Corbusier’s Legacy Stolen From Chandigarh

To an architect, this is really sad news. Chandigarh has been Independant India’s first and largest planned city. Planned and designed by arguably the greatest architect of the last century, Le Corbusier; it carries Corb’s signature in more ways than one can imagine.

From the massive Secretariat to the Law Buildings and Courthouses, Le Corbusier’s vision for India took a long time to build, but today is a thriving metropolis. In many ways, Corbusier’s principles did not work, but for the most part the synergy they created has been sustained today. It is now also a mini architectural mecca for students and architects alike.

Therefore its with great sadness that I came across this article in The Outlook

Buying heavily at routine government auctions of “junk” furniture, stalking old employees of Corbusier and his cousin and collaborator on the Chandigarh project, Pierre Jeanneret, and acquiring neglected artefacts lying with them, these collectors have bought symbols of Corbusier’s heritage—from manhole covers to wood-and-cane chairs—for as little as Rs 100, restored it to pristine perfection at a workshop in Delhi and shipped it to exhibitions and sales at Paris and New York galleries.

I hope that the government, the local architects body and concerned citizens worldwide will take notice, create publicity and somehow stem the tide of artifacts landing up in private collectors houses forever.

Continue reading the entire article after the fold.

Raiders Of The Ark


Canny French dealers loot Le Corbusier’s legacy in Chandigarh and sell it overseas …

These men would do Roald Dahl’s parson proud. Like the character in his short story Parson’s Pleasure, who went scouring the English countryside persuading ignorant country folk to part for a pittance with furniture they thought was worthless, but was actually an exquisite Chippendale commode or pricelees Queen Anne chairs, a few French collectors have zeroed in on Le Corbusier’s forgotten legacy in Chandigarh and made a killing out of it.

Buying heavily at routine government auctions of “junk” furniture, stalking old employees of Corbusier and his cousin and collaborator on the Chandigarh project, Pierre Jeanneret, and acquiring neglected artefacts lying with them, these collectors have bought symbols of Corbusier’s heritage—from manhole covers to wood-and-cane chairs—for as little as Rs 100, restored it to pristine perfection at a workshop in Delhi and shipped it to exhibitions and sales at Paris and New York galleries.

As recently as June 5, leading auction house, Christie’s New York, auctioned off around 50 lots of furniture and other artefacts designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret at extraordinarily high prices . They all came from the collection of Eric Touchaleaume, a French dealer who has been on an active buying spree in Chandigarh for the last few years. At the Biennale des Antiquaires held at the Grand Palais in Paris in September last year, yet another Frenchman, Patrick Sequin, proudly displayed his ‘collection’ from Chandigarh.

If the French, Swiss-born Corbusier made Chandigarh, the city in turn came to be recognised as his most famous work and put him right up there among the world’s greatest architects. Le Corbusier’s is a living legacy evident not only in the city’s buildings, mansions and boulevards, but also in the fixtures designed for them.

It’s a living, breathing, inhabited legacy, one that’s evident not just in the stunning capitol complex of the city’s buildings, its wide boulevards and modernist mansions, but also in the umpteen fixtures designed for these buildings and public places such as the concrete lights at Sukhna lake, the models for bas reliefs in many buildings or even the blueprints of architectural plans.
It lies as much in the furniture—office chairs, tables and stools—that Pierre Jeanneret designed specifically to fit in with the architect’s vision for the city. Simple, functional and low cost, most of these designs were mass-produced by different local furniture makers.

But oblivious to its worth, this rich heritage today lies carelessly strewn around in various offices, gathers dust in government storerooms, or is sold off at auctions. A lot has been replaced by newer, fancier furniture. “No one wants this plain furniture any more,” says Balwinder Saini, a senior architect in the UT administration whose office is one of the few which still retains some of the original furniture. It was only when a pair of stools fetched ,23,400 at a Paris sale that Chandigarh woke up in absolute disbelief. “For sometime now I’ve seen those wood and cane benches being used by security guards outside some judge’s houses,” says an architect. “No one even gives them a second look.”

Except for these collectors whose canny, covetous eyes readily spotted what the administration sat blindly on. Cashing in on ignorance in some cases and the connivance of corrupt officials in other cases, they made merry plundering the Le Corbusier-Pierre Jeanneret artefacts and whisking them away overseas. Till two senior professors from the Chandigarh College of Architecture drew attention to the “organised looting” of the city’s heritage.

They were tipped off by architect colleagues in France and Switzerland. Rajnish Wattas, principal of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, told Outlook, “Some architects and academics whom I met at a conference in Switzerland this February were outraged at the manner in which Corbusier’s legacy is being sold off by Chandigarhians. ” Professor Kiran Joshi, coordinator of the Chandigarh Heritage Project, procured a catalogue of one of these sales and then apprised the Chandigarh administration of the matter. In response, the administration has, for the first time, set up a committee to identify and protect all heritage furniture and fixtures lying in the storerooms of various government departments. The committee is yet to hold its first meeting.

“What is worrying,” says Wattas, “is evidence of such furniture in good condition being sold off by showing it as junk.” Adds Joshi, “I know that Touchaleaume was after the Sukhna lake lights for a long time. He chats up people in the know in Chandigarh and has contacts at lower levels in the UT architecture department.” Furniture from the private collections of some employees and associate architects who worked with Corbusier in the late ’50s has also appeared at the auctions. M.N. Sharma, a former chief architect who worked with Corbusier, is distraught that he has none of the Jeanneret-designed furniture in his house any more because, as he told Outlook, “My children got rid of it when I went abroad for a few years.”

Particularly vulnerable now are the hundreds of sketches and drawings of various buildings as also the woollen tapestries in the high court and the assembly. Joshi points to the huge cache of documents and models lying in the storerooms of the chief architect and the chief engineer, almost as trash, which needs to be retrieved and taken care of. “Many of the things are now simply not there. For example, a model of the Open Hand monument (Chandigarh’s symbol) and models of open air theatres are missing, although Corbusier’s letter says he sent them to Chandigarh,” she says. One such cedarwood model was of the Tower of Shadows in the capitol complex, which was auctioned for $33,600. It was executed by Giani Rattan Singh (his son is now an employee of the architecture department) who was then the official maker of architectural models of Corbusier’s buildings.

Nothing illustrates the carelessness of those responsible for protecting Chandigarh’s heritage better than the saga of the three tapestries designed by Corbusier himself for the assembly building in 1960. In 1994, a 30 ft by 70 ft tapestry at the entrance hall of the Punjab Vidhan Sabha went missing. No one knows where the original is, and a replacement has now been put up there.

The moth-eaten tapestries from the assembly building lying in a storeroom

In 2002, two larger tapestries in the Council chamber now used by the Haryana Vidhan Sabha were replaced by new ones which are inaccurate copies of the original. The two badly moth-eaten and torn original pieces have been lying in a storeroom of the engineering department since then.

Corbusier had also designed nine tapestries for the high court, of which the largest, in the chief justice’s court, was fortunately restored by the National Museum a couple of years ago, when the media drew attention to its condition. The tapestries were woven by the East India Carpet Company, Amritsar, following Corbusier’s detailed drawings and coloured sketches, inspired by the Punjabi craft of durrie weaving.Just a couple of these drawings can be seen in the city museum, while the Paris-based Foundation Le Corbusier has many more.

Corbusier’s grand natural concrete constructions too are urgently in need of conservation. In 2002, the Chandigarh administration, in collaboration with Foundation Le Corbusier, organised an international seminar to deliberate on ways to conserve the structures which have begun to show signs of wear and tear. Similar concrete buildings by Corbusier in France have been restored with new techniques, but the scores of copies of the seminar’s deliberations are lying unsold in the architecture college. Ironically, people like Touchaleaume and Sequin have been buying them up to distribute along with their catalogues!

One Comment

  1. preeti randhawa October 7, 2007

    Regarding the article under the heading ” Corbusier’s legacy stolen from Chandigarh and Raiders of the Ark”“organised looting” of the city’s heritage.
    I would like to pen a few of my thoughts!!!
    Why should the citizens of Chandigarh call it a theft, after all the furniture was sold to junk dealers for cash.(one can’t eat the cake and keep it too) If these foriegn dealers had not stepped in to make us aware , the junk dealers would have sold the furniture for wood for the Lohri festival. Infact we should thank them for making us aware of its importance. Wheras we are calling them looters.
    The irony is that the furniture that was discarded is now restored to pristine condition housed in important collections , whereas the furniture in the govt offices is still in the most run down condition .
    Its been a long time since the above article’s come out. As a matter of fact Christie’s , Sotheby’s and various other auction houses as a routine auction this furniture . The same is reported in our press. Each time there is a hue and cry to save the same. Till date nothing is done to preserve what all has been identified.
    The media requires news for its survival , so it gives the news items sensational headings like ” Corbusier’s legacy stolen from Chandigarh and Raiders of the Ark”,“organised looting of the city’s heritage.”
    A few facts 1, the furniture doesn’t come into the category of an antique, so there is no restriction on its legal export. 2. It comes in the category of contemporary, same as works of M F Hussain, Souza etc. 3. The export can only be stopped if the central govt steps in and stops export of such works. 4. Such a policy will negatively effect the upcoming artists who aspire to sell their works abroad. 5. The only option is that we bring in an awareness campaign so that the Chandigarh resident starts valueing it, and thereby preserving it. 6. Unfortunately the only sensational thing about these Corbusier objects is their auction prices. The design’s are so plain jane that my wife doesnt let me keep a piece at home. This is the main reason that it is being discarded. 7. Try selling it locally its value is Rs 20 a kg(firewood). I know because just last week I purchased quite a few of these pieces of furniture from various junk dealers at Rs 25 a kg. A discerning eye picks up the grain from the chaff. I have offerred to loan all these peices of furniture to the Chandigarh Museum to bring in awareness for the same. Instead of articles it would be nice to join me to bring in awareness.In fact making such a hue and cry about foreigners buying this furniture is rather like locking the stable door after the mare has bolted since most of the peices they buy from junk dealers are those that are auctioned off by various govt. departments in the first place, and that too after so much awareness is already being spread by the media since some time now.It would be be better if instead of condemning those who value it we first learn to appreciate it the same way ourselves.We, personally, have taken a step in this direction by starting a workshop to acquaint people with the various types of furniture designed by Corbusier and also restore it if neccessary.All people interested in knowing more about this worshop can e-mail me at onion12@sify.com .
    Navjot Randhawa
    Chandigarh.

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