William J R Curtis, historian, critic, painter, curator, photographer and author of the classic Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms, a probing study of Le Corbusier’s work, talks about the need to take concrete steps to safeguard Corbusier’s masterpieces in Chandigarh
Chandigarh is considered a living heritage, but here in India we don’t protect, preserve or maintain our unique architectural heritage, both ancient and modern. What are your concerns regarding threats to some of the buildings designed by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh, and how can the government and people come together to preserve this legacy?
This is absolutely crucial. Indian heritage laws (which currently refer only to buildings over 100 years old) should be modified to include major masterpieces by Le Corbusier in Chandigarh and in Ahmedabad, also complexes by Louis Kahn, Balkrisna Doshi, Charles Correa, Raj Rewal and several other Indian architects. I have published polemical pieces asking people to wake up to the major threats facing these buildings: not just criminal neglect in some cases, but also the pressure of real estate developers who would not hesitate for one minute to knock down any building for future profit. Can you believe it but there was some chance that the Millowners Association Building in Ahmedabad by Le Corbusier would be demolished. Chandigarh presents many challenges. The Capitol is a divided and contested space which allows little public use. There is the likelihood of towers being constructed beyond the Capitol, thus messing up the view from the foothills. The Parliament interiors have been vulgarised by inappropriate shiny stone floors worthy of a two-star hotel. So the list could go on. A lot has to be done. There is a need for long-term care and maintenance.
If Chandigarh is awarded the UNESCO heritage status for the buildings designed by Le Corbusier, will it work towards this urgent need for preservation? What is the role of people in this regard?
Alas, a UNESCO status is no guarantee of adequate protection of heritage, which is why I come back to the need to modify the heritage laws in India as quickly as possible. It would certainly be valuable if the UNESCO status were to be awarded, but I sometimes get the impression that waiting for this to occur has turned into a giant excuse to do nothing: ‘Waiting for Godot’ was the title of a sad play by Beckett. ‘Waiting for UNESCO’ risks being a sad play of procrastination, a shifting excuse for doing nothing concrete for the safeguarding of Le Corbusier’s buildings in Chandigarh.
The time has come for the Judiciary and the ministries in New Delhi, indeed for Prime Minister Modi, to frame proper protection laws for modern architectural heritage across the nation. This is not a party political issue. It is in long-term national interest. The buildings by Le Corbusier in India are the future Taj Mahals, Ajantas and Khajurahos. This priceless heritage plays an essential role in the definition of India as a Republic devoted to universal cultural values. This has to be an all-inclusive vision of collective cultural memory. Monuments contribute to national identity, which is precisely why DAESH is destroying Palmyra in the war in Syria: to destroy a collective memory.
Do you see any scope of ‘evolution’ of these buildings, considering the fact that Chandigarh is now home to a much larger population than it was designed for?
These buildings have already ‘evolved’ for good or for ill.