There is no way this post will escape judgement from the architectural fraternity. Corbusier is a name that sparks debate. Either you are sold on his work or you don’t care for it at all. For some, liking or disliking Corbusier is about defending or critiquing modernism itself.
I would not take it that far. Personally, its quite simple. Being a student of architect in the 90s meant a fair amount of exposure to the work of the Modern Masters, and I remain enchanted by their confidence, their mastery over form and their bold use of the materials and technology of their times. And so, when a fellow delegate attending a conference in Lyon, France proposed a quick visit to Firminy to see some of Corbusier’s buildings, I did not hesitate to join the expedition.
The trip was an adventure from the get go. The three of us — a senior architect and academic from Kerala, a young French speaking architect of Indian origin, and me — decided to skip lunch to get on the next train out of Lyon, and ended up making a desperate dash to catch it. It rained constantly as we rolled out of the city into the countryside, and the landscape of fields and woodlands interpersed with dying de-industrialising towns passed by. And when we got off at Firminy, our colleague and guide on the trip discovered he had lost his phone!
Not to be deterred, we grabbed a quick bite to restore our somewhat flagging spirits, and headed out in the pitter patter to the Corbusian landmarks that the town is clearly famous for. We started with the Saint-Pierre church, with its intriguing frustum-like form placed on a square base. Luckily for us, it happened to be France’s National Day for Architecture, so entry was gratis. I have to say it felt pretty good that a country appreciated its architects enough to have a day in their honour!
Looking at these images weeks afterwards, its hard to describe the feeling while standing there in front of the structure. The terrain is hilly and at different points, one finds oneself viewing the church from varying eye levels. The base is punctured with fenestration, the top is solid and heavy, the funnel shape saving it from looking disbalanced.
The interiors, though, are another story. Here, the fluidity of moving through spaces is aided by the light effects caused by the juxtaposition of glass and concrete. We wandered in a bit of a trance through what are now exhibition halls, which showcased a lovely exhibit about Corbusier’s longstanding collaboration with interior designer Charlotte Perriand, whose work relationship with Corbusier makes for an interesting story about the gender struggles of the times. The exhibition emphasized Corbusier’s experiments with lighting, architecturally and in collaboration with interior designers like Charlotte, and the many images of Chandigarh on the walls made me smile!
The trance intensified into a heart-stopping moment as we climbed into the heart of the church. I stood there gaping for a few heart stopping and goosebump-y moments as I took in what Corbusier had done with the lighting inside that space. From the square base, the sheet of concrete morphs into a cone, with the top chamfered off at an angle. Light comes in indirectly, reflecting off coloured sheets and water, to shimmer in geometric patterns across the ceiling. A pity we were there on a really grey day and couldn’t see the full effect. Even so, it was a magical space, and very unorthodox indeed for a catholic church. The pictures below do no justice at all!
What’s really special about Firminy, however, is the special grouping of Corbusier’s work, which includes the Saint-Pierre church and an arts and sports centre collectivelly called the Site Le Corbusier. The Maison de la Culture, which we walked to next, is part of his collective works that are listed by UNESCO and includes Chandigarh’s Capital Complex. A completely different experience from the church, the Maison de la Culture sports a jaunty facade on its shorter side, owing to the upturned vault roof create through strung a system of strung cables. It long facade is a series of vertical windows, with the famous ‘music notes’ fenestration he designed in collaboration with composer Iannis Xenakis. Many other classic Corbusian features are visible in the Maison de la Culture like the ‘Modulor’ furniture by Pierre Guariche and his centrally hinged windows. It is easy to get lost in the details of the building, and helpfully there are models and drawings to explain some of this.
But the brilliant details apart, it is the absolute confidence in the way Corbusier visualizes his buildings within the landscape that is striking. Some hideous new buildings have kind of marred this, but it is not hard to that Corbusier saw his modernist concrete forms juxtaposed against the rolling hills behind. We caught a glimpse of this on a day when the mist particularly accentuated this contrast.
Firminy is a sleepy town and mainstreet was already shutting down as we headed back to the station, only to discover that our adventures were not yet done! The trains were on strike! And two of us were catching flights back to India the next morning. Sigh! Fortunately, there were some emergency services still running and we had to kill an hour and a half drinking beer and chatting before getting onto a crowded train back to Lyon. Bone tired, at the end of a crazy day, I was glad I could squeeze into my schedule what can only be described as the architectural version of a pilgrimage!
It was while sauntering through the delightful Chateau Fontainebleu during our Parisian stint this summer that I first made the connection between the 13th arrondissement and industry. Le Gobelins, a stop on the metro line (7) we often took into town from our suburban abode in summer, was where the French aristocracy got its tapestries from. Up until the ’60s, from what I understand, this area of Paris that lies south of the Seine was a marshy mish mash of industrial workshops and village like neighbourhoods interspersed with patches of gardens and farms. Inspired by Corbusier’s ideas of city planning, a massive urban project called Italie 13 was planned here in the ’60s for the urban professional classes, dominated by high rise towers and large interconnected public spaces on the ground level.
I had the chance to visit Les Olympiades, one of the prominent high-rise complexes built in the late ’60s and early ’70s, with a colleague recently. We were out to get some lunch and he kindly decided to show me around the China Town nearby. Which, against my expectations, was amid this giant brutalist complex of monotonous and monumental high rises! The tall towers of Les Olympiades, which I hear are now rapidly gentrifying, frame a large plaza with a market and access to multi level shopping centres. The design of the Pagode shopping plaza, with its pagoda style roofs, turned out to be prophetic because this neighbourhood saw the arrival of ethnic Chinese immigrants from Vietnam, Camobodia and Laos in the late ’70s, most of them escaping the Vietnam War.
Though architecturally this area hardly looks like the ‘China Town’ one expects, many of the businesses here are Chinese owned. A south-east Asian style set of vendors selling greens on the streets and a number of food stalls selling Vietnamese food were the most obvious signs here. Sitting on the sidewalk, we enjoyed a quick meal of ‘bo bun’, a dish of rice vermicelli with grilled meat, raw vegetables and tangy sauce that has become my favourite food in Paris. This one in ‘China Town’ was way better than the bo bun I have had around the university I work at, which is only a few blocks away within the same arrondissement, part of a later and arguable more successful redevelopment project called the Rive Gauche.
One of the nicest things about being interested in urbanism is that there is pleasure to be derived from the simplest things in a city like Paris. Walks, commutes, lunches and visits to friends are all part of a giant educational and sight seeing experience. And this is how the pursuit of a good bo bun taught me quite a bit about a chunk of Paris’ urban and immigration history.
All content and photographs © Mukta Naik
I turned 37 two days ago. On that day, I was in Chandigarh enveloped in the warm love of dear friends who have been, for the most part, closer than family and the lucky recipient of the unadulterated affection of my two most wonderful children. Considering I was born in that city, I could not help thinking that life keeps coming back in full circles, again and again. These were the tree lines beautiful avenues where I spent the first few years of my life. Despite its inevitable expansion, Chandigarh retains its laid back feel and its vast, accessible public spaces give it a special charm. No other city in India that I have visited comes close to Chandigarh in the sheer amount of green open space available to citizens to walk, play and lounge as they feel fit. Those who live here are cognizant of the huge advantage they have and are reminded of their luck each time they leave town, so I am told.
We stayed the weekend with Nupur’s sister and her family in Sector 30 and the park right next door to her home became our first port of call. Naturally, for Aadyaa is an ardent park lover. And if the park has swings and jungle gyms in it, no force on earth can keep her away! As soon as we dumped our bags at home and gulped down our evening tea, Aadyaa has dragged us down there and passed her infectious enthusiasm to her brother as well. Nupur and me spent an hour watching the kids go up and down the slide over and over again, make friends with the local children and also observe interesting turf wars with them, fortunately none of which ended in fisticuffs!
Next to the slides, a group of young men were playing soccer. They seemed to be members of the local RSS Shakha, a thought that was confirmed when I was woken up the next morning by the chants and shouts of their weekend morning lessons! Mothers sat on park benches nearby, while others watched their kids from inside their homes while they cooked dinner. Men played cards in a corner, some people were engaged in a brisk walk around the park. I heard from didi that the sector had mixed income residents, living in employee housing for officer level as well as Class 3, Class 4 workers from government departments. The mixed income character is critical from the point of view of the usage of public spaces. The sheer vibrance of the neighborhood park Aadyaa chose to play could not be compared to the rather bland nature of the larger, better maintained sector park nearby that boasted some decent walking paths and a musical fountain that played Punjabi music!
Other highlights of the Chandigarh visit were the Rock Garden, Sukhna Lake and Sector 17 market (sataara, as Udai correctly picked up!) and I will blog about those experiences as well. The first evening spent soaking the the green open spaces and the fresh nippy air was, however, the best of all!