An average Indian makes 1/9 the price of this manhole cover*


Canny art dealers are pouncing on Le Corbusier's legacy in Chandigarh, India at unbelievable prices.

When can you sell a manhole cover for US$21, 600? When it’s designed by the famous Swiss-born French architect, Le Corbusier?

You can even make close to 100% profit on the sale, if you had noticed the manhole cover lying forgotten on a road in Chandigarh.

India’s first planned city, Chandigarh was designed – including much of the furniture and fixtures of public buildings and universities – by Le Corbusier and his cousin and collaborator, Pierre Jeanneret.

Indian authorities are just waking up to the fact that canny art collectors and dealers, especially from France are making a killing by buying Le Corbusier-designed items dirt-cheap and then reselling them at auctions in Paris and New York.

These items range from wood-and-cane chairs to tapestries to street lighting. According to Outlook magazine, some of these objects were bought by the dealers for as little as 100 rupees. That converts to US$2.50.

By comparison, three caned teak armchairs from Chandigarh went under Christie’s hammer for $19,200 last year. A painted teak table made in 1956, found in the dining room of the PGI Hospital, fetched US$66,000. A light fixture found along the city’s Sukhna lake promenade brought in over US$25,000.

Chandigarh’s administrative authorities have set up a committee to identify and protect all heritage furniture and fixtures, many of which are languishing in university reception rooms or the dusty storerooms of civic buildings. It remains to be seen what the committee will achieve against the tide of business-minded culture vultures.

In the 1950s, India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru commissioned Le Corbusier to build a new capital for the freshly created state of Punjab. The city was to showcase modern India, “unfettered by the traditions of the past.”

Le Corbusier, born Charles Edouard Jeanneret in 1887, has been called the most influential architect of the 20th century. Critics however have called his architectural vision of multi-storeyed apartments and parking lots within large lawn settings , soulless and even “totalitarian”.

Many consider Brasilia, which is based on the principles of Le Corbusier, sterile and lacking the warmth and community atmosphere of other Brazilian cities. But other urban developments influenced by Le Corbusier, such as London’s Barbican Estate, have been more of a success.

Chandigarh is widely expected to receive World Heritage status by UNESCO within the next two years.


*World Bank figures show the Gross Domestic Product per capita of India for 2008 as US$ 2,787


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First Published: 
February 2008

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clarissa tanClarissa Tan is a writer based in Singapore. She is the final winner of the Shiva Naipaul Memorial Prize for travel writing, awarded by the UK's Spectator magazine. Besides being a contributing editor for asia!, Tan also writes art and book reviews for the Business Times, and is currently working on her first novel.

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