Thursday, May 03, 2007

Le Corbusier on an idle evening

The following piece is something I had written after a visit to the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners' Association - a building designed and realised by the French Architect Charles Edouard Jeanneret - better known as Le Corbusier. Having read about the architect fairly recently my impression of the building was coloured not just by the one visit. However this piece is also an ode to idle evenings that turned into fantastic forays by sheer chance....


We brave the sun and step out. Minds in tow along with watchful eyes and searching steps. Time to be spent wisely. Time not to squander away for the sake of mere leisure. Passionless we must not be for there are many things the eyes have not seen and the ears have not heard and the skin has not felt. And so with foreknowledge that ignorance is bliss to only those who fear knowledge, we set out in search of some sign of meaning. Something that will bellow with confidence when it says to you... "Today you have lived! And so you may pause - not rest - but pause untill tomorrow dawns and you will know nothing once again."

Rest assured ours was not such a lofty mission. We only sought to spend some time doing something other, something more constructive and rewarding (well in retrospect at least) than sleeping, eating and generally whiling away precious seconds, minutes and hours of days that pass only too quickly.

It isnt too difficult to find something to do in Ahmedabad. My opinion was quite the opposite about three years ago but much has changed since then. And opinions are the most fickle and transient of all things human. Four years in an odd little mixed up city which cant seem to make up its mind whether it likes wood, brick, concrete, glass, acrylic or plastic to adorn its many faces with.Four years is not too much to boast about in the life-span of a city. The nearest significant marker for growth in a country even is a 5 year plan. Mental detours and tangential departures notwithstanding....Ahmedabad has changed. A few remarkable (in the most banal sense of the word) changes have taken place.

The city limits have been extended. So more strip malls and more muddled architecture. The city has ostensibly taken to CNG and gone are the days when one would spend the enitre auto ride from Paldi to CG Road wiping involuntary tears off ones sooty cheek. The river that runs through it all has seen it all too. The conflict between the old and the new. The sacred and the profane. The rich and the poor. The water-fed and the water-starved. The peaceful and the hot-blooded. The battle of wits and vigour and strength and stamina. Modi vs Medha. Sabarmati has seen it all.


Our very own thing to do was to visit one of the many architectural gems of the city. Lesser known but no less important or magnificent, the Ahmedabad Textile Mill Owners' Association stands solemnly on the busy Ashram Road. Oddly and ironically it is right opposite one of the more "modern" multiplex complexes. One can miss it quite easily. The first impression is no spectacle. Grey concrete blocks amid patches of green and squares of colour. A ramp likened by some to the gangplank of a ship leads to the main building that houses a few offices, seminar halls and one truly spell-binding auditorium.

Le Corbusier, touted by some as India's favourite architect , first visited the country at the request of then Prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru had envisioned a modern India - independent and at par with any nation in the West. Corbusier's visit was to be the beginning of an uncanny freindship. The ATMA building is one of four built by Corbusier Ahmedabad making it the only city after Paris to house the largest number of his independent creations.

Modest and almost spartan in form, the building pulls you into its cavernous spaces. The volume contained within is not betrayed at first sight. Stairs that lead to dead spaces, doors that open into thin air, looming vaults and minimal details. The auditorium was a sight to behold at four in the afternoon with sunlight streaming in from the skylight above and forming golden ribbons on the floor. Contained as if in a cocoon the spiral structure of the audiotrium was dramatically heightened by the asymmetrical wood panneling. Light and shadow. Sound and silence. They all played tricks on us that day.

An unending sense of calm, quiet and peace prevailed in that space. How is it possible for something as inanimate and stationary as architecture to assume such poetic proportions? I have always felt greatly humbled in the presence of great art - be it a painting, a piece of music, a sculpture or architecture such as this. One feels small and the lack of words, the inadequacy of language to express the true depth of emotion is always a burden that bears down heavily. But one feels grateful and orivileged to have had the opportunity to appreciate the work of someone as masterful and impassioned as Le Corbusier himself.