Julie Lasky | Report

Chandigarh on the Block

Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret, armchairs from the Salle de Tribunal, High Court, Chandigarh, c. 1955. For sale at March 31 Modern Design auction at Wright. Estimate: $15,000–$20,000

The catalog for the March 31 Modern Design sale at Wright auction house in Chicago feels like a high school yearbook, so many pictures of old friends are in it. Here’s Marc Newson’s Embryo chair bending like a fat black ant torso. And there’s a kidney-shaped Paul Frankl coffee table that could be the ant’s spiritual uncle. Frank Gehry’s Grandpa Beaver armchair of corrugated cardboard is as cozily familiar — and as much of a showoff — as Thonet’s rocking chaise lounge festooned with bentwood swirls. Pontis, Nelsons, Platners, Nakashimas rise like a pleasant incense from the smoking room of midcentury design ideas.

Equally familiar but not so sweet smelling are the two dozen lots in the catalog that were created for Chandigarh, India. Built from scratch to replace the regional capital of Lahore (now in Pakistan) after India was partitioned in 1947, Chandigarh was designed by Le Corbusier and his associates from its master plan down to its very doorknobs. In 1951, Corbusier recruited his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to help create mobs of site-specific furniture pieces for government offices and public buildings. But Chandigarh has languished in recent years, its architecture and furnishings taken for granted. Hundreds of Jeanneret treasures have been sold at auction, with hammer prices running to six figures. Among Wright’s latest offerings are an upholstered teak sofa for Punjab University (estimate $25,000-$30,000) and a rosewood file rack for an administrative building ($10,000-$15,000). And Alice Rawsthorn, for one, is outraged.

On March 14, Rawsthorn, who is design critic for the International Herald Tribune, circulated a petition urging a halt to the dissolution of Chandigarh’s legacy. The petition calls for the Indian government to put more heat on UNESCO to declare Chandigarh a World Heritage Site and to do a better job of policing its public property — not just furniture but also architectural drawings and carvings produced under Corbusier’s direction that have turned up for sale. “I visited Chandigarh ten years ago, and have wonderful memories of my visit,” Rawsthorn explained by email from London. “It is an extraordinary place, not only because many of the buildings are remarkable, but because of the sensitivity and thoughtfulness with which the city was planned. The trees and greenery in the open spaces makes it an inspiring place for people to live and work. When I first heard about the removal of architectural fixtures and furniture from Chandigarh and started to see them appear in auction catalogues, I was horrified.”

So far, almost 2,000 people have signed Rawsthorn’s petition, including Newson, the design purveyor Murray Moss and the Vitra furniture company CEO Rolf Fehlbaum. Amassing such firepower is admirable, but will it be enough to stop a practice that has been going on for years under the negligent watch of the Indian government? To what extent should international auction houses also be held culpable for what the Guardian newspaper, in a March 7, 2011, article, described as stripping Chandigarh “for parts”?

Reached by phone in Chicago, Wright auction house owner Richard Wright expressed no remorse. “I am not afraid of the dialogue,” he said.

The business of putting Chandigarh on the block is of long standing. A 2004 Sotheby’s sale in New York presented five furniture lots, among them a set of eight 1955 armchairs Jeanneret designed for Chandigarh’s Mill Owners’ Association Building ($26,400.) In June 2007, Christie’s in New York sold dozens of lots, including a now infamous Jeanneret-designed manhole cover ($21,600). Months later The New York Times was investigating the stirrings of controversy. In February 2008, the paper reported that piles of Chandigarh’s castoff furniture had been junked or sold for scrap wood at auctions that were also being attended by European design experts. A Parisian dealer, Eric Touchaleaume, The Times disclosed, had been amassing pieces at government sales since 1999. It was Touchaleaume’s collection that formed the basis of the 2007 Christie’s sale.

“There was nothing illegal about the purchase by foreign dealers of the furniture, much of which was being thrown out or sold by the city’s administration,” The Times concluded. “But very belatedly, heritage experts in Chandigarh are lamenting the loss of a vital part of the city’s original design.”

Among the mourners was Manmohan Nath Sharma. More than merely a heritage expert, Sharma assisted Corbusier on the Chandigarh project beginning in 1950 and served as the city’s chief architect from 1955 to 1979. “There were no furniture shops, no carpet shops, so the architects designed their own,” he recalled for The Times. “The furniture Jeanneret designed is naturally in the same spirit as the city, in the same school of thought. It is functional, and used locally available material and craftsmen.”

Now 87, Sharma is the principal instigator behind the latest surge of indignation. His recent efforts to arrest the loss of his city’s heritage were noted in the Guardian story and led Rawsthorn to track him down and offer her assistance. Reached by Change Observer at his home in Chandigarh, Sharma described his escalating concern over the flight of the city’s objects, which have extended to architectural sketches and wood carvings that turned up at auction at Artcurial in Paris a year ago. According to the news website Indian Express, Artcurial disclosed the names of the consignors — Giani Rattan Singh, a craftsman who reportedly made the carvings, and his son Jaswinder Singh — after Sharma provoked attempts to halt the sale. Arcturial claimed to hold documents of a legitimate transaction. But Sharma is unconvinced. “I left them there 30 years ago.” he said of the artifacts, which had been displayed in the chief architect’s office. “They were part of government property. No one could have sold them.”

Sharma recounted his repeated attempts to persuade Chandigarh’s administrators to guard its treasures more zealously. He has been frustrated not only by what he sees as the indifference of city officials but also by the lack of any kind of inventory. There is no record of what was produced by Jeanneret and his associates, much less of what’s been lost. “First I think we should settle our own house,” he said.

Sharma is also seeking the protection of a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. In 2006, the “urban and architectural work of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh” was placed on UNESCO’s “tentative list” by the city’s tourism authority — the first step in a long and quite possibly fruitless process. (Five to 10 years may pass before a proposal is elevated from tentative to official World Heritage Site nominee, during which time it must convincingly document ithe site's “cultural assets,” according to UNESCO’s website. And then it’s scarcely guaranteed a place on the list.) Theo Prudon, a New York architect who is president of the U.S. branch of Docomomo, the modern design preservation group, is guarded about Chandigarh’s chances. Noting that the Le Corbusier Foundation in Paris has spent a decade lobbying without much success for World Heritage status for Corb’s works internationally, he explained that such applications must demonstrate not only historical cultural significance but also a plan for managing the site “so that it has a chance of surviving.” “From a significance side of the question, I don’t think anyone would question” the addition of Chandigarh to the list, Prudon added.

Which leaves open the concern that a considerable portion of Chandigarh will have dissolved or gone missing by the time preservationists have accomplished this difficult goal. Last September the London auction house Bonhams fended off efforts by the Indian government to stop the sale of 20 pieces from Chandigarh’s library and court buildings, according to the website Artinfo. Phillips de Pury has 22 lots scheduled for its April 12 design auction in London, some of which are duplicates of those soon to be on the block at Wright.

Richard Wright believes these auctions can be viewed in a positive way. Reiterating that the objects for sale were not stolen but dispersed through questionable stewardship, he argued that “the fact that someone rescued these pieces, restored them and is now getting the world to recognize their value is resulting in more attention paid to the architecture.” Chandigarh’s former principal architect, however, is not of the same mind. “If we don’t expose [the people behind their sale] and retrieve these valuable items, then Chandigarh will suffer,” Sharma said. “I see a bleak future unless things change.”

Posted in: History, India, Product Design, Social Good

Comments [2]

Thanks for piecing this together. Very interesting. As a side note, it seems Eric Touchaleaume is known as something of an Indiana Jones figure having also liberated Jean Prouve's Maison Tropicale from the Congo. In an interview with the Times of India Richard Wright cited the book : 'Le Corbusier Pierre Jeanneret: The Indian Adventure' as describing the apparently legitimate sale of Chandigarh's furniture by the Indian Government. The author? Mr Touchaleaume.

I don't dispute the legalities of Wright's auction, but there's a perhaps an albeit clumsy analogy to be made with the protection of endangered species. Who do we thank? The zoo keepers or those who stop the poaching? Desirable as they are to own, we all know where these pieces belong. It would be nice to see the collectors giving a little back, to enable those who the furniture was intended for to have the chance to experience it.
Tim Parsons

I'm fully aware this is a subject that clearly has its proponents and detractors. I'm with the latter, with the view that Chandigarh is a unique, cultural heritage site and as such, should be valued and treated so, but, reading this yesterday, the thought came to mind of how is the practice of these dealers and auction houses any different from grabbing a bargain on eBay from an unsuspecting seller selling something where they don't know what it really is? All well and good? Justification for having worked through countless listings - read arduous travel, detective work and foreign languages - and having found such a bargain, so taking advantage by accounting for the lack of knowledge or attention to detail on behalf of the seller? My thoughts were that I'm sure such an analogy could be made towards Wright, Bonham's and Christie's et al, and thanks to Tim's comment above, it would seem that it's not at all far from the truth given the additional comments made on Eric Touchaleaume. Is he a saviour or a destroyer? The looming figure of such great sums of money in all this fandango is that it corrupts or decides - whatever you may think - the matter quite simply and comprehensively.
There are precedents here; given the tales of furniture saved from being scrapped, I'm reminded of my time studying at the Glasgow School of Art where I was dumbfounded by stories of a time when large quantities of the original Mackintosh furniture was thrown out and discarded simply for being unfashionable, only to be whisked away by staff or local residents either recognising their inherent value or, it could be said, simply taking advantage of someone else's lack of knowledge or attention to detail. This is of course greatly regretted by the current regime, who now, recognising the unique and cultural value of Mackintosh's work, have invested large amounts of money refurbishing and looking after what is left. Is this the fate of Chandigarh and of those that are the caretakers?
At the moment, I don't know what I prefer given that I have no power over this issue; morally and ethically I do, but historically speaking I'm not so sure. On the one hand, priceless, one-of-a-kind furniture - or it could be termed art with little misunderstanding of the weight of this issue - might be lost forever through either wilful or apparent neglect, while, on the other, the furniture - or art - is saved by enterprising dealers and auctioneers on behalf of wealthy and often unknown collectors.
Christopher Raymond

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