me for a discussion. I still did not agree. But then Corbusier was due to come to Chandigarh, so I said, Corbusier is coming, let him have a look. If he also says that a false ceiling may be provided, I shall not object. Corbusier came and was ceremoniously taken to the building, and shown alround. At the end of the visit, my joy knew no bounds, when he pronounced “No celing.” Then he added it is a good building, Shall I give a certificate?’ I replied, Your words are certificate enough. I do not need anything in writing. Thank you very much.