Spotlight: “La Main Ouverte” by Le Corbusier

La Main Ouverte
L
e Corbusier
La Main Ouverte, 1955
Color lithograph

 

Le Corbusier (née Charles-Edouard Jeanneret) is most commonly known as an architectural thinker and urban planner responsible for authoring seminal treatises on design. Le Corbusier was one of the founding members of CIAM (Congrès International d’Architecture Moderne), an influential organization that codified the standards of modern architecture and urban planning, most notably in the Athens Charter. His most famous architectural works include the Villa Savoye, Unité d’Habitation, and the Chapelle Notre Dame du Haut in Ronchamp.

In addition to his life as an architect, urban planner, furniture designer, and writer, Le Corbusier was also a visual artist. His paintings and works on paper morphed in style throughout his life, many inspired, in turn, by Cubism, Surrealism, and Purism—the latter exhibiting his interest in geometric and volumetric understanding and experimentation. His later works tended to be more formally expressive, often abandoning visible relationships to objects and using bolder, more animated colors, as seen in his lithograph La Main Ouverte. Several of his later paintings and drawings served as studies for elements eventually realized in architectural projects. (His strongest works, said art critic Hilton Kramer, are those where “he was working in a pictorial realm that closely approximated the constructivist interests of his architectural designs.”[1]) La Main Ouverte is one of these pieces.

Le Corbusier developed a monumental proposal for La Main Ouverte (The Open Hand) after convening with Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India’s first Prime Minister. In 1950, Le Corbusier was commissioned to build a new city for the state of Punjab, which had lost its capitol (Lahore) to Pakistan during the 1947 Partition. The new city of Chandigarh was meant to create a new vision for India, and a high modernist architect with egalitarian views like Le Corbusier seemed like the right man for the job. Le Corbusier created the urban plan for Chandigarh, complete with distinct sectors that included markets and green space, effectively keeping neighborhoods from merging into overwhelming shopping districts or overpopulated public spaces. As part of Chandigarh’s capitol complex—with the massive Secretariat and court buildings—Le Corbusier proposed the Open Hand Monument, which included a public assembly space and a symbol of optimism for the new nation. In his own words:

The Open Hand is the only political act of my life,” said Le Corbusier—though many would disagree, asserting that his controversial urban plans and codified architectural systems were both utopically egalitarian and dystopically anti-urban.

The idea for La Main Ouverte may have been a part of Le Corbusier’s symbolic oeuvre since the 1930s, having originated during a “[flash] of unexpected insight” in Paris.[2] The iteration pictured above comes significantly later in Le Corbusier’s career and, given the abstracted images of sky and sun in the background as well as a platform underneath the hand symbol, is likely a sketch for Chandigarh’s Open Hand Monument.

 

Free Open Hand
I
mage by Design Observer

Though the Open Hand Monument was proposed in 1954, it remained unbuilt until 1972, and even then did not achieve the contemplative atmosphere Le Corbusier had envisioned. The built monument, complete with a public amphitheater was virtually unused by Chandigarh’s residents, largely due to high levels of policing which barred groups from entering the space. Recently, however, groups of Chandigarh’s citizens have been fighting to activate the space, notably Humlog, a health activism organization. In 2010, the government officially lifted the ban on gatherings at the site, giving the public access to this publicly-owned space from 10:30­­–3:30 daily.[3]

The iconic Open Hand serves as the official logo of both the Fondation Corbusier and the City of Chandigarh.

 

– Reya Sehgal, Curatorial Assistant

 

[1] Hilton Kramer, “Looking at Le Corbusier the Painter,” New York Times January 29, 1972, p. 25.

[2] Jan Birksted, Le Corbusier and the Occult (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009), 57.

[3] Ashish Nangia, “The Town That Corbusier Built,” Design Observer, August 16, 2010, http://designobserver.com/feature/the-town-that-corbusier-built/15028/.

 

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