Is the Indian city of Chandigarh, designed by Le Corbusier, being 'stripped for parts'?
A piece in the Guardian suggests that Chandigarh, the city in the north of India planned essentially from scratch by the Swiss-French modernist architect Le Corbusier in the 1950s, is being "stripped for parts," with everything from furniture to manhole covers showing up on the international high-design auction circuit.
"Recently," the London paper's Jason Burke writes, "international art dealers have made substantial sums selling hundreds of chairs, tables, carvings and prints designed by Le Corbusier and his assistants but obtained at knockdown prices from officials often unaware of their value."
A search of the website for the Wright auction house in Chicago, prompted by questions raised online and on a handful of Twitter feeds, reveals a number of items from the city, including an "outdoor light fixture from Chandigarh Zoo," sold last summer for $36,250. Meanwhile, a manhole cover from Chandigarh was "recently sold" elsewhere for nearly $25,000, according to the Guardian. Indian architects have begun a campaign to pressure local authorities as well as international dealers to slow or halt the sales.
Reached Thursday by phone, the director of the Wright auction house, Richard Wright, said that a "vast amount" of material from Chandigarh came onto the market around 2007, most of it, he thought, from dealers in France. Since then, he said, he has sold "at least a hundred pieces" from the Indian city.
He added: "I don’t know the process by which the furniture" left India. "I was under the impression that it was done legally," he said.
Asked what he thought about some observers' opinion that furniture and other pieces by Le Corbusier should stay in place in Chandigarh, since they were conceived as part of a larger urban whole, Wright responded, "It’s complicated. I see both sides of it. I can tell you that as an auctioneer I have no problem saying that it’s not my place to make those decisions. If the work is legally purchased, selling architectural elements is one of the things we do."
Le Corbusier was in his early 60s when he was invited in 1950 by the government of Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru to join fellow architects Pierre Jeanneret (his cousin), Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew in designing the new city. As Le Corbusier put it in 1955, his work in Chandigarh, which included almost wholly remaking an earlier master plan and designing three government buildings made mostly of raw concrete, aimed to create "a monastic architecture with ... a spirit of power and rough simplicity." After the High Court was completed, he called the building "an architectural symphony that surpasses all my hopes."
Still, there were always complaints that Le Corbusier's vision for the city, as a travel essay in the New York Times put it in 1982 (near the peak of disdain among postmodernists for the landmarks of High Modernism), "may have never really been in tune with the soul of India."
"There are parts of Chandigarh," Barbara Crossette notes in that essay, "that seem to suffer particularly from the neglect reserved for the unloved, or the unlovable."
Photo: High Court building in Chandigarh, India, by architect Le Corbusier. Credit: Flickr user robespiero.