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The million-dollar manholes


COVER PRICE A manhole cover preserved at the Le Corbusier Centre in Chandigarh.

With Corbusier gems - yes, even manhole covers - fetching tidy sums in the auction market, thieves in Chandigarh are busy doing their bit of drainspotting. If the city fails to put a lid on this plunder, there will be a growing hole, not just in the street, but in its heritage.

Afew days ago, a group of youngsters lifted a manhole cover outside a mall in Chandigarh's industrial area, and fled with it in a luxury sedan. If you're wondering why anyone would steal an item whose sole purpose is to be stepped on or driven over, this was no ordinary piece of cast iron. This beautiful disc bore the stamp of the legendary Swiss-born architect Le Corbusier, who designed this modern Union Territory sixty years ago, and could fetch quite a handsome price in the international auction market.

Chandigarh is today a city under siege. Heritage raiders, both from within and outside, have woken up to the value of commonplace civil utility and furniture items and are pillaging anything with the Swiss-French architect's stamp on it. In November 2010, Paris-based Artcurial sold one such manhole cover for 17, 851 euros (Rs 10. 87 lakh). The castiron cover had an estimated price of 15, 000 to 20, 000 euros (Rs 9. 5 lakh to Rs 12. 5 lakh. ).

The first such manhole cover to be sold at an international auction was in June 2007. It sold for $21, 600 (Rs 9. 61 lakh) at an auction held by Christie's at Rockfeller Plaza, New York. The cover was moulded with sand-cast relief depicting a map of Chandigarh as drawn by Le Corbusier.

In the face of protests from conservationists, the UT administration did make attempts to stall the auctions. Over the past two years, it has shot off letters to Artcurial, Bonhams, Christie's and Wright but to no avail. The auction houses have maintained that the items were legally bought from agents and even produced sale receipts.

The design of the manhole cover was made by Corbusier's associate and cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, in 1954. The UT engineering department had made a mould and hired a private company for making covers for all manholes in sectors 1- 30 developed in the first phase of the city. "They were produced in large numbers at local foundries on orders placed by the engineering department, " says Rajnish Wattas, retired principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture. The covers continued being manufactured till 1970, thereafter the department switched over to concrete lids.

"The idea of having manhole covers with a master plan impression was mooted to showcase Chandigarh's status of being the first modern city of the country with a planned layout, " says MN Sharma, first Indian chief architect of Chandigarh and an associate of Corbusier and Jeanneret. There was a time when the entire northern part of the city (built in the first phase) had only these cast iron covers but now most of them have been replaced with concrete ones. It is feared that, over the years, most of the old lids were picked up by those who knew their value and handed over to auction houses. Incidentally, not everyone is running for the covers. "Why worry about manhole lids? We should, instead, preserve heritage buildings, furniture and other artefacts connected with the first team of architects, " insists a UT official. Some of these 'heritage' manhole covers have also landed up in nearby towns. There is one 120 kilometers away in Shimla, right outside the B Block of Indira Gandhi Medical College (IGMC). Small replicas of the manhole covers, which were a brainchild of former nodal officer of the city's Le Corbusier Centre, late Vidya Nand Singh, sold like hot cakes at the last Chandigarh Carnival at the Rose Garden. An original piece taken from the engineering department was also put on display at the Centre.

In a bid to conserve the collective architectural heritage of Chandigarh the administration recently sanctioned a survey to catalogue the remaining Corbusier covers. A total of 2, 700 such covers have been identified but a policy to protect these is yet to be chalked out. A committee of experts has been constituted to make an inventory of heritage furniture and manhole covers associated with Jeanneret. Meanwhile, looters are making hay.


MARCH 2011 |
US-based auction house Wright sells two dozen pieces of furniture designed by Corbusier and Jeanneret. These are sourced from various government departments in Chandigarh


Artcurial auctions models of original wooden carvings and drawings made under the supervision of Corbusier. A sketch of the Open Hand by the master architect made in 1966 is also sold


Artcurial auctions manhole cover and furniture pieces as part of its 'Chandigarh Project 3'


Furniture pieces designed by Jeanneret are put up for sale by Phillips de Pury and Company, New York. Judges' and readers' tables from Punjab High Court are also on the catalogue. The piece de resistance is a set of four teak wood 'conference' chairs made between 1952-56

JUNE 2007 |

Christie's notches up sales of $8mn (Rs 35. 6 cr) from auction of furniture. Most of it is believed to have been bought from Panjab University, state assembly, government offices and Chandigarh College of Architecture

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