DESIGN FOCUS: Pierre Jeanneret in Chandigarh
In the 1950’s India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru had an ambition to propel his country in to a whole new era, one unburdened by its past. Responding to the divide of Punjab and Lahore which also signified India’s independence from Great Britain, India needed to build a new metropolis. Deciding to commission Charles-Edouard Jeanneret-Gris (also known as Le Corbusier) he appointed him to devise a masterplan for a new utopian city – one that symbolised India’s determination to set foot into the contemporary world.
Materialising this avant-garde city was to become Le Corbusier’s most ambitious undertaking and gave him the opportunity to apply his principles of city planning on a metropolitan scale. Called Chandigarh, the project saw monumental architecture, cultural growth and significant modernisation and comprised a number of residential, commercial and industrial spaces, including the Capitol Complex that houses the city’s governmental buildings.
Le Corbusier designed most of the infrastructure, highlighting large volumes with his bold use of raw concrete and then adapted his architectural designs to the climatic conditions of the region by creating sculptural facades and swooping rooflines.
To complete the work of this monumental project, Le Corbusier needed furnishings that were in sync with his vision – it was then he enlisted the help of his cousin Pierre Jeanneret.
Working with him on previous projects, Jeanneret intimately understood Corbusier’s design sensibilities, having once created with him a manifesto that formed the guiding principles of their shared architectural aesthetic. Incorporating modernist philosophy in both the design of the city as well as every aspect of its day-to-day functions, including most notably all of the furniture and interior design.
Devising a plan that balanced India’s unique culture and climate conditions, they modelled their design on the proportions of the golden ration and Le Corbusiers ‘modulor’ theory, which sought to create an innovative ergonomic relationship between architecture and the human body.
Entrusting his cousin with the adaption of furniture to his architectural precepts, their collaboration helped to develop the Chandigarh project within this framework. This was Jeanneret’s opportunity to implement the synthesis between the Paris design office with the one he had established locally under his direction.
In Chandigarh, Pierre Jeanneret had the thankless task of supervising, step by step, the creation of the new capital city, of sticking to the plans and carrying them through when the path was difficult and strewn with obstacles. I am very appreciative of it and I owe him a huge debt of gratitude.
- Le Corbusier
Following his years studying architecture at the Geneva School of Fine Arts, Jeanneret developed a taste for sober materials, sleek frames and simplified, functional constructions with powerful and elegant lines. With a progressive architectural philosophy that integrated design into everyday living his designs were practical yet driven by a refined aesthetic. He expanded the boundaries of design, moving it beyond the privileged classes and improving standards of living through innovation.
Jeanneret committed himself to designing not only the furniture and interiors for many of Chandigarh’s most iconic buildings, but his sensitivity to supporting local industry and craftsmanship led him to integrate traditional Indian tradition and materials in to the fabrication of his designs. This commitment led to a marriage of form and function that emphasized the value of the art of practicality, and established a body of work that is celebrated not only as a unique modernist legacy, but as one of distinctive Indian heritage.
Unlike many Westerners living in India, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret were undoubtedly more practical than idealist. Where others had suggested solutions that were still heavy with a colonialist vision, they adapted an avant-garde outlook at a time distribution channels, ecology or sustainable development were unheard of.
By making use of local resources, they were able to break down usual design parameters found in production, enabling the products to retain a quality of craftsmanship. Sourcing local woods like Burma teak, and Indian rosewood, they were practical woods that naturally repelled wood-boring insects and required little maintenance, they also acquired an incomparable patina in time that would adapt to hygrometric and hydrometric fluctuations, particularly during monsoon season. As they were inexpensive they were also available in abundance.
Combining strong minimal forms in simple materials such as wood, the furniture shared an instantly recognisable geometric language – often utilising the basic shapes of ‘X’, ‘U’, and ‘V’, found in the legs and the support structures. Lending character to the pieces, they have become one of the most iconic designs of the 20th century.
Sadly, over the years that came, there were many antique dealers who became regular visitors to the government junkyards in Chandigarh, due to this the furniture began to disappear in large quantities. Perhaps the sadder side of the coin was that due to tragic misunderstanding of the importance of these pieces, the locals didn’t know they had literally been sitting on a vanishing pot of gold for years. While there was nothing illegal about the purchase of foreign dealers, much of which was thrown out or sold by the city’s administration, but very belatedly heritage experts in Chandigarh lament the loss of a vital part of the city’s original design.
Jeanneret oversaw the execution of the project as it’s supervising director for fifteen years, designing and manufacturing furnishings for various sections of the city, from major administrative offices, to public spaces. Later on, he went on to become a principal at the Chandigarh Architecture School, and the advisor of the chief architects and urban research for the northwest state of Punjab. Le Corbusier only visited the city once or twice a year, but Jeanneret was the foot architect who built the city on the values of sun, space and verdure. Creating poetry out of the local materials, Corbusier had built the Capitol Complex but had given the city its flesh and bones.
While the city experienced inevitable growth beyond its original rectangular borders, Chandigarh still holds the admiration and affection of locals and the international architectural community - continuing to serve as, in Nehru’s words, “an expression of the nations faith in the future.”
Despite Jeanneret's passing in his native Geneva, it was his wishes that his ashes return to be spread on Chandigarh’s Sukhna Lake.
Jeanneret is still remembered fondly by the locals, that credit the understated beauty of Chandigarh to his conscious design.
Says Sharma, a young architect who once assisted Jeanneret, “It was a divine experience. He believed in the elements of purity, simplicity and order. He believed only a good human being could create a good building.”
The city of Chandigarh applied for and won Unesco World Heritage status, and have ordered that no more furniture be auctioned. They have also commissioned prisoners at the local jail to start repairing some of the broken pieces.
Unfortunately, due to the popularity of the series there have been less sophisticated copies to emerge, where disproportion and inferior materials are constant, losing so much of what makes these designs so captivatingly beautiful.
Tigmi Trading work with Phantom Hands, a company based in India who create Pierre Jeanneret re-editions to the original specifications by hand, using the same traditional techniques. Made from Burma teak just like the originals, the wood and cane have been sourced ethically and locally – we are the only Australian distributor for this refined collection.
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