The High Court

John O'Shea

The Capitol Complex 

Le Corbusier envisioned the city as an organism and articulated the layout of Chandigarh accordingly. The Capitol Complex was analogous to the head, the commercial centre to the heart; the university and industrial areas at the city's peripheries were conceived as the limbs, and the green spaces the lungs, with everything connected by the 'arteries' of the transport network. For the Capitol Complex, which gave a home to the city's governmental and administrative offices, Le Corbusier used the Modulor to form a precise composition of architectural structures on a sculpted landscape of shifting plateaus and reflecting pools, set against the backdrop of the Himalayas.        

The Capitol Complex occupies the whole of one of Chandigarh's 1,200 x 800-metre sectors, and is articulated by a grid of six squares. This grid was used as an ordering device to position the legislative buildings in a carefully composed relationship, defining a cross axis that in turn informs a non-symmetrical dynamic composition of buildings. A long pedestrian boulevard delineates the central axis across which the two primary buildings of the Capitol Complex – the Assembly and the High Court – confront one another.

 

The High Court 

"The High Court, where close to a thousand workers and women and donkeys are preparing for the opening on 3 January '55 is quite simply extraordinary. It's an architectural symphony that surpasses all my hopes, gleaming and taking shape in the light in an unwearyingly, unimaginable way. Seen close up or from afar it's a surprise, it knocks you out. It's been made of raw concrete with a cement gun." - Le Corbusier in a 1954 letter to his mother

The first of the Capitol Complex buildings to be completed was the High Court. This monumental building was designed to accommodate a main courtroom, eight small courtrooms and various antechambers. All these elements were unified under a vast vaulted parasol roof intended to communicate the 'shelter, majesty and power of the law'. Concealed behind a concrete brise-soleil, the petite courtrooms were separated from the main court by the dramatic sculptural elements of a zig-zagging concrete ramp, over-scaled piers and an expansive void.

The scheme for the High Court building was dictated by the same geometric and mathematical exactitudes as the masterplan:

"The succession of courts follows a rhythm decided upon at the time of the first composition of the Capitol. Arithmetic first in the dimensioning of the Law Courts and the High Court, each being regarded as a plastic body: height, width, depth 8 x 8 x 12 metres for the small courts." - Le Corbusier in Modulor 2

The small courts (marked as 'petite courts' on Le Corbusier's drawings) were designed to be precisely 100 times smaller than the overall grid of the Capitol Complex. Their plan is based on a grid of six equal-sized squares that articulate three distinct functional zones, each charged with a manifest symbolism. The four squares to the front of each courtroom are divided between the public and the advocates respectively, with the primary territory of the space demarcated by two squares to the rear, in which sits the central element of a Judge's Desk.

Le Corbusier's drawing of the design for these desks in sketchbook H34 echoes the play of shifting plateaus found on the sculpted landscape of the Capitol Complex. Professor Peter Carl of London Metropolitan University's School of Architecture made the following observation:

This plateau the Court table, the built-in furniture, is like the stuff made of the Earth where the Earth makes the step. You even get it replicated in the way the recorders sit below the Judges, and the recess in the surface. In other words there are no mouldings, it’s all done as blocks that are reinterpreted as wood. They keep those horizons going. The Judge's Table as opposed to some of the other furniture is meant to be part of the site and it is of course a little hill.

In situ in each courtroom, the 'hill' of the Judge's Desk was framed by a vast tapestry measuring 8 x 8 metres that covered the rear wall of the courtroom. This tapestry marks a further iteration of Le Corbusier's experiments in creating a three-dimensional effect out of a two-dimensional configuration. In his design, the Judge's Desk and reader's table sit at the base of a tapestry, with wall and furniture becoming part of the same composition – the furniture grounded to the site and the tapestry creating an animated 'sky'.

The layout of the main and smaller courtrooms in the High Court building were first worked on in Le Corbusier’s Rue de Sèvres atelier in Paris – drawings signed by Le Corbusier, Balkrishna Doshi and Iannis Xenakis illustrate how the basic principles of the design were developed. Measured plans and sections indicate how the courtroom furniture was a key compositional component from the outset, with drafts of the building plans [fig.9] showing that alternative configurations were being experimented with as early as 1951. Initially, the Judge's Desk was placed at the rear of the plan and orientated towards the advocates and the public gallery. Later iterations produced in 1952 [fig.10 and 11] and 1954 [fig.12] test different configurations, including positioning the Judge's Desk in a diagonal arrangement at the south-western corner of the room, and radial plans. Some basic principles, such as the accommodation of three members of the judiciary at the main desk and a topographical approach to the whole ensemble, remain consistent features.

Given that it was the first of the Capitol Complex buildings to be realized, the High Court was a building in whose design Le Corbusier was involved in all aspects. Work orders in Le Corbusier's sketchbooks reveal his engagement with even the most detailed elements of the scheme, such as cornices, door frames, soft furnishings and the location of trees. Today the monumental concrete forms of the Capitol Complex are familiar symbols of a heroic period of modern architecture, but they represent only one aspect of the Chandigarh project. Le Corbusier endeavored to carry the design imperative right through his buildings to the smallest scale, with much of the furniture in the city's buildings – most of it designed by Pierre Jeanneret – an expression of the project's overarching principles. As aesthetic distillations, these pieces contribute to our understanding of the grand scheme by linking us, through the intimate and the tactile, to the scales of the building, the sector and the city.

 

We are in a plain; the chain of the Himalayas locks the landscape magnificently to the north. The smallest buildings appear tall and commanding. The government buildings are conjugated with one another in a strict ratio of heights and sizes … 

—Le Corbusier in Modulor 2