When Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned the French architect Le Corbusier to build the city Chandigarh he proclaimed it as the embodiment of a newly independent India “unfettered by the traditions of the past, a symbol of the nation’s faith in the future”.
The resulting feat of urban planning has been proclaimed as Corbusier’s masterpiece - a city built from scratch in the plains of Punjab from the street layout to the public buildings. Crucially, such was the attention to detail of the Swiss-born maestro that he also insisted on being responsible for the furniture inside his buildings, commissioning his cousin Pierre Jeanneret to design thousands of pieces of equipment to sit inside their monuments of 1950s minimalist design.
Such is the enduring appeal of Corbusier and everything he touched that Chandigarh, which now has India’s highest per capita income, has become a symbol for a less glamorous feature of the nation it was designed to symbolise. Amid India’s high-speed transformation into a world power, the purpose-built furniture that once filled the city’s chic public spaces is being systematically sold off in the auction rooms of London, New York and Paris.
The level of demand means that even the most mundane items, such as Corbusier-designed manhole covers and street lamps, are now fetching thousands of pounds as collectors flock to own a part of one of the 20th century’s great architectural ventures.
A combination of entrepreneurial western antique dealers, poor maintenance which has left dozens of chairs and tables gathering dust in store rooms and a failure to recognise the value of the 1950s furnishings has resulted in items being sold in Chandigarh for a few hundred rupees before being auctioned in Europe and the United States for large sums.
The scale of the loss of the fixtures and fittings from buildings including the city’s High Court and its College of Architecture has become so serious that it has now provoked academics and officials in Chandigarh to demand measures to protect what remains of Corbusier and Jeanneret’s furnishings.
Anger at the sale of the teak and rosewood creations last month led to a formal appeal to the British high commission in Delhi by Chandigarh’s government to halt the sale by London auctioneer’s Bonhams of 20 items of furniture that once graced places including the city’s library and magistrates’ court. The sale went ahead after the auction house provided evidence that all the items had been legitimately acquired.
Rajnish Wattas, former head of the Chandigarh College of Architecture, said: “While Corbusier is a living legacy not only in the city’s buildings, mansions and boulevards, but also in the fixtures designed for them, their custodians seem to have forgotten the ways to conserve these. This priceless treasure today lies carelessly strewn around in various offices, gathers dust in government storerooms or is sold off at auctions.”
The masterplan for Chandigarh, built on a system of residential zones where amenities would be no more than 10 minutes walk away and completed by a complex of key administrative buildings, was reputedly draw up by Le Corbusier in a single four-day visit in 1951.
Although Le Corbusier returned to the project regularly, he handed over the day-to-day execution of his grand vision to Pierre Jeanneret, who in turn designed the thousands of desks, chairs, beds, shelving units, benches, sofas and other items to be used in public buildings and private homes. Le Corbusier himself designed a series of magisterial tapestries to be hung in the law courts.
But while many of the buildings themselves are considered to have withstood the test of time, much of the furniture fell into disuse and was bought up in sales of “condemned” fixtures and fittings by European dealers between 1999 and 2008. The tapestries have been taken down and lie in a storeroom awaiting restoration.
Amid claims that some city officials may have added items to the sales by passing them off as privately-owned furniture, frustration is rising at the failure of attempts draw up a list of all the Jeanneret furniture still inside Chandigarh’s public buildings and thus stem the outward flow of the city’s cultural legacy.
Professor Kiran Joshi, a former lecturer at the Chandigarh College of Architecture, who was tasked with drawing up a catalogue, said: “I tried to say we needed to make an inventory of what was heritage [furniture] and what was not. We need to have a policy about what to do with these things. We have some things here that are specific to the city - they cannot be replicated elsewhere. It would be very bad if we lost them.”
Attempts by the Chandigarh authorities to challenge the loss of “heritage” last month saw a plea to the British high commission in Delhi to intervene to stall the sale at Bonhams of items including six library chairs and three “Senate” chairs from the legislative assembly for the city, which serves as the regional capital for two Indian states - Punjab and Haryana.
The Independent understands that the auction house was also approached by the Indian high commission in London on behalf of the Chandigarh government with questions about the provenance of the furniture. A Bonhams’ spokesman said: “We go to very considerable lengths to ensure that items offered for sale are presented with the correct documentation and proof of ownership. We provided the high commission with evidence from the vendor that each item had been correctly and legitimately purchased. They were happy for the sale to proceed.” There is no suggestion that the furniture was not bought legally.
The proceeds of the sale show the premium attached to Jeanneret furniture - the eight lots fetched a total of more than £33,000 with the three “Senate” chairs selling for £7,500 and a small rosewood desk and teak chair reaching £4,800.
An auction Christie’s in New York in 2007 achieved even more astonishing returns with a manhole cover featuring Le Corbusier’s “dove” emblem for the city selling for $21,000 (£13,000) and a teak library table fetching $144,000.
The Chandigarh authorities are currently studying a magistrate’s report into the disappearance of Jeanneret furniture from administrative buildings but privately officials concede there is little that can be done to recover the myriad elements of Le Corbusier’s vision that have now disappeared to the homes of collectors.
Their dismay is shared by the Le Corbusier Foundation in Paris, set up to safeguard the architect’s work. Michel Richard, its director, told The Independent: “It can only be regrettable that these furnishings are now being dispersed in auctions in Europe. As far as we are concerned, wherever possible these items should remain in the buildings for which they were conceived. It is a pity that Chandigarh today no longer has at least one example of each of the items of furniture designed for its key buildings.”