The Open Hand crowns the “Pit of Contemplation”, dug out at the Northern fringe of the Capitol. This “Pit of Contemplation” is provided for debates on public affairs. [LCOC Vol. 7 p 108]
Plans for the execution of this Monument of the Open Hand have also been prepared. An Indian woman architect has had the excellent idea that the architects of the entire world should finance this monument as a memorial to Le Corbusier, since this would make realization possible. [LCOC Vol. 8 p 67]
|For Chandigarh, [Le Corbusier] envisaged an entire catalogue of inscriptions and graphic symbols that would be cast in the concrete walls of the city’s palaces and woven into the tapestries decorating its ceremonial chambers. The subjects were taken from his sketchbooks: the mango tree, the sacred cow, the Indian buffalo and the Modulor-man with his left arm outstretched. Hands are also present, and footprints, snakes, lightning, clouds, the sun and the moon, the carriage wheel borrowed from the national arms of India, — the symbol of justice — and the Corbusian symbol of the sun’s daily course.|
|Many of these heraldic signs are now part of the decorative and symbolic imagery of Chandigarh’s palaces. Some additional signs have been realized posthumously on a grand scale, devotional monuments of sorts to Le Corbusier’s private Decalogue, spread across the ‘ditch of contemplation’ in the Capitol Complex in the form of hermetic abstractions (the ‘harmonic spiral, the ‘tower of shade’, etc.). There is even an element of uncertainty in Le Corbusier’s comments on this pathetic display — rarely was he so eager to credit one of his collaborators (Jane Drew in fact) with the original idea. The ‘Open Hand’ is obviously the most renowned and emblematic of these monuments, though William Curtis perhaps has a point when he comments that ‘intended as popular art, the sign comes very close to magniloquent kitsch’.1|
THE OPEN HAND
The premise lay once again in Le Corbusier’s work as a painter. In his paintings of the 1930s, the human form was apt to get its hands and feet entangled — so much so that hands often break loose frm the figurative context, as in La main rouge (1930), for example, where a hand is shown in an imploring gesture comparable to the prehistoric palm prints of Pech-Merle and El Castillo. Or would it be more appropriate to think of the figurative heraldry of traffic signals that fascinated Léger?
|On the fresco of the Swiss pavilion in Paris, a winged female creature floats above a landscape of transparent geometric and organic forms, her right wing lightly supported by a half-open hand. By the side of this hand, Le Corbusier wrote: ‘Garder mon aile dans la main’ (Keep my wing in my hand) — the last line of the first verse of Stéphane Mallarmé’s poem Autre éventail de Mademoiselle Mallarmé.|
O rêveuse, pour que je plonge
|At Chandigarh, the symbolism of the hand transcended private mythology and was turned into a public monument. As such, it now dominates the entire Capitol Complex. As a political declaration, it has its closest precedent in the project for a national monument for Valliant-Couturier, a French communist leader (1938). And via this proposal, it is also anchored in a long tradition of political statutory: both Valliant-Couturier’s face, caught in an inflammatory speech, and the declamatory gesture of the hand placed above it, have roots in Rude’s representation of the Marseillaise on the front of the Arc de Triomphe facing the Champs-Elysées - an archetype of the 19th century public statuary in France.|
|As to the Open Hand, it had become a trademark of the city of Chandigarh and the values it set out to represent long before construction began. The sign can be said to stand for the fiction of the state art with no state religion behind. The reverent see it in something like a ‘cross between a Buddhist gesture for dispelling fear and a hovering Picasso peace dove. The cynics see a grotesque baseball glove.’2|
|The motief as such first appeared ina sketch of 1948, but it had been played with long before — as when Le Corbusier used the image of the open hand in order to describe the growth of a tree and the yearly multiplication of its branches: ‘A mathematically measured action of the branches which open up each spring into a new open hand’.3 Ultimately, the open hand can perhaps best be interpreted as an ideogram of Le Corbusier’s private ethos, a crystallization of his self-perception as a prophet who must suffer in order to bring about the rejuvenation of mankind. ‘With full hands I have received; with full hands I give” was his caption to reproductions of the main ouverte. In the final analysis, his source was Nietzsche, or rather, Nietzsche’s protagonist Zarthustra, the lonely saint in the woods, descending from the mountains and declaring ‘I love mankind’ and ‘What! Did I speak of love! I bring a present to mankind.’ 4 And: ‘I should like to give and to share until the wise rejoice once again in their folly and the poor in their riches.’5|
|In fact, Zarathustra himself spoke of the open hand:|
This, in fact, is the hardest task of all: to close, out of love, the open hand and maintain, in the act of giving, one’s shame.6
|Once in India, Le Corbusier was eager to win acceptance for the mysterious symbol as a metaphor for what Chandigarh, ‘the temple of new India’, stood for. In a letter to Nehru, he mentions the fundamental role of technology in building up a new brotherhood among men:|
India was not obliged to live through the century, now past, of the problems of the first machine age (…) India may value the idea of placing the symbolic and evocative sign of the open hand among the palaces that will house the institutions and authority of the Capitol of Chandigarh at present under construction: open to receive the newly created prosperity, open to distribute it to its people and to others. The open hand will confirm that the second era of the machine age has begun: the era of harmony.7
|Le Corbusier’s commitment to social harmony may have sounded more familiar to Indian ears than he himself suspected, for the belief in a universal brotherhood of man based upon the blessings of progress and technology, it is at least as old as the Victorian age that played such a topical part in shaping the Indian infrastructure. The fact that technology in India turned out to be a servant of Western imperialism rather than of the brotherhood of man is another matter. 8|
|Source: Stanislaus von Moos, Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis (Campridge: MIT Press, 1982), pp 286-288|
- 1. William Curtis, Le Corbusier. Ideas and Forms, Phaidon Press; 1994 p 198
- 2. Ibid. 198.
- 3. Le Corbusier, Quand les cathédrales étaient blanches (When the Cathedrals were White), Bibliothèque Médiations; 1965 p 82
- 4. Ibid. 6, 7.
- 5. Friedrich Nietzsche, Also Sprach Zarathustra (reprinted ed. 1975). 5. On the title page of his copy of Zarathustra (in French) Le Corbusier has indicated the time and place of his first reading of the book (Paris, 1908) and the passages most directly relevant to the symbolism of the open hand.
- 6. Ibid. 87.
- 7. For a complete publication of this letter and a more detailed discussion of the ideological implications, see S. von Moos, “The Politics of the Open Hand”, The Open Hand, Russel Walden, ed. (Cambridge, MA. 1977), 412-57
- 8. On the symbolic recyclings of the Open Hand in Chandigarh’s everyday culture, see now V.Prakash, Chandigarh's Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India (Studies in Modernity and National Identity), University of Washington Press; First Edition (August 1, 2002) 123 ff.