When the partition took place in 1947, the countries were split open through the state of Punjab. The capital of undivided Punjab fell within Pakistan and East Punjab in India was left without one. It was then Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Independent India’s first Prime Minister laid down the founding principles of the new city and capital stating “Let this be a new town, symbolic of freedom of India unfettered by the traditions of the past… expressions of the nation’s faith in the future" and thus, Chandigarh was born.
Nehru had a close personal relationship with Albert Mayer, an American planner and architect and he was hired to build the plan for Chandigarh. Albert along with Polish architect Matthew Nowicki drew a superblock city based on modernist ideals. But Matthew was tragically killed in a plane crash before the plans were finished, and because of the death of his partner, Albert also left the project. Since the city had no chief architect, in the fall of the 1950s, the Swiss architect Le Corbusier was recruited to complete the project.
Corbusier built on Albert and Matthew's plans but never credited their work. Assisted by senior architects Maxwell Fry and his wife Jane B. Drew, he also brought on his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and that was Pierre's introduction to Chandigarh. After the couple left due to other engagements, Pierre ultimately became the chief architect and town planning adviser to the government of Punjab, supervising the implementation of Corbusier's plans and designing his own in the city.
Pierre was in Chandigarh from 1951 to 1965, and lived in his self-designed house in sector 5 from December 1954 to August 1965. He designed furniture for his home using materials available locally, like bamboo, canvas and rope. This also defined his working style. Taking utmost care in understanding the ethos of Chandigarh, Pierre created furniture and buildings that echoed its simplistic charm being deeply conscious in his use of locally available material and craftsmen for his projects.
He carried out Corbusier's ambitious Capitol Complex project, which comprised several monuments including the Legislative Assembly, Secretariat, and High Court of Punjab. The complex was added to the prestigious list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2016. The Gandhi Bhawan, an auditorium within the Punjab University campus, is considered to be one of Jeanneret's finest buildings in Chandigarh.
The Swiss architect fell in love with India and studied its people, landscape, climate and culture closely, which made up the essence of his architectural and furniture designs; highly detailed yet simple, reflecting the land that they were a part of and rooted in the ideas of comfort and simplicity. A majority of furniture in official buildings were created by Pierre, and produced in thousands in factories in the region.
Yet they had already begun to deteriorate by the 1980s, with much of the furniture succumbing to heavy use, high temperatures, and extreme humidity. As the furniture fell into disrepair, it was put into storage, auctioned, left out in the elements and even burned, replaced by mass-produced furniture. The famous 'Chandigarh chair' was thrown out as junk until French Gallery owners in 1999 started travelling to Chandigarh and salvaging and collecting what they could. These chairs were sold in auctions for hundreds of thousands of dollars to collectors and design enthusiasts. Today a couple of these chairs can also be found in Kim Kardashian's living room.
Pierre was an introverted and compassionate genius who found his home in the state capital he built. He considered Chandigarh to be the pinnacle of his work as an architect & designer,"The working methods I discovered in India finally taught me self-esteem after so many failures in France." His profound connection to Chandigarh bound him to the city where he lived till before his death, rarely returning to Europe. He died in Geneva in 1967, where he was under the care of his niece, and as per his wishes, Pierre’s ashes were laid to rest in the waters of the Sukhna Lake at the foothills of the Himalayas where he would often sail on his handmade boats.
Despite the disregard for Pierre's creations at the time, today the Chandigarh Chair is a beloved memento of the confluence of Swiss design and Indian culture both at home and abroad. And while the trajectory of Chandigarh as a modern utopia changed throughout the course of history, the spaces in the city still sing of its love affair with the visionary designer.
If you enjoyed reading this, here's more from Homegrown: