After the Partition of India in 1947, Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru invited Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier to build Chandigarh, a new capital city that would be, in Nehru’s words, “symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past.” In the first of a two-part series on modern architecture in India, Maristella Casciato reveals how Le Corbusier led a team of architects in the design and construction of Chandigarh’s urban plan and architecture. Casciato is senior curator of architectural collections at the Getty Research Institute and a leading authority on the work of Le Corbusier.
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JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARISTELLA CASCIATO: “This will be the best commission of my life. Finally, I can build the modern city. I have a big sky. I have an incredible landscape and very gentle people.”
In this episode, I speak with Maristella Casciato, senior curator of architectural collections at the Getty Research Institute, in the first of a two-part series on modern architecture in India.
After the Partition of India in 1947, Punjab was divided between India and Pakistan, leaving Lahore, the historic capital of Punjab, in the territory of Pakistan. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was suddenly faced with the challenge, and opportunity, of designing Chandigarh, the new capital city of Punjab and the first great city of independent India. And for this, he turned to Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier.
Le Corbusier was perhaps the most famous architect of the time. He had recently collaborated on the design of the United Nations Secretariat building in New York City; had been asked by the government of Colombia to create a masterplan for its capital city, Bogota; was working on the final phase to the Unité d’Habitation in Marseille; and was beginning to work on the chapel at Ronchamp. The decision to hire Le Corbusier to lead the design of Chandigarh and its capital buildings was a sign that Nehru wanted to prove to Indians—and to the world—that the newly independent India was the equal of any great nation on earth.
I recently travelled to Chandigarh to meet with colleagues at Punjab University where the Getty Foundation has a project supporting the conservation plan of the Gandhi Bhawan, a remarkable building designed by Le Corbusier’s cousin Pierre Jeanneret. While there I also visited the capital buildings designed by Le Corbusier.
On my return, I spoke with Maristella Casciato of the Getty Research Institute, an architectural historian specializing in the modern period and a leading authority on Le Corbusier. We sat around a desk in my office looking at photographs of Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh.
So I want to talk about the particulars of the project, but I first want to talk about the commission. That’s an extremely important part of this, of course, ’cause it gets the project moving. But it’s also representative of the ambition of the Indian government, post-independence, to choose the iconic architect of international modernism, Corbusier, to do the plan of the new capital city of Punjab. So tell us about the commission itself, how it was that he got the commission.
CASCIATO: The commission is something that in a way, surprised an already aged Le Corbusier, in around the end of 1950. He was at the time sixty-two, very involved in many projects in France, specifically for the reconstruction. And politically, very close to some of the member[s] of the government, specifically, Claudius-Petit, who was the Minister of Reconstruction.
CUNO: This is postwar reconstruction.
CASCIATO: This is postwar. [Cuno: Yeah] This is postwar France reconstruction. And you have to think that the major building of this reconstruction is Unité d’habitation in Marseilles. Now, reinforced concrete, béton brut, all that kind of new architectural language at the time. Now, how does a man like Le Corbusier get into India? That’s the question. [Cuno: Right] Probably, this has to do already with the fact that he is a renown architect, definitely well-known, but more with what you mentioned, the ambition of Nehru, for his new nation and the India of post-independence.
Now, there could have been other architects or town planner[s] who could have been selected. And this, I would say that it’s an important division. I mean, Le Corbusier is, in this case, the architect and the planner, while at the time, there were very important town planner[s] that could be also be contact for this commission.
CUNO: And isn’t the first person contacted an American town planner, Albert Mayer?
CASCIATO: The first [to] be contacted is Albert Mayer. Albert Mayer is a town planner, and specifically. He doesn’t deal with building, construction. He’s very much interested in the urban fabric. And he would have been a very, very smart choice, and he had been a choice at the beginning. Then some situation changed, also for Albert Mayer, who was very much involved at the same time in New York City, with big commissions. The architect that he selected for the project, for being his partner in the project, Nowicki, he died in a[n] aircraft crash.
So there was all this situation happening at the same time. But I want to add something else that we need to think [about]. The Indian administration under Nehru in the ‘50[s] is a very cultivated administration. Most of the people [are] educated in England, of course, UK. But very, very sophisticated in thinking. And specifically, the administration of the government of Punjab had [P. N.] Thapar, someone who was playing the role almost of a vice minister for the administration, who had very wide idea[s], very large idea[s] for what Punjab could become within the new India.
CUNO: There’s two things about this, I think. One is, of course, it borders on Pakistan, so it must be extremely important defensively. There’s a military presence in Chandigarh, for example. But equally so, when we’re talking about planning Chandigarh, we’re talking really about planning it from scratch. There was very little there. It was an open plain. Is that right?
CASCIATO: It is absolutely that the image that the two architects traveling from Europe to Chandigarh, they were fine. I mean, it’s a very beautiful, in terms of landscape. It’s a plain. You see the Shivalik hills and then the Himalaya[s] as a background. It’s full of trees. It was with many villages, but very little communities. Really devoted to agriculture, but something that was very much touching Le Corbusier, in terms of his first approach.
He saw for the first time the villages, the adobe houses. The Punjabi women are not very colored in their dressing, but of course, they have some of the flavor of the Indians. So all this is very often reported, for instance, in all his letters. The letters that he sends from Chandigarh to his office, to his wife, to his mother, he talks about the great enterprise. “This will be the best commission of my life. Finally, I can build the modern city. But this is also the perfect environment. I have a big sky. I have an incredible landscape and very gentle people.”
So this is something very unusual for someone who is at the time when he reaches Chandigarh for the first time, he is sixty-three. [Cuno: Yeah] And so already—
CUNO: [over Casciato] So, but who does give him the commission? Is it Nehru who gives it to him?
CASCIATO: Nehru allows Mr. Thapar and the chief engineer of his office in New Delhi to go on a mission to Europe, starting in London. And over there they are talking to architects. And immediately the name of Le Corbusier is on the table. Maxwell Fry, who had worked already for the British administration in the British Africa, he is the one who says, “Le Corbusier is the architect who can accomplish what you are expecting, the modern city of the twentieth century.”
And so I mean, out of these ideas coming from different people, they finally decide to contact Claudius-Petit, the Minister of Reconstruction in France, and to go and visit Le Corbusier. And this is happening in November, 1950. So there, it’s a mission. Of course, they have a mission coming directly from Nehru. But I would say that it’s still an interlocutory mission. But when they come back to India and to Delhi, it’s basically already clear in their mind[s] that Le Corbusier will be the architect.
CUNO: Does Corbusier have to interview with Nehru before he gets the commission?
CASCIATO: He comes to India with the commission in hand. Basically, he goes to sign an agreement at the Indian Embassy in Paris, December 15, 1950. So the agreement is already there, sketched. [P. L.] Varma and Thapar go back to Nehru, they sketch the agreement, they send it—I mean, it’s very fast, incredibly fast for the time. And Corbu goes and signs. Then he says, “Well, our first mission will be very exploratory.” They reached what will be Chandigarh in February, ’51. And basically, they will spend the second half of February and the first half of March being with Thapar, with Varma—Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, and Maxwell Fry with them—basically talking, discussing, visiting the locations, exchanging ideas, and make possible that in basically a month they all come to an agreement—what the city will be, how many inhabitants, how to plan the residential areas, what does it mean, a city center, and the capital.
CUNO: Yeah. That was awfully fast for them to be able to do all that. But there were agreements first with the government, as to how often Corbusier would be there. That he would be there for a certain number of times a year, for a certain length of each visit. But Jeanneret then, his cousin, would be the architect on site.
CASCIATO: Yes, you are right, absolute. If you read the agreement signed in December, ’50, it’s an agreement for three years, initially. And Le Corbusier will be visiting India twice a year, so every six months, and stay between one and two months. Which means that in a year, the first year, he stayed almost four months in India. Which is quite a long time, if you consider he was busy with Ronchamp, the chapel, and the Convent of La Tourette. So he’s very busy. But still, he understands that he has to be on site, also, to guide Pierre Jeanneret, Maxwell Fry, and the young group of architects that they are hiring.
CUNO: Mm-hm. And Maxwell Fry is married to Jane Drew, and those two architects together, ’cause they’re equal partners as architects, are extremely important in the development of the office for the project, is that right?
CASCIATO: Yeah. Max and Jane Drew, who at the time, were a couple, accepted the same condition as Pierre Jeanneret to be on site and organize the architect’s office, build the knowledge for young Indian architects and engineers, to keep continuing to work on Chandigarh.
CUNO: And this is important, because Nehru saw the project as a kind of workshop, didn’t he, for which young architects, Indian architects and engineers, would be trained on the scale on the new modern ambitions for the state of India.
CASCIATO: This has been repeated several time[s], I mean, in different occasion[s], by Nehru. Nehru was very clear. And he was clear, also, the first time he met Le Corbusier, because Le Corbusier, at a certain moment had different ambitions, he was thinking to invite other Americans and so on. And Nehru was very clear: a workshop for young Indian architects and engineers. So it’s a way for him to create the condition for a new class of young professional[s] to be able to continue a mission given to a famous architect. But he knows very well, Le Corbusier, at a certain moment, will not be there forever. Also Pierre Jeanneret will, at a certain moment, leave Chandigarh. How to build the ground, a fertile ground, robust, for them to build, and not to betray the initial ideas.
CUNO: So now we have a client, or the Indian government; we have an architect, in Corbusier; we’ve got a team being built under him by Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew and Pierre Jeanneret; and we’ve got a growing stable of young Indian architects and engineers. But there’s another element in this and that is the Ford Foundation. Tell us about the Ford Foundation and its role in the development of Chandigarh.
CASCIATO: Well, the Ford Foundation was extremely interested in the changing of the political and cultural landscape in India. So very soon, they decided to open the very first agency of the Ford Foundation outside the State[s] in New Delhi. This was an important way to, first of all, be on the site where the changes were happening, and also to support other constituencies of the project.
Of course, they were not involved in the architecture, in the planning; but they were involved in education, they’re very much involved in the building of the hospitals, so the healthy conditions and so on. So the Ford Foundation played a major role, not specifically or only in Chandigarh but it was very, very influential behind Nehru in supporting a lot of projects. I mean, for small villages, education, agriculture was very relevant. And Chandigarh is at the center of a very, very fertile plane so agriculture needed to be developed.
CUNO: So there were three parts to this commission in Chandigarh. There is the planning of the city itself, planned for a population of 150,000;. Of course, it has grown to be much, much larger than that 150,000. And Corbusier was given the job of planning the official sectors of the new capital, and not the free sectors. The free sectors were given up either to someone else or they were given to—allowed to be developed independently?
CASCIATO: Well, this is a very interesting way of thinking how a city can grow and represent the state, but also be open to, as you say, to the free sector. Basically, the plan is described as a grid of sectors. Those sectors are planned to incorporate both the government housing and the private housing.
So there is never a separation of all private or all government. The idea is that society needs to mix. There has been a blending. So basically, a sector has a very defined dimension. I can say it only in meters. It’s 800 meters for one kilometer and 600. The sector is divided in two subsector[s] by a commercial street. And in the philosophy of Le Corbusier, it’s called V number 4. So it goes from one side of the sector to the other side. Now, when the sector is divided, usually it’s also subdivided in different small neighborhood units or villages, how they call. Those are the government houses. And it’s basically half of the sector. The other half is usually left to private development.
But this, under the condition that the sector always keep[s] the unity. So even the private sector that comes in respects the V-4 as the commercial street, the other subdivision of small streets, the fact that the sector has always a perimeter of major streets that are called V-3, in this case. So you see, this is a very smart way of planning, where the private is basically encapsulated into the general plane of Chandigarh.
CUNO: I got to Chandigarh from Delhi, and I left Chandigarh to go to Ahmedabad. And in both Delhi and Ahmedabad, everyone said to me, “Oh, you’ll love Chandigarh, ’cause Chandigarh is so well planned, so spacious. The streets are big and broad, the traffic is organized, the sounds and the crowds are minimal, compared to those of Delhi and Ahmedabad.” So the legacy of a planned city still survives today, at least in the minds of Indians.
CASCIATO: Yes. I mean, it’s still called the Beautiful City, the Green City. Some changes are occurring—I mean, of course—even in the original grid of Le Corbusier. It’s interesting how some people who grew [up] in Chandigarh, sometimes they refer to the city in a different way than the way we see it now. For instance, I recently had someone telling me, “Maristella, there has always been too much of cement. I mean, too much concrete.” You know, it’s warm in Chandigarh. It can be very hot. And [she chuckles] the concrete is not the easy kind of texture that you wanna have when you are running barefoot or something like this, or running after a ball because you are playing football and so on. So I mean, I can understand these, [she chuckles] I mean, situations.
But the city is still keeping this character of being ordered, the idea of the order, without being an order that it’s imposed. I mean, I think that the people have really been able to accommodate, to integrate with the order. Sometimes—I don’t know what has been your experience. Sometimes I myself get confused. Because, you know, there are not major, major point[s] of reference. I mean, it’s basically an horizontal city, with a lot of green areas. And sometimes if you miss one of the roundabouts, you may ended[sic] in another sector, and then you have to do the whole tour around, to get [she chuckles] back. But I mean, this is still feasible.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah. So there’s the planning of the city, successful to the extent that it was successful, of course. There was the design of the great Capitol Complex, which came to include the General Assembly Building, the High Court, and the Secretariat. And then there was ultimately the planning of the university, much of which he left to Jeanneret to develop and design the architecture. But tell us about the university first; then we’ll get back to the Capitol Complex.
CASCIATO: The University of Punjab—first of all, it’s a unique experience in terms of planning. It’s basically a small town within the town. It has the idea of being a town within the city. And so it has the gate, it has the border. It’s very well, in a way, think in terms of building the community of the scholars, the professors, the students, and so on. So this is a smart idea, because at the beginning this was the only university in Punjab. So it was attracting people from all over the state.
CUNO: And we should say they had to build the university from scratch. I mean, they had to— [Casciato: They had to build the university—] all the books in the library, [Casciato: Everything.] as I was told, they had to negotiate with the former capital, Lahore, now in Pakistan, to divide the books that were in the university library in Pakistan, so that a percentage of them came to the Punjab, [Casciato: Yes] where they had to effectively create faculty, students’ buildings, library, laboratories, the whole thing.
CASCIATO: They create[d] the whole thing. And they created it, again, with the idea that this should be a small town where the students and the faculty members and the administration could recognize as a living space, a living place. And then Pierre Jeanneret was in charge of the commission with the architects of the architect office, specifically one architect that should be mentioned also for the Gandhi Bhawan, whose name is [B. P.] Mathur.
But in fact, what they thought was, okay, let’s see what are the major components of building a small town. The idea was to build the core of the Punjab University campus, and the core had to be easily recognized. So how do we build the core? We build the core with the main university library, the Gandhi Bhawan…
CUNO: The Gandhi Bhawan, yeah.
CASCIATO: …and the main administration building. These three major buildings are then unified through a cross of two major roads that are really the backbone of the whole campus, and two major gardens. One of these is a rose garden. Again, a flower very much dedicated to Pandit Nehru.
And then once the core is well-defined, they started in a more, I would say, not organic, but the faculty and the schools are close to the core, and then separate from those, I mean, a bit at a distance towards the border, are all the students’ dormitory. That time, male and female. And all the students will live on the campus. And then you have shops for them. So all kind of facilities that would allow them, in a way, really to create a life within the university.
CUNO: Yeah. I mean, I think perhaps for our podcast listeners, they can imagine a University of California campus being built in the 1960s, like at Santa Cruz or at Irvine or something, because it look like that. It’s spacious, there’s a lot of green, it’s a lot of concrete, a lot of brick; there’s a student center. It looks very much like a modern university that was built in California in the 1960s.
CASCIATO: I guess that though there has never been really a comparison, but it is very much the idea of an American campus. It’s very clear when you are there. And also, the way it has been built, I mean, you recognize when you go to Santa Cruz, Irvine. I mean, the garden at the center, and then all the major building[s]. It is the same kind of idea. Now, how this comes in mind, an architect like Pierre Jeanneret, this is his first and also only university campus. I think that the administration of the university at the time was extremely advanced. They had something in mind that they discussed with the architect. So some ideas may be also the result with the rector at the time. There was also a very important historian to whom the major library is dedicated, Professor Yoshi, who helped in building the library, the collection, and so on. So there were people behind the architect to say, the kind of model that we want to have is not the British quadrangle; it’s more of an open space, like as you mention [at] some of the American universities.
CUNO: So we’re talking about Corbusier, and the planning of the university was his and Jeanneret, not to mention, I suppose, Fry and Drew. But nevertheless, the construction of buildings were, for Le Corbusier, principally in the Capitol Complex. There was a museum, of course; an art museum that could hold the government museum and art gallery. And that was in itself kind of interesting, because it’s one of those infinitely expandable museums, not dissimilar to the one in Ahmedabad. But also like the Museum of Western Art in Tokyo.
But putting that aside, the big thing for him was the Capitol Complex, which I’ve already mentioned includes the General Assembly building, the High Court, and the Secretariat. Tell us about that because those things are, as any demonstration or any manifestation of ambition, those three buildings on that big plaza represent that.
CASCIATO: If there is one location, I think, at Chandigarh that really represents the vision of the new India, that’s the capitol. Not only because the Capitol Complex, it has to, as you say, host the major building[s], like the Secretariat or the Assembly, but because, also, for Le Corbusier, the location of the Capitol was extremely important. He knew exactly when he first started in Chandigarh, that that was his idea, to build the Capitol identifying the identity of the modern city. But also, the Capitol need[s] to be—I don’t know if you probably noticed, it’s in a condition where really, the landscape is in a way embracing the Capitol. You see the mountain, you see something that it’s on a higher level. And there, you put those three buildings. In fact, the idea was also to have the governor’s palace that never get[s] built.
CUNO: I was told that Nehru said it shouldn’t be built because we’re finished with having a governor palace; there’s no more palaces to be built.
CASCIATO: [chuckles] It’s true. It’s true. And I’m glad that you mention [that], because I think that though several people are still thinking that it should be built to complete. I think that we need to respect the idea that the city is for everybody. The city is for the citizens. We don’t want to have the governor palace there. I think that the three buildings already create a strong identity of the modern city there. I always thought, and this always strikes me, how can those three buildings, no matter what you think about the reinforced concrete, the condition and so on, be built? They were designed in Paris. All the drawings were sent to Chandigarh. In Chandigarh, the architects under Pierre Jeanneret, Jane Drew, and Maxwell Fry, were requested to do all the construction drawings, and then the construction started.
For us, now we see how the building industry works. But in the early fifties, to have that kind of magnitude and also quality of the construction in Chandigarh must have been really something. Where you spent day and night really working. It’s basically done because there was full trust, obviously, between Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre. But also because the group of the architect[s] were extremely committed in doing something that would stay for the history, would remain there. It’s done for perennity. They understood that. Otherwise when you see the photograph[s] of all these people, the people are working there, it’s a very simple building site. You see donkeys there. The way they do the concrete, it’s almost by hand. But they’re able to build the Secretariat—it’s a high rise building. [chuckles]
CUNO: Yeah. Describe them, ’cause the buildings are very sculptural in form. And at least the great courts, the legal courts, are very painterly. I mean, they’re the bright colors—reds and yellow and greens and so forth. Describe the buildings for us.
CASCIATO: The way I would describe it, it’s very sculptural, as you say; it’s very colored; but it’s technically very sophisticated in a way. Besides Mumbai, there was not a big scale in reinforced concrete knowledge in India at the time. So basically, the construction starts really, as youigh High may imagine, through the foundation. But then if you notice, the main court is like a gigantic U-shaped building.
CUNO: Vertically U-shaped, [Casciato: Yeah, vertically U-shaped] because it rises up and curls back, yeah.
CASCIATO: Exactly. So basically, what they did—this is the infrastructure that they built immediately after the foundation. What they say is the two vertical wall[s] and what they call the parasol, the undulated roof, is the structure that will contain all the small courtrooms and the big one. So that’s the way they conceived it. Because in a way, it was much, I don’t want to say easier, but it was the only way they could complete a reinforced concrete structure.
What was then built inside, it’s something that step by step, was added. And the first thing that they did was to connect the different floors through the ramp. So you have to imagine a kind of structure that works with two vertical wall[s], the parasol roof, and then a ramp that goes the whole section. That is really the building. And they were using an interesting technique of doing the scaffolding, the reinforced concrete, and then they sprayed the concrete. So that’s how they do the two walls.
CUNO: You said they sprayed the concrete onto a structure.
CUNO: And then the concrete dried [Casciato: Exactly] in that form. Yeah.
become with the—how you do the conservation of a concrete of that kind and so on.
CUNO: Yeah, yeah.
CUNO: How was the color put on the building? Was it mixed in with the concrete? Is it [Casciato: Yes] integral to the concrete?
CASCIATO: Yeah, it was mixed with the concrete.
CUNO: Yeah. [Casciato: Yeah] And as I’ve described it, it’s extremely bold coloring. And opposite it, in the Assembly Building, there is no color but for the great door, the enamel-painted door that Corbusier himself painted, and as it were, dedicated to the structure. But what compelled Corbusier to paint these three big, bold colors to dominate the structure of the court building?
CASCIATO: Well, at the beginning, he had thought of no color at all, because of the purism of the Brutalist concrete. Then he—you know, he always played with the idea of the primary color[s] in his architecture. And initially, the idea was to have the color of—which is still a bit the idea—of the Indian flag, really, to identify the justice with the Indian flag. So the orange and the green and—so that’s the idea. And also because the Palace of Justice is the Palace of Justice not only of Punjab—it’s used by lawyers and judge[s] from different states going beyond Punjab.
CUNO: So we should describe the Assembly Building, because it’s a, as it were, a simpler building, with a great big crown on top of it. I don’t mean crown in the kind of gold and metallic crown, but rather a form that is large, that folds up like a sombrero hat of some kind like that, if one can imagine that. And then rising on the—out from the top of the roof, are these two great cone forms. And those cone forms bring light down into separate legislative assemblies. And then you rise up within the building, again by a Corbusier ramp, from the ground floor up into those assembly rooms.
CASCIATO: I think he was fascinated by the idea to respond. I’m taking your point about the two volumes on the roof that you see the—one is a pyramid, the other it’s a hyperbolic volume. He was interested, in a way, to respond to the landscape with a kind of what he called objects with poetic reaction, objets à réaction poètique. He is using this in other buildings in Europe—the roof in Marseilles or even La Tourette. So the idea of having these two sculptural form[s] could be interpreted as also capturing the light. So what he thinks a canon de lumière could be, something that captures the light and gets the light into an inner space. So there is a sculptural gesture that you see on top of this building—crowning, you may say—but also the functional idea.
Now, there are other intuitions that probably are coming from other sources. You probably have heard of his fascination, near Ahmedabad, specifically, with some of these conical construction[s] of the industries. He had traveled to Ahmedabad more than once, and he had always been captivated by those forms.
CUNO: And those big sort of smokestack forms.
CASCIATO: Exactly. [Cuno: Yeah] He is also using, I mean, the—what he sees around. I mean, your probably noticed that on the front, the main façade, where you see the animal door, there is a portico. And the portico is basically detached from the building. And the portico has a very interesting roof, which could remind you very easily [of] the horn of all the cows that were around. I mean, he always makes the sketches where the architectural form and the natural forms are intertwined. I mean, mixed together. So he probably has a lot of suggestions in his imagination coming from what he sees around. But definitely, he’s very much interested, also, in leave a signature as a kind of sculptural formal sign, a signature.
CUNO: Now, you brought up the name Ahmedabad, a city farther south from Chandigarh, south of Delhi. And that’s a city where he has a number of other important buildings. And my understanding is that he was invited down to Ahmedabad by a family, a very prestigious and philanthropic and cultured family, the Sarabhai family, to build a house—the Villa Sarabhai, shall we say. And he said that he could only do it if he could get give commissions because it was going to take him away from Chandigarh, it was going to take him away from Paris, and it was going to take time from his practice. Of which, I think he got four commissions—he got two houses, he got the Mill Owner’s Association, and he got a museum. How did he divide his time between Chandigarh and Ahmedabad?exactly German
CASCIATO: Well, he dedicated more time to Chandigarh than Ahmedabad, I have to say. He had two very, very, very important collaborators in Ahmedabad. One was [B. V.] Doshi, definitely.
CUNO: Yeah, who’s still alive.
CASCIATO: Who is still alive, who was in the office, who at the beginning, was requested to go to Chandigarh. But then as soon as he got invited by the Sarabhai, Le Corbusier thought, no, no, no, Doshi is more useful in Ahmedabad than in Chandigarh. I already have Pierre Jeanneret in Chandigarh. Let me move Doshi to Ahmedabad. He really valued a lot the commission in Ahmedabad and the Sarabhai family.
Then he had another collaborator from his office, an architect called [Jean-Louis] Véret who stayed in Ahmedabad for quite a long time, and who was travelling [from] Ahmedabad to Paris, and who was basically the one responsible for the Mill Owner[s] Building. Which needed a lot of attention, as you see, because it’s a rather complex idea of space that have basically not a major function. It’s more representation, or you have a small room with a theater, and it’s again, a promenade architecturale. And it’s overlooking, at the time, the river, the Sabarmati. So it’s more a representative building.
CUNO: We should describe it as a concrete building that is almost like a series of boxes on top of each other to which one gains a owHHccess by way of a large ramp from deep in the garden, toward the street, back through the garden, into and through the building, and then winding up within the building.
CASCIATO: Yeah, it’s an extraordinary exercise in space, spatiality, I would say, and taking the space from the outside and moving through the whole building. It’s basically a section where you can go and walk through the section. It’s an incredible exercise that he has never done before. I mean, he does those kind of spatial approach[es] in some of his early project[s]; but the Mill Owner[s], it’s really the apex of his idea of the promenade through the building.
CUNO: Yeah. It’s as if he’s, in that building, exploring something that he would then use afterwards in other buildings. And I’m thinking of the Carpenter Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which is at first glance quite similar to the Mill Owner’s Building, although it succeeds in time the Mill Owner’s Building. It’s built in the sixties, whereas Mill Owner’s Building is in the fifties.
CASCIATO: You know, definitely, I mean, the Mill Owner’s, they were very open to his experimentation. And also, the way he’s treating the two façades, the one more towards the street where you have a certain distance, you have the garden; and then you do have those boxes, but they also have hanging gardens, so they are more protected. And then you go on the back façade towards the river, which was at the time, basically completely open towards the landscape. Now it’s changing a lot of the river and so on.
CUNO: We should acknowledge that the family that attracted him to Ahmedabad, the Sarabhai family, a great industrialist family, made their fortune on textiles, calico in particular, and that was from the latter part of the nineteenth century through the first half of the twentieth century. Then their business interests diversify into a number of other different things. But the generation that attracts him to Ahmedabad is an extraordinary generation from one single family. We have Gautam, who’s a son of the great industrialists, and Gautam is himself an industrialist, but a philanthropist in particular, who supports an institute of mental health, with his sister Gira. He’s an architect as she’s an architect, and they’re both important to the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad, where they get Ray and Charles Eames to come and develop not only a program for the building but a program for the curriculum of the institute. And Gira herself studied with Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesin West, from 1947 to 1951. She was instrumental in getting not only Eames and Fuller, but also ultimately, Lou Kahn to come and work in Ahmedabad, and Frei Otto was a com—I mean, they were an extremely cosmopolitan family.
CASCIATO: Well, the family, it’s what really attracts Le Corbusier to go to Ahmedabad. He went in March, ’51, for the first time. He was really interested in meeting the Sarabhai[s]. He writes about Gautam and Gira, so he meets with all of them. But the Sarabhai family, there were other people also that he was very much interested [in]. He met the Tata industrialists. So it’s really the kind of environment where cultivated people, philanthropists, could really nurture him. He was interested in this exchange. As far as I’ve read in the correspondence, every time—I mean, the exchange with Madame Sarabhai, it’s very warm. I don’t want to say they liked each other; they can talk to each other. They know they have something of a common ground to share.
CUNO: Yeah. I mean, it’s not only that the family attracts architects, not only of his standing, but the other architects I mentioned, to Ahmedabad but they bring artists to Ahmedabad. They bring John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, David Tudor. They continue all the way through the next generation, to bring all the way up to Eric Fischl to Lynda Benglis, who’s actually a partner with one of the children of the Sarabhai family. David Tudor brings the first Moog synthesizer into the in the design school and creates a curriculum around experimental electronic music. And two of their children were great classical dancers, and one a great, very famous choreographer. So this sophisticated family in Ahmedabad must’ve countered the somewhat necessarily bureaucratic commission that he had in Chandigarh.
CASCIATO: Well, yes, [she chuckles] maybe you can read it this way. I know that in fact, the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad became really a model for many other schools in India of the same kind. I mean, it’s really—in terms of pedagogy, in terms of didactic, I mean, it’s really the avant-garde at the time. And this is not only because of the Eames. So Le Corbusier knows exactly in what kind of environment he’s—to what kind of people he’s talking and so on.
I have to say that in Chandigarh, his collaboration with the two people that came to visit him in Paris, Varma and Thapar, has always been very strong. He is always in contact with these people, exchanging. And in fact, when Thapar and Varma change their position and they’re not any longer in Chandigarh, for him it becomes a bit more difficult. He has less people for an exchange.
And they both become very relevant for the naval administration in Delhi, and they have less time to spend in Chandigarh. It’s also true that while the commission goes on and on, Le Corbusier, at a certain moment travels to Chandigarh, but stays a shorter time. And he spends more time in also going to Ahmedabad than we can imagine.
CUNO: [over Casciato] Yeah. But both Chandigarh and Ahmedabad is about eight years of his work, maybe ten years of his work.
CASCIATO: Ten years of his work.
CUNO: When does he last go to India? When is his commitment to the project finished?
CASCIATO: Well, in ’63 he went to the inauguration of the assembly hall in Chandigarh. And at that time he was with Nehru. They all met there and it was a big ceremony. And after that he had another travel in mind, but actually he never did it. I mean, that’s the end for him. While Pierre Jeanneret stayed till the end of ’64 and then also left Chandigarh.
CUNO: Well, it’s a great story and it’s a great chapter in the history of modern architecture. It’s a great chapter in the history of modern India. Thank you so much for giving us your time this afternoon to talk about both these two great cities, cities of great ambition and great architectural accomplishment.
While in India, I spoke with architect B. V. Doshi, who as you heard from Maristella worked closely with Le Corbusier. You’ll hear that conversation in the second part of this series.
Our theme music comes from “The Dharma at Big Sur,” composed by John Adams for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003. It is licensed with permission from Hendon Music. Look for new episodes of Art and Ideas every other Wednesday. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts or Google Play Music. For photos, transcripts, and other resources, visit getty.edu/podcasts. Thanks for listening.
JIM CUNO: Hello, I’m Jim Cuno, president of the J. Paul Getty Trust. Welcome to Art and Ideas, a podcast in which I speak to artists, conservators, authors, and scholars about their work.
MARISTELLA CASCIATO: “This will be the best commission of my life. Finally, I can build the mo...
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