No one has animated the world of architecture and town planning as much as Le Corbusier, the Swiss-born French architect who designed the iconic Indian city Chandigarh. Through his visionary ideas, prolific writing and at times controversial proposals, Le Corbusier substantially shaped the course of modern architecture. Today, October 6, marks his 125th birth anniversary, and is an occasion to remind planners of the need to invest in quality design. Le Corbusier, known as Charles-Édouard Jeanneret until 1920, was one of the few architects to grasp the challenges of the times: rapid industrialisation, the melting of old orders and tectonic shifts in art. He invented prototypes to meet the emerging needs of new housing and urban planning. Placing a building on stilts to free the ground for greenery, gaze and automobiles is a solution that is taken for granted today, but designers owe this to Le Corbusier. So it is with open plans, pure forms, terrace gardens and the creative use of concrete. Villa Savoye in Poissy and the Chapel in Ronchamp and the High Court in Chandigarh are some of the evocative examples of his creative abilities and are undoubtedly among the best in the world. His ideas had a deep impact on the making of new cities; the work of Brasilia’s principal designers Lúcio Costa and Oscar Niemeyer is a case in point.
Le Corbusier joined the Chandigarh design team in 1950. He changed the core ideas of the first plan, bringing an approach that split a complex city into organisable components such as residential sectors, a commercial core and an administrative zone. Deftly woven with different types of roads and sumptuous open spaces, the resultant city was hailed by Nehru as a “great creation,” a new icon of modern India that was “unfettered by traditions of the past.” The plan for Chandigarh was not free of deficiencies. Hierarchical zoning, lifeless streets and less inclusive spaces all needed correction. However, the leap of imagination and value of design that Le Corbusier conveyed stirred the imagination of Indian architects and pushed many cities to aspire to better planning. Sadly, Indian planners have lost their way in the 50 years or so since Chandigarh was completed. Cities today are looked upon only as sites of economic growth, missing the importance of holistic planning and aesthetics. Chandigarh itself stands neglected. Furniture and manhole covers designed for the city found their way to auction houses. When efforts were made two years ago to declare select buildings as World Heritage sites, the authorities refused to back the move. Today, however, it is essential that the iconic city and its most striking buildings be properly looked after.