125th birth anniversary of Pierre Jeanneret: ‘A good being with good buildings’

What can one say about a Swiss-born architect on his 125th birth anniversary who in the shadow of his cousin gave birth to a city which embodied his soul, his creations and him?

Pierre Jeanneret lives through not only the stone walls of the Chandigarh houses or the signature furniture that he designed for his beloved city, but he lives through the pristine Sukhna where his ashes were scattered as requested by him and now through the ever-rising popular Jeanneret Chair. That’s not simply the love of an architect for his city but his love for the country too which he had adopted as his own.

“He never wanted to leave Chandigarh but due to ill health, he had to return to Paris. I have been declared his protagonist for a reason. Jeanneret always believed that a good human being makes a good building. And that’s the reason some of his best creations are the buildings designed by him. He was happy to work with the younger lot and encouraged me and others to experiment and shadow him while working. I recall working with Jeanneret on a house in Sector 5 owned by the Sahgal family where he gave us a free hand and allowed creativity in expression and thought. It was an ideal opportunity to become familiar with his ideology. On completion, the house was visited by Pandit Nehru, Pratap Singh Kairon and a young Indira Gandhi. Nehruji titled the house Anokha, and Mulk Raj Anand claimed it to be poetry in brick and stone,” recalls S D Sharma, who was a part of the Corbusier design team of Chandigarh as an apprentice.

The Jeanneret museum in Sector 5 ushers visitors in with its classic, white-washed surfaces with traces of the perforated brick screens and grey stone walls. Once past the flowering lawns and wide boulevards of the sector lined with Gulmohars and Amaltas trees, the two-storied ‘Maison Pierre Jeanneret’ takes you on a ride through creations of Jeanneret. His modernist designs and photographs, letters and trinkets which sit in the house-turned-museum’s haphazard windows come together in perfect consonance. The building was restored to house the museum in 2017, after years of different families occupying it.

That Jeanneret’s designs will inspire generations was a given, but it took a handful of antique dealers who devoured the Chandigarh junk yards and buildings to give us that wake-up call that we are probably sitting on a treasure. The chair now has a lot of takers and that’s evident from the orders that the local dealers receive. Of course, the Burail Jail inmates shall be given credit too for keeping the legacy alive through their constant quest to replicate designs and ensure that “Srija”, the furniture store launched a year-and-a-half ago, is brimming with stock and ideas.

“R D Sharma, an IPS officer now retired, may be given the credit for initiating this endeavour to involve the jail inmates in building furniture. Today we do not feel like prisoners but creators and also to an extent custodian of Corbusier’s Chandigarh,” says a jail inmate. That undeniably is true.

Born in Geneva on March 22, 1896, Jeanneret graduated from the École des Beaux-Arts in. It was in Paris that Le Corbusier whose formal name was Charles-Édouard Jeanneret took on the role of Pierre Jeanneret’s mentor, and the two entered into a partnership which lasted from the early 1920s until 1940.

“Jeanneret’s furniture was much like his architectural designs – minimalistic, modern, utilitarian and true to the essence of Chandigarh. He used to sign every piece he designed,” says Sharma.

Of late Chandigarh has witnessed a mushrooming of Corbusier-style homes coming up besides restaurants and furniture reflecting the straight line yet eclectic feel.

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Ravi Jeet Singh, an engineer and architect by profession, has paid homage to the Jeanneret school of design by using the same elements in his work. “Jeanneret injected a new visual vocabulary which placed function of the structure over existing exaggerated built forms. He developed an interesting modernism in architecture with energetical geometrical lines fused with lighter materials like cane and wood. If we talk about his furniture design style, the best part to learn was his unique joinery and leg styles which we can see in his large portfolio of furniture design. The best part about his designs was his research for the solutions of controlling sun, wind and heat, and develop a unique architectural feature which include sun breakers, fins and perforated screen walls, for which Chandigarh is famous now. His vision for form and detailing of structure and their synergetic combination is visible in each of his designs.”

Jeanneret was great friends with his cook and caretaker, Bansi. Jeanneret also used to build boats and sail them in the Sukhna Lake. Jeanneret will always live on through his buildings and furniture but mostly so for his undaunted love for this city, which he made beautiful.

On his birth anniversary one can only say that the seed of love which he planted for his Chandigarh has flourished into the hearts of each resident of this city. “There’s no city like Chandigarh,” people often say this. May we say: Thank you, Pierre Jeanneret!

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