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Le Corbusier’s forgotten terrace gardens

Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah points out which elements of Corbusier’s design still work and which don’t

A view of the Chandigarh assembly. Photo: Abha Narain Lambah

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Conservation architect Abha Narain Lambah, who was inspired to her career path while growing up in Chandigarh amidst Corbusier’s architecture, believes city design can inspire an unfettered sense of freedom, as his did. In 2016, after the Chandigarh Capitol Complex, spread over 100 acres and housing the administrative, legislative and judicial headquarters, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Lambah led the team that set out a plan to preserve its architectural integrity. She discusses the Swiss-French architect’s legacy with Lounge.

Was Corbusier a strong influence in your formative years?

He was one of the factors that drove me to study architecture. My father was posted in Chandigarh from the time I was 11 till I finished my schooling. My friends and I would cycle to school and go down to the Sukhna lake and the Capitol complex as teenagers. His architecture was seminal and had a very strong influence on a whole generation of Indian architects, from BV Doshi to Raj Rewal. Whether we liked everything about his architecture is another matter…

Also read: Looking at the enduring legacy of Le Corbusier through objects

As a 12-year-old in Chandigarh, I had the privilege of feeling independent—cycling to school, the local gym and the library. The way he planned the city, all the facilities that one needed at a neighbourhood level were within cycling radius. It was a great model of a city, which could be as empowering to a young girl on a cycle as to a man driving a car and to a pedestrian. It impacted a whole generation who grew up in the city. Today, the sheer monumentality of the capitol complex is unsurpassed. No other city centre, post-Independence, has that purity of architecture, without making use of expensive material or embellishment. It is something only Corbusier could do.

How did he transform the cityspace?

In terms of urbanism, he completely changed the way Indian cities developed. From a garden-led city planning, as seen in Lutyens Delhi, Corbusier’s was a more brutalist sort of architectural idiom, in which he used concrete and grilled iron. But to be fair, he also created wider roads, tree-lined avenues. Due to his collaboration with a horticulturist in Chandigarh, you have Kusum Avenue and Amaltas avenue with flowering trees at different times of the year. They add colour to the brutalist grey concrete.

There has been criticism that his designs were distant from the social realities of the Indian neighbourhood. What are your thoughts on that?

He changed the urban character, post-Independence, as opposed to the narrow alleys, bazaars and mixed land use. In fact, land use in post-Corbusier urban planning became very regimented. There was residential land and then commercial spaces like sector 17. Every city started replicating it. Especially in cities such as Gurugram in Haryana, the term sector overtook the term neighbourhood. If you look back, some pros and cons are evident. He really innovated with concrete—a low-cost material—to have it produced locally. However, concrete then took over the entire Indian builtscape. Local stone, brick and materials, which were earlier used in architecture, became a victim of it. Another fallout was the sense of neighbourhood, which became more regimented. Informal spaces fell by the wayside.

Also read: Sketches that reveal master architect Le Corbusier's mind

What are the elements from his design that continue to stay relevant?

The sun breakers on the facade continue to work well in an Indian environment. And the pilotis—the way he lifted the building from the ground to create a shaded space. One aspect that is not talked about much, which was part of his five principles of architecture, is his vision for terrace gardens. Very few people have been to the terrace garden in the Secretariat building. While we were working on the management plan, I would often go up and was suddenly lifted out of the hustle and bustle of the city. You would get an amazing bird’s eye view. Through the flowering cacti he selected, he brought a design element to the terrace. One can see something similar in his design for the Fondation le Corbusier in Paris. While working on the management plan, we made specific recommendations that the terrace gardens be restored to how he had actually designed them. Such terrace gardens can be replicated in dense cities like Mumbai, which barely have any open space.

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