A sunken barge to come alive as CEPT students pay tribute to Le Corbusier

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IN FEBRUARY 2018, La peniche Louise-Catherine sank in River Seine in Paris after a period of intense rain. This seemingly anonymous 70-metre-long, ferrocement coal barge converted into a floating homeless shelter is a lesser-known work of Le Corbusier, an architect far ahead of his time. Now, a model of the barge is soon to be placed on the Sabarmati Riverfront where the Corbusier-designed Ahmedabad Textile Mill Association (ATMA) house is located. The undergraduate students of CEPT University have come up with an idea to design a ‘living museum’ for the barge when it was being built and as a completed urban artifact.

Interestingly, after Chandigarh, it is Ahmedabad where Le Corbusier left his architectural and design imprints.

A group of 10 undergraduate students has found solace through their studio design in order to pay tributes and as centenary celebrations — to be celebrated in 2029 — to Le Corbusier’s work. The barge was completed in 1929, which is also the year Le Corbusier is said to have gained fame.

“You know, I’m an old blockhead, but I still have plans for at least a hundred years” — Le Corbusier told his neighbour Madame Schelbert in Cap-Martin on August 24, 1965. Enthusiastically quoting Le Corbusier from his last days before he died at sea, Arijit Chatterjee, a tutor and faculty member at CEPT University, says, “What are the other ideas that Le Corbusier thought would be relevant for the next 100 years is what the students did. How to place that in the city of Ahmedabad is their imagination. How Le Corbusier is still relevant today, beyond the regular understanding and obvious ways we relate to his ideas, which are ideas of the past. The reason why we got this barge in Ahmedabad is that it also has fine points of architecture.”

The project is the fulcrum and in the core of Corbusier’s consciousness and that has nothing to do with what we know Corbusier about, he says. “This is the inner search to make peace with how he can situate the sea in his understanding of architecture and that is where the future becomes relevant. One of those futures is by putting this in Ahmedabad. This artifact celebrates his centenary but also gives an opportunity to students to see how Ahmedabad could have otherwise been if Corbusier would have actually had the opportunity to project his future. Imagine if he was alive today, he would not make ATMA building or the barge again. What he could have imagined today otherwise, in the time of climate change, increased population, in the context of a pandemic,” Chatterjee says.

With the nautical theme as a recurrent narrative in Le Corbusier’s oeuvre, the students were given a brief, says Keerthan BV, an undergraduate student. “What can be the projective visions of our beloved ‘old blockhead’ today? The legacy of Le Corbusier’s work in Ahmedabad invents an unconventional studio project that welcomes city dwellers to engage with a modern artifact that would share cultural space with the iconic ATMA building in the heart of Ahmedabad celebrating his centenary,” he says.

Through models, designs and illustrations, the students have proposed to construct the barge and supporting festival facilities on the Sabarmati river edge. The river intervention was imagined as a series of props that sit within or atop a floating dry dock on the Sabarmati: both a temporary boatyard and living museum, enabling the remaking to be a spectacle for participants, curious observers and the city. Between the barge and the ATMA building on the Sabarmati Riverfront, a series of connecting facilities celebrate the legacy of Le Corbusier in Ahmedabad. A better version of Le Corbusier’s barge model designed and made by these students would be placed at the ATMA building, one of the four buildings designed by Le Corbusier in Ahmedabad. The ATMA building is in the process to house a replica of this historic barge upon its inauguration next year.

“ATMA members have taken a serious interest to put that in the building as a permanent exhibit because not many people would see Corbusier with a barge or boat. We know Corbusier for buildings like this,” Chatterjee says pointing at the model of the ATMA building.

“Probably, this is the first time in the history of the school of architecture in the last 60 years that anyone has mentioned this barge. We have had so much of Le Corbusier in our education but this is the first time this project of Corbusier got relevance,” he adds. The barge came to Chatterjee’s notice when he was a student of Architecture in Paris in 2009.

The students who not only studied completed works of Le Corbusier in Ahmedabad but also the unbuilt ones — Chimanbhai House and Chinubhai House — say he was not a man of the past but left ideas for the future. Revolving around this thought, they designed balloons covering up the city, robots inhabiting the city, landscapes on water and buildings floating on Sabarmati. Followed by a decade of engagements, research and collaborations, the studio project finds a fresh audience to delve deeper into greater dialogues with the city indebted to Le Corbusier.

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