The Judge's Desk

John O'Shea

Through detailed sketches, drawings and instructions, Le Corbusier ensured that the design of the Judge's Desk was one of the most memorable expressions of the harmonious Modulor system in Chandigarh. The adjacent diagrams demonstrate how the proportions of the Judge's Desk relate directly to those of the generic human figure – Modulor Man – that was the foundation of the Modulor system. Specifically, the plan of the Desk is governed by a measurement of 113 centimetres: 

"The figure 113 it appears, is also a great number, a key. I had found it myself, again and again, in many measurements taken during my voyages … 113 is a key." – Le Corbusier in Modulor 2

The plan of the Judge's Desk conforms to a Modulor grid derived from a square of 113 centimetres. It's possible here to assert that the design of the Judge's Desk, reader's table and plinth were all determined using geometric projections of the Modulor’s red and blue series.  

Born of a series of five sketches, the Judge's Desk was first imagined by Le Corbusier in November 1954. This assemblage is arguably the most significant item of furniture designed by Le Corbusier for his new city. The first series of sketches for the design were made during the architect's seventh visit to Chandigarh, and feature in the first few pages of a sketchbook dedicated to his trip to India. The notes and drawings in this book reveal the intensity of Le Corbusier's involvement with all aspects of the design of the High Court building. 

The four datum measurements outlined in Le Corbusier's sketches clearly confirm that the design is governed by Modulor dimensions. The drawings illustrate the perpendicular relationship between the stenographer's table and the larger, elevated volume of the Judge's Desk. They demonstrate that Le Corbusier – who was, as ever, concerned with plateaus and shifting horizons – intended the element of the assemblage at which the judges sat to be raised, so that members of the judiciary were physically and metaphorically the highest beings in the room. Le Corbusier's sketch plan for the Judge's Desk describes the relationship of the courtroom to the judge's private chamber, and the ceremonial route between the two. The steps up to the 'altar' of the main desk introduce a theatricality into the judge's promenade that is reminiscent of how Le Corbusier choreographs movement in the religious spaces of Ronchamp and La Tourette. 

The Judge's Chamber is a carefully considered ancillary space that allows the judge to retreat from the public spectacle of the courtroom into a private, more hospitable environment. The room is planned around the Deliberation Table, a piece of furniture that bears a direct relationship with the Judge’s Desk in terms of material and detail, but which is more intimate in scale. 

Realisation 

Le Corbusier considered the term 'furniture' to be outdated and associated with tradition and limited utilization, preferring the word 'equipment'. The Judge's Desk progresses this view of furniture as architectural equipment, with the piece forming part of the topography of the courtroom while also relating to the wider landscape. The furniture of the Chandigarh project marked a departure from the aesthetic Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret previously favoured, which had informed pieces made in mass-produced tubular steel. They now chose to utilise vernacular techniques and materials, eschewing mass production and relying on the skills of local craftsmen to realise their designs – it was during this period that Le Corbusier exclaimed 'Wood is our friend'. The base material in the furniture of Chandigarh was teak, not just because it was a readily available local material but also because it is resistant to rot and termites, which were important qualities given the challenging local conditions. In addition, Le Corbusier disliked wood with knots and favoured 'new' composites, such as veneered plywood, veneered blockboard and even veneered chipboard. 

The Judge's Desk is constructed from large pieces of Indian-teak plywood. The significance of the piece is suggested by the quality of the veneer, which has an unusually wide figure (indicating that particularly large trees were specially sourced to make it). In similar fashion, the 2.6-metre-long beam that provides structural support and also acts as a footrest is lavishly crafted from solid teak. The assemblage's unadorned, mitred construction and sharp edges conceal the core of the plywood, allowing a pure expression of the design's monolithic form.