Few men in history have altered the course of architecture as dramatically as Le Corbusier. His prodigious output, his extensive writings, the very quality of his genius cast him upon a lonely eminence, so that he always remained something of an enigma. It was only to a handful of colleagues that Le Corbusier showed his human side – sensitive, capable of warm and lasting friendships, deeply concerned about the condition of man. In Le Corbusier’s intimate circle was Balkrishna V. Doshi, himself a distinguished architect, who worked with the master over a period of some seven years – first in Paris, later in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad. This association provided a rare insight into the mind of Le Corbusier. Looking back over the years, Doshi stresses Le Corbusier’s remarkable architectural agility, his endless capacity for improvisation and innovation. Here, then, is Doshi’s portrait of Le Corbusier as man and as architect.
Q. So much has been written about Le Corbusier that I think we can dispense with the basics. We know, of course, that he was a many-sided man – architect, painter, sculptor, poet, author – or rather polemicist. However, if you had to choose the one outstanding quality of his personality, what would it be?
A. This is interesting because, you know, I have my own private image of the man. And the key to his personality, for me at least, is contained in a poem he once wrote. It’s called “The Acrobat” and it goes:
An acrobat is no puppet,
He devotes his life to activities
in which, in perpetual danger of death,
he performs extraordinary movement of
infinite difficulty, with disciplined
exactitude and precision.....free
to break his neck and his bones and
Nobody asked him to do this.
Nobody owes him any thanks.
He lives in an extraordinary world, of the acrobat.
Result: most certainly!
He does things which others cannot.
So I will always see him figuratively walking the tightrope, swinging from the trapeze, scorning the safety of the net. He did things that no one else would dream of doing; he took risks, big risks, he dared. That’s why I think of him as the acrobat of architecture. I think you’ll see what I mean as we go along.
Q. Yes, I recall that he’s been referred to as a magician, a juggler, someone who could keep all the balls in the air at one time. But can you give me a concrete example of what you mean?
A. Oh, there are dozens of instances. When the roof of the gymnasium of the Unite d’Habitation at Marseilles was being finished, the engineers came to him and said, “Monsieur, this will not work, there are going to be some cracks.” So he said, “What would have happened if God had done this and the cracks appeared? We would paint, wouldn’t we? So we’ll paint. That’s all.” What he was saying was that things will always go wrong some place, but we can always find alternatives.
Q. Can we go back to the beginning, to the time you first met Le Corbusier?
A. That was in 1950. I was living in London then and I learned that the CIAM Congress was going to be held at Hoddesdon. Somehow I managed to get myself in as an observer. When I got there I found they were discussing Chandigarh. I also found I was the only Indian present, and so I was asked a lot of questions – “What is the meaning of Chandigarh?” and so on. This encouraged me to ask if I could get a chance to work on the project. Maybe, I was told, but Le Corbusier is a very difficult man to work with. Incidentally, this was the first time I met and shook hands with him. Later I was told to submit an application in my own handwriting. He had this peculiarity – perhaps he had it checked later by those handwriting specialists. He had many little superstitions. Years later I discovered that he always carried a big coin, some kind of icon, given to him in Brazil. His wife used to complain because it tore his pockets all the time. Anyway, the upshot of it all, was that I was told I could join but I would be paid nothing.
Q. And so you went to Paris?
A. Yes, I went to 35 Rue de Sevres. A strange place–quite unlike the usual architect’s office which hascertain set divisions. His own room was very small, with everything painted black. There were just two lights, one focused on a sculpture, the other exactly on his table.
When I knew him much better I could understand the significance of the room. Because where work was concerned he was like a monk, an ascetic; he spent a lot of time alone – painting, thinking, writing. Now what is this but meditation? Indeed, for 40 years, he never met anyone until lunch time. And he was very irritated if someone disturbed him. He once went into isolation for four days, without even enough food to sustain him. And he thought and pondered long over whether his theories were correct or not. At the end of the four days, he emerged convinced more strongly than ever that what he was doing was right.
Q. Does this mean that once he made up his mind, he wouldn’t change it? To use the analogy of the acrobat, once he set foot on the rope, there was no turning back.
A. Yes, but it was always a considered decision, never capricious or impulsive. A lot of thought had gone into it before. Let me give you an example. When the Millowners’ Building in Ahmedabad was being planned, he had this large space but the toilets were small and the doors to them were only 70 cm. So a letter came from the millowners complaining about this. Le Corbusier replied, saying, “Gentlemen, you will realise that a pregnant woman with two suitcases walks easily along the corridor of a railway wagon which is never wider than 70 cm, so I’m very sure that this door is not too small for you, fat though you are.”
Q. He must have enjoyed that, his clash with the millowners. Because he did see conflict as an essential element of creative life, didn’t he?
A. Oh, certainly. He enjoyed struggling against an adversary, the more powerful the better. Remember that early in his life he had said, “I want to fight with truth itself. It will surely torment me. But I am not looking for quietude.” He knew that there would always be conflict and trouble and he believed in being prepared for it. He once drew a diagram for me – a star, above it a cloud, and above that a dagger – and he said, “You can always look at the stars, but remember that behind them is a cloud, and behind that a dagger.”
In fact, I think he found a certain exhilaration even in defeat. In Paris after Marseilles, we were all waiting for him to come back from a client, and when he returned we asked, “Monsieur, what happened? Did you get the assignment?” “No,” he replied, “they wanted me to change the kitchen height, change this, change that. So I told them, I have not worked for 25 yers to change now. I would rather not build. Goodbye.” “But what will you do now?” we asked. “The one thing I’ve learned in life,” he answered, “is to take revenge for my defeat by working twice as hard.”
Q. What in your opinion was his essence as an architect?
A. He had so many qualities that it’s difficult to summarize. One of the most important certainly was that here was a free mind, bound by no rules, not even his own. He never worked with one idea but orchestrated many ideas, each the seed of a different tree and each enriching the other. So he moved constantly in different, apparently contradictory, directions. I was once in his office with P. L. Verma, then the Chief Engineer of Chandigarh. And Le Corbusier asked, “What is the truth really?” Then he drew two parallel lines, with a wavy line in between. “Truth is like a river,” he said, “it flows continuously, changing course, modifying itself, without ever touching either bank.” Truth for him was always in the process of evolution.
He was not concerned with consistency. And he was constantly improvising. For example, in the Millowner’s Building there is a regular series of columns, but suddenly at the end he removes two columns to make a concrete wall. No purist would do this. But he needed that to make a visual impact – his real strength.
Structure for him was only related to the function it must perform – it was not a rigid element. So he did not follow one system, but used many systems to achieve his goal. Because many systems together really add up to another system, don’t they?
He was never rigid, always varied, forever playing with dualities and multiplicity. In the High Court at Chandigarh, for instance, the main portico is made of three large parallel walls and originally they were painted white, but after a while he painted each a different colour because he wanted that area to stand out and be conspicuous. Now anyone doing this in a school of architecture would fail because it is not consistent. But to create a space, Le Corbusier would sacrifice everything.
And he knew how to go about it because he was a great inventor. Thus when Marseilles was being built he was away for a while and when he returned, his engineer colleague Bodiansky had already built the windows – simple, square wooden windows. Now Le Corbusier was anything but simple. Immediately an idea struck him: why not paint the sides of the sun-breakers to distract from the windows? A trompe d’oeil, so to speak. He had complete mastery of how to guide people’s vision.
Q. This is another element in his architecture, isn’t it, the use of colour?
A. Yes, to him paint was not alien – it was also used to add to the total experience. He could paint a wall to highlight the space, or to limit the space or to conclude the space. In other words, he could make space infinite or finite or destroy it completely.
Q. How were all these qualities reflected in Chandigarh? How did he react to India in the first place?
A. He saw many things for the first time – the bright blue sky, the relentless sun, the hot winds, the cool moon, the beauty of tropical nights, the fury of the monsoon. And he said to me once that while his work thus far had been a counterpoint to nature, he now realised that he had to have a pact with nature. The Sarabhai house is a perfect example of how architecture and nature can merge. He looked at the skyline of Indian temples, he saw arches and domes, verandahs and balconies. In general I have the impression that in India he felt the impact of another culture that has joy and grace and compassion.
Q. What would you say was the impact of India on his work as an architect?
A. Well, mainly that he was looking at things in a different way than he had in the West. What do you do in a country where there’s no technology but lots of very skilled people, people with ideas; a country far behind in time but also very vital and full of energy? He began to think of using natural materials in a different way. When he came to Ahmedabad in 1951 and he saw the concrete columns in Kanvinde’s ATIRA building, I know that he took pictures back to Paris and asked: Why not use concrete like this?
Q. Are you saying that bêton brut was discovered here?
A. No, not really discovered – Marseilles had already been built in rough concrete. But here we have to do the formwork in small plates, because pouring and casting is difficult. And he said, why not take planks and do what we call shuttering? He also used steel formwork and said, why don’t we show the rivets also so we can feel how the concrete is poured. In India he looked anew at concrete as texture. What he did here was to add plasticity. Le Corbusier was a man of great plasticity.
Which reminds me. He spent a lot of time looking at Indian miniatures and he once showed me a painting of Krishna and Radha dancing. “ You see,” he said, “how front and back are both shown, how you can twist the plane to get a complete image.” The problem that was intriguing him was how to get another dimension within the same plane. And this is what he did in Ahmedabad – he made the formwork go against the nature of the concrete, i.e., normally the formwork is designed vertically, but here he placed the shuttering planks diagonally, so that the shadows cast are diagonal, while the basic level remains horizontal. This was done with the idea that the plane must get another dimension through shadow.
In Indian miniature paintings you notice that something will suddenly go out of the frame. Or out of all those cows, one cow will turn its head. We allow those exceptions. Le Corbusier was like that – exceptions were important to prove the rule. And this came out of the realisation that rigid structures are not the answer if you want them to survive.
Q. Did he really know about Indian philosophy? So much significance is attached now to such things as the symbolism of the wheel, for example.
A. I don’t know. But I doubt very much that he really read Hindu philosophy or anything like that. Basically people who are philosophers don’t have to study religions or faiths. They sense things and feel it when they move around – they absorb intuitively, unconsciously. They work mostly by instinct.
Q. What about the Open Hand? People also see parallels between this and the open hand of Christ and Buddha. Did it have any spiritual meaning?
A. Again I don’t know, but it’s possible. He was a very secretive man, and though he was religious he never admitted it. I think all creative people are mystics in a sense. Let me tell you a story about Bucky Fuller. He was once in Florida with the contractor who made his domes, and Bucky said to him, “We must find an office building with this kind of plan.” And he drew a plan with a basement. The contractor said, “Bucky, basements are not possible here because the water level’s too high.” “You think so?” asked Fuller, “Anyway let’s go and find out.” So they started driving around, and Bucky kept looking at the tops of the trees all the time. He would just say, go straight, turn right, or turn left. After 10 minutes they came to a house and Bucky said, “Stop. There’s a house. Go and ask about it.” The contractor went in reluctantly and said to the owner, “I know there’s no sign saying that this house is for sale, but is it?” And he replied, “Well, I’ve been thinking of selling it so, yes, it is for sale.” “May I see the plan?” he was asked. And amazingly the house had a basement and a plan almost exactly like the one Bucky had drawn.
Q. So what was he, psychic?
A. Yes. And therefore I’m convinced that all these people have their antennae absolutely acute. Other- wise how come that the Shodan House ramp which was done in Paris is very similar to the ramp in the Amber Palace which Le Corbusier had never seen? And how come that Louis Kahn’s dormitories and structures at Ahmedabad are very close to the buildings in Mandu, which I showed him later much to his surprise. Therefore these people were not only psychic, but at a certain level of creativity your intuition becomes universal.
Q. Which brings us to another question often raised with regard to Le Corbusier – that of intellect as opposed to emotion or instinct.
A. With Le Corbusier the prime motivating factor was undoubtedly instinct. He never had a set plan in his head. In regard to his painting he told me, “When I start to work it’s blue, but when I’ve finished it’s green. I don’t know how that happens.” And otherwise why would he choose the cooling towers of the Sabarmati as the model for the Assembly building in Chandigarh? Nobody would dream of doing that. But to him it was a wonderful symbol of tomorrow, of rising aspirations, a figure of tremendous force. This was his impulse operating, his visual insight telling him: this is what you must do against those mountains and in that barren area.
Q. Is this true – the connection between the cooling towers and the Assembly?
A. Of course it’s true, it’s 100 per cent true. I was in Ahmedabad at the time, and I know that he went to the cooling towers in the night. He was fascinated by them; he picked up two wooden planks and struck them together to check the acoustics and made a note of it. And because he’d stayed there so long he developed pneumonia when he got back to Paris.
Q. Which brings us to Chandigarh. But how did he go about the building of Chandigarh?
A. Whenever Le Corbusier worked he would go to the site, to get the feel of it – without this he wouldn’t even do a drawing. In Chandigarh the first thing he did was to sketch the Himalayas – you could say he was overwhelmed by them – then the barren land, a couple of mango trees and of course the bull with the big horns. From the very beginning, I feel, he began looking at the city as an offering to the Himalayas. I remember Giedion, the noted architec- tural historian, writing to him at that time saying, “You who talk so much about the Piazza San Marco, how dare you put buildings so far away in a climate that’s so hot.” Le Corbusier’s answer was, “Yes, but I am doing this as objects against the backdrop of the mountains. This is my notion of space in the 20th century.”
Q. There’s been so much controversy over Chandigarh – what exactly was the extent of Le Corbusier’s involvement in the city?
A. We must be very clear about this: his concern was the master plan, the capitol complex – the four major buildings – the Civic Centre, parts of Sector 17. Isn’t it ironic that the man who propagated Unite d’Habitation was not allowed to do housing? He said: “Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew want to do housing. If I interfere now there’ll be trouble.”
Q. What about the demarcation, the segregation of classes?
A. This was given as a directive by P. N. Thapar, then the Secretary, Punjab Government, and Fry and Drew followed it. But Le Corbusier told me, “This is a bureaucratic decision and I don’t agree with it.”
Q. What about the absence of bazaars, another criticism often levelled against Chandigarh?
A. Look, Le Corbusier was essentially a man of the Mediterranean – he was fascinated by places like the casbah in Morocco. And I have seen with my own eyes his Chandigarh sketches with shopping streets leading to open spaces and he’s even written there “The Indian Bazaar”. But those sketches are missing now, lost, disappeared, I wish I’d pinched them at that time.
Q. So it’s very unfair to blame all the ills of Chandigarh on Le Corbusier?
A. Of course it is. I remember we were once walking in the High Court area, at that time the land was quite flat, and I said, “Monsieur, with such wonderful buildings coming up here, look at what is happening all around – the buildings by Fry and Drew, I mean.” He replied, “I know, but don’t worry. I’m going to create hills here so that we will not notice them and this will become a contained place.”
Q. So he was dissociating himself from the rest of Chandigarh?
A. That’s what I’m saying. He was creating an island for himself. On my next trip to the city, those hills – mounds, rather – were made. He didn’t complain, but just found a way to enhance his own world. As I’ve said so often, he was a man of great invention. If the site had something undesirable he would hide it. He was always doing these balancing acts.
Q. What do you think of Corbusier’s Chandigarh, then?
A. I think the capitol complex affords a unique architectural experience. There is this tremendous juxtaposition of the Assembly and the High Court, saying that justice is independent of politicians. So we have an independent justice, an independent legislature and between them lies the Governor’s Palace. Thus a triangle is set up to symbolise people’s participatory governance. And then we have the Open Hand which says, let us open ourselves to the world – let us give and let us take. The whole conception is fantastic. It’s an example of how to create buildings which respond in terms of space and confront one another allegorically. For the first time you have a complex of buildings placed in a certain order, philosophically and visually, in relation to site and then in relation to form and scale. In the classical manner, the church was always placed in the centre of the town, but here we have Le Corbusier taking his capitol buildings far away and also placing considerable distance between them.
Q. But he’s been criticised so much for those distances.
A. I know, but it was all carefully thought out and conceived that way. These powers must confront each other so the distance between the buildings was very important for him. He didn’t see it as a gathering place for people, but rather as a vast area where tensions are set off, an area that is awe- inspiring. So it had to be kept very pure. And I think the same thing is true of the capitol’s distance from the city – he didn’t want it mixed up with all kinds of day-to-day activities. Of course the problem remains: how do people in a democracy use these buildings? But I think that both Le Corbusier’s vision and the people’s convenience have validity.
Q. Would you like to comment on the individual buildings in the complex? Let’s take the High Court.
A. In the High Court, as always, silhouette was important for him. You see these shapes, almost like an umbrella, but look at the negative space and it’s like a dome (perhaps a reaction to Indian architecture). So he had this play of positive- negative, of floating form against the light. I believe that this relationship with the sky was being discovered at this point in his work. And now he was using elements even at the cost of structure. These shells in the High Court were supposed to be very thin, but engineering-wise that was not possible so they were done as slabs, curved slabs, cantilevered.
Of course the High Court has many problems. The rain beats in so you have to build an arcade. The judges don’t like it because the courts can’t function the normal Indian way. But one really has to look at the High Court as a plastic building in terms of form and space. And I think it’s a magnificent building, it’s a grand way of arrival – the way it sits on the plaza and the poetry its silhouette evokes.
Q. What about the Assembly?
A. The best thing here is to tell you what Louis Kahn said when he first saw it. He said: “I have never met a man in my whole life who can freeze his dreams. Le Corbusier has done this in the Assembly building.” I myself think of the Assembly as the culmination of architectural experience, pure experience. It is absolutely unmatched in terms of form, space, proportions, the play of light. I could go on for hours about it – how he created a dual structural system for the interpenetration of volumes; how beautifully he taps the sun to bring this wonderful light into the building; how the pure geometry he talked about all his life came back on top of the Assembly in the cylinder and the pyramid and the cube. In the end he created a building that was a piece of sculpture.
But again I have the feeling that there are lots of problems in the Assembly. While it was an absolute success in formal terms it was not the same in practical terms.
Q. The Secretariat?
A. The Secretariat too has its points and it’s very impressive from the front, but that also happened by accident. The initial design had sun-breaker-like balconies, but the problem arose that such big spans would not work because they were also cantilevered, so you needed supporting elements. Everybody wondered where the solution lay and a lot of work was put in. One fine morning Corbusier arrived at the site, took a look at what was happening and said, “No, no, no, not like that. Let the columns go straight down breaking the sun-breakers. Don’t make changes in design – just let them go through, they are really supporting elements.” So the columns went right down, and the sun-breakers changed and a totally new pattern emerged, most interesting and very beautiful because you never anticipated the strange rhythm that would occur. In his desire to be formal he often landed in a mess. But, like the acrobat, he always managed to emerge unscathed. However, everyone knows that the Secretariat fails, fails totally, as an office building.
Q. What about the plan of the city?
A. I think that 20 years hence Chandigarh may not even be considered an Indian city because it gives us Le Corbusier’s sense of the future but not of Indian life. Indian communities live in groups, mohallas, there’s a mixing of families income-wise. This was never considered in Chandigarh. So you have streets, open spaces, houses – but you have no life.
Q. What was your involvement in Chandigarh and with Le Corbusier?
A. I worked on the High Court, designed some sections of it. I also did some work on the Governor’s Palace which as you know was never built. In Ahmedabad I worked fully on the Shodan House and the Millowner’s Building.
Q. And this is over a period of seven years, so you got to know him well?
A. Yes, I was close to him both professionally and personally. Whenever I went to Chandigarh, we would take long walks together, during which he would tell me all kinds of stories. He was a stern man, and he had withdrawn from people in a sense, but he had a very warm human side that I can never forget. For example, when I was leaving Paris I lunched with him. He had spread some of his drawings on the table, and said, “Doshi, I want you to select one.” So I picked one. “Ah”, he exclaimed, “you have chosen the way I would have. Why don’t you take another,” I did so, and again he was pleased so he gave me one more. I finally ended up with three of his drawings, and I can tell you he didn’t easily part with them.
Q. What influence would you say Le Corbusier had on you?
A. Oh, he changed my entire career. Apart from architecture, he taught me to be a strategist, how to face the music, how to look at things and how to be open. Take strategy. He once told me, “Don’t send all the photographs of the building to the client. Send just one so that they get only a partial idea. This way you’ll have fewer arguments.” And when I was leaving Paris and went to say goodbye he had some colour samples in his hand. “Look”, he said, “when you show them the colours ask them to select one, but always keep the second choice for yourself. So they will be happy and your choice will compensate theirs.”
Architecturally, all my buildings have been influenced by him, though not obviously. In my home, for example, built in 1961, I had been greatly impressed by the Sarabhai house, and I was really trying to create that shadow and that proportion. But I wanted to do something he hadn’t done. So I decided that in the interior I would not use anything rough – I would have a polished floor, plastered walls, and not use sun-breakers (even now I avoid them, I’ve only used them once or twice). Still there are some similarities. When I left Le Corbusier I took a vow that I would not use the elements – apparently the same elements – associated with him. When you decide this, then you are left only with his spirit, which is expressed in proportions, modulations of space, creation of rhythms, tonalities. My greatest discovery was that I found freedom. I know that Le Corbusier would not have liked me to be imitative or to repeat a building again and again, but to invent and seek out new expression. That’s why I keep his photograph on my wall to tell myself, “He is there, watching me. Am I repeating myself?” So I make mistakes all the time but I’m happy that I’m trying.
Q. What about your other buildings?
A. The Institute of Indology was also built when I was filled with Le Corbusier and is strongly influenced by him. But I think my office building, Sangath, is truly representative of Le Corbusier. He would have been happy with it. This quality of light, for instance, would not have been possible without him. These are skylights, reflected skylights. He knew how to create a soft light that makes people’s faces glow, not a hard light that results in harsh lines. Treatment of light, as you know, was one of his great strengths.
Q. What about your School of Architecture?
A. He didn’t see the School, but when I was in Paris in 1963 I was telling him all about it, how we were going to have various scientific disciplines, physics and chemistry, how the architecture students would analyse buildings, study form, etc., etc. He listened in silence while I went on, then he just picked up a footrule from his table and asked, “But will they know how to use this?” I was quite taken aback but when you think of it the essence of architecture is how to use scale, isn’t it?
Q. What would you say is the influence of Le Corbusier on Indian architects in general?
A. I would say it is more apparent than real, more in terms of visual impact rather than theory, practice and analysis – in relation to our own culture. But there are people like Shivnath Prasad on whom he had a profound influence. Also Charles Correa and myself, and a lot of others in Delhi. It’s difficult to assess, though, because by and large it’s all fragmentary, just bits and pieces. Particular features were picked up – sun-breakers, of course, rough concrete, brick and concrete – and a few did pick up his notions of space. Generally the formal aspects were picked up but not the spirit.
Q. Not many people were as closely associated with Le Corbusier as you?
A. Yes, that’s true. There were some who were with him for as long as 10 or 15 years in Paris, but very few had the chance to be on site with him. I was witness to his endless adaptability and his capacity for improvisation. For example, the contractor would come to him and say, “I do not have this size of building material, say, stone.” He would ask, “What sizes do you have?” The contractor would tell him. He had perhaps allowed for three sizes, but the contractor may have had only two. Then he would say, “I’ll take this, which is my Modular, but you’ll have wastage. All right, I can use the wastage as residue.” He could treat flooring with residue, window panels with residue, sun-breakers with residue. And he would create a rhythm in his residue, adding a new dimension so that the building was actually enriched.
Q. Le Corbusier says somewhere that he admires “the house of peasants, the shack, the thing that is modest and on a human scale.”
A. You could say he was one architect who gave the ordinary man dignity. It was always as if he were looking at man and God together – no human being was really ordinary. Since he was not involved in politics or economics, he tried to give man dignity through his dwelling. What he would do was to scale the building in such a way that no man felt less than a king in his house. I recall him drawing some sketches and saying, “Here is a small house; if I make a tiny door the house will look still smaller. But if I make a full-scale door that will change things.” So this little act of altering the relationship between the opening and the space and the man made all the difference.
He was always fascinated by small-scale structures – steamships, railway carriages, houses of the poor. I remember taking him to the pols in Ahmedabad, to rooms just two metres wide. And him stretching out his arms and saying “My God, look how these people can live.” For him there was no problem thinking in two scales – the tiny, miniscule, and then the very large. Very few architects can do equally well in both.
Q. What was this, the attraction of opposites?
A. Yes, and it had some odd manifestations. At meals he would say one should eat sweet and sour things together. And when he ate meat he would say, “Let’s put some salt,” but big pieces of salt, not really spread out, so that the meat had no salt in some places and a great deal in others. In his drawings he had very thin lines combined with thick ones. His furniture was very low and the base was very thick. It seemed as though he always wanted two dimensions – thin and thick, tall and low, rough and smooth, light and shade. There was always this kind of counter-balance.
Q. This leads us to the role of music in his work, the use of counterpoint, if you will.
A. Music was terribly important to him – he came from a musical family as we know – and he extended this to his architecture. One of my most vivid memories of this came when we were working on the Shodan House. For some reason the pattern was too rigid, and Le Corbusier recognised this and it bothered him, so he turned it over to me. And when I began to work on the house I felt that instead of round columns, perhaps it should have a rectangular column that could do many things – become a wall, meet the wall at right angles and become a cupboard. When I showed him what I’d done, he said, “This is working right now. Let me begin to explore it.” Within two hours he had made a miracle out of the sections by just adding a little beam here and a slab across and putting a circle there to open it up. I remember I had some regular sun-breakers and when he looked at them he said, “Ah, you are too rigid, you know. Knock off these two.” So I knocked them off, and I realised after many years that those two were expressing the garden and the others in a regular rhythm were expressing the room. This is how he got other rhythms into the main rhythm.
Much the same thing happened in the Sarabhai House where you have these enormous, very heavy beams which really take you right in. The walls became almost like sliding panels – they are carrying load but sometimes you have a four-metre span, sometimes you have only a one-metre jack in between. Now Louis Kahn would not do this – he would certainly have a constant span.
Q. That’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you about – your experience of working with Kahn and the difference between him and Le Corbusier.
A. As you know I was also associated with Kahn for many years and it seems to me that he was always striving towards simplification, trying to get into an order that was very clear, very consistent, very precise, very austere. Now Le Corbusier didn’t give a damn about any of these qualities. He actually seemed to enjoy crisis situations because they offered a new way of putting things together. It was almost as though architecture were a game – or a gamble! I often say that Lou was trying to build silence – totally integral, without ripples of any kind. Whereas Le Corbusier was anything but silent – not that his buildings were noisy. They were musical – like the sound of someone playing the flute in a forest. The difference between them is that between serenity and joy.
To use another analogy, Kahn and Le Corbusier can be compared to Mughal and Hindu architecture. Now in India we had the same craftsmen working on both, but if they were building a mosque it would be very simple, clear and pure and the geometry would be very explicit. In the temple, on the other hand, things would twist and turn, go up and down, in apparent disorder. Like Le Corbusier who delighted in pure geometry which he would then destroy.
In general, I think Lou would accept the constraints while Le Corbusier would not. He would rise above them, and that is why he could create those fantastic unfoldings of spaces, those marvellous changes of light. Lou’s buildings are for meditation, Le Corbusiers’s buildings “sing”.
Q. What were they like personally?
A. Oh, they had totally different temperaments. Take food habits. While he was in India Lou would just eat boiled fish and boiled potatoes – nothing else. Whereas in Delhi Le Corbusier took me straight to Moti Mahal, ordered tandoori chicken and all kinds of Moghlai dishes and enjoyed it enormously.
Q. Did the two men know each other?
A. Well, not really, though Lou did attend a lecture given by Le Corbusier in Philadelphia. In typical fashion he stood right at the back of the hall, but after the talk people brought Le Corbusier over and they were introduced. I thought it would be a good idea for the two masters to meet and I told him, “Lou, one of these days when we’re both in Europe why don’t we go to Paris to see him?” He just replied, “Maybe”.
After Le Corbusier died I went to Paris, of course, and after three days I went to Philadelphia. I remember Kahn lived on the fifth floor then, and he threw the key down to me. As I entered I could see he was extremely dejected and at once he said, “Have you heard?” I answered, “Yes, I’ve just come from Paris.” Then, turning an agonised face to me, he asked, “But whom shall I work for now?”