Shaun Fynn

Vi­sions for the New Era of the Patina of Time

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

More than sixty-five years have passed since Le Cor­bus­ier was com­mis­sioned by Pan­dit Jawa­har­lal Nehru to ful­fil the role of ar­chi­tect and plan­ner for Chandi­garh. A bold ex­per­i­ment, Chandi­garh broke from tra­di­tion to de­fine a new vision for the fu­ture of ur­ban liv­ing and be­came one of the twen­ti­eth cen­tury’s most pow­er­ful ex­pres­sions of mod­ernism. The origins of Chandi­garh lie in the 1947 Par­ti­tion of In­dia, which di­vided the state of Pun­jab be­tween In­dia and the newly formed coun­try of Pak­istan. La­hore, the for­mer state cap­i­tal of Pun­jab, was now si­t­u­ated in Pak­istan; there­fore a new ad­min­is­tra­tive and po­lit­i­cal cen­tre was needed to gov­ern the Pun­jabi ter­ri­tory that re­mained in In­dia. A sparsely in­hab­ited area of the plains within clear sight of the Hi­malayan foothills was cho­sen as the site for a planned city of half a mil­lion in­hab­i­tants, Chandi­garh. The tur­moil of Par­ti­tion com­bined with the ideals of twen­ti­eth-cen­tury mod­ernism and the op­ti­mism of the post­war era pro­vided fer­tile ground for ar­chi­tec­ture and ur­ban plan­ning projects that in­ter­twined po­lit­i­cal agen­das and utopian vi­sions. Nehru, In­dia’s first prime min­is­ter and a pre­em­i­nent fig­ure in the coun­try’s strug­gle for in­de­pen­dence, saw the chance for In­dia to de­fine its fu­ture in its own im­age by for­mu­lat­ing a dis­tinctly In­dian in­ter­pre­ta­tion of modernity, un­teth­ered from the legacy of its colo­nial past. Par­al­leled only by Brasilia, the new Brazil­ian cap­i­tal de­signed by ar­chi­tect Os­car Niemeyer, Chandi­garh stands to­day as a sig­nif­i­cant site of ar­chi­tec­ture that en­cap­su­lates the vi­sions of the post­war and post­colo­nial era. The fact that such a huge scheme came to fruition may not be at­trib­uted solely to the ide­olo­gies driv­ing Chandi­garh’s ex­is­tence, but also to Le Cor­bus­ier’s abil­ity to con­vince those in the high­est po­lit­i­cal of­fice that his plan and vision must be ex­e­cuted.

The story of Le Cor­bus­ier and Chandi­garh be­gan in an un­likely lo­ca­tion— the Egyp­tian desert—with a tragic event—the un­timely death of Pol­ish

ar­chi­tect Matthew Now­icki, whose air­plane crashed while en route from In­dia to the United States. Now­icki, in con­junc­tion with Amer­i­can ar­chi­tect and ur­ban plan­ner Al­bert Mayer, had been ap­pointed mas­ter plan­ner and chief ar­chi­tect for the Chandi­garh project by the Nehru gov­ern­ment. His death led to an im­me­di­ate search for a re­place­ment. The Bri­tish ar­chi­tects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry rec­om­mended Le Cor­bus­ier for the po­si­tion on the grounds that he was an ar­chi­tect ca­pa­ble of re­al­is­ing the iconic and sym­bolic works be­fit­ting a new cap­i­tal. Le Cor­bus­ier was ini­tially re­luc­tant to ac­cept the con­tract given the time com­mit­ment a project of such a scale de­manded. The even­tual res­o­lu­tion in­volved his cousin Pierre Jean­neret— also an ar­chi­tect—as­sum­ing a full-time role based in Chandi­garh for the du­ra­tion of the project, with Le Cor­bus­ier vis­it­ing for two months of ev­ery year.

Great masters of many dis­ci­plines were at one time held as vi­sion­ar­ies of so­ci­ety’s needs, agents of progress who man­i­fested the di­rec­tives and vi­sions of lead­ers. Whether any in­di­vid­ual ar­chi­tect or plan­ner is truly ca­pa­ble of un­der­stand­ing the com­plex dy­nam­ics of ur­ban pop­u­la­tions is de­bat­able. How­ever, there is al­ways value in re­vis­it­ing Le Cor­bus­ier’s works, par­tic­u­larly Chandi­garh, as it re­mains his largest as­sem­blage of build­ings on one site and his most fully re­alised ur­ban plan.

Great ar­chi­tec­tural works are born of their era and are in­ex­tri­ca­bly linked to the ide­olo­gies of their time. How­ever, vi­sion­ar­ies such as Le Cor­bus­ier tran­scended such bound­aries with works of sin­gu­lar and en­dur­ing sig­nif­i­cance. Le Cor­bus­ier was a mas­ter at cre­at­ing his own orig­i­nal vo­cab­u­lary of icons, forms, and sym­bols, cul­mi­nat­ing in un­prece­dented spa­tial ex­pe­ri­ences, as demon­strated by the Leg­isla­tive As­sem­bly, Sec­re­tariat, and High Court build­ings of Chandi­garh’s Capi­tol Com­plex.

The sto­ries sur­round­ing the cre­ation of Chandi­garh and re­gard­ing the role of Le Cor­bus­ier and of his as­so­ciates makes a de­fin­i­tive ar­chi­tec­tural record dif­fi­cult to as­cer­tain. Oral his­to­ries from Le Cor­bus­ier’s few re­main­ing Chandi­garh as­so­ciates will surely form part of this record, as will the con­tri­bu­tions of schol­ars of Le Cor­bus­ier’s work and those who

have pas­sion­ately ded­i­cated their time over the years to ad­vo­cate the city’s pro­tec­tion and preser­va­tion. It is clear that Le Cor­bus­ier de­signed the Capi­tol Com­plex him­self: his hand is vis­i­ble in the har­mony of forms, the de­ploy­ment of sym­bolic ges­tures, and the mas­tery of com­po­si­tion that abounds within the struc­tures and the spaces be­tween them. How­ever, much of the re­main­der of the city was de­signed by his col­leagues Pierre Jean­neret, Maxwell Fry, and Jane Drew, who were sup­ported in their work by ar­chi­tects M.N. Sharma, S.D. Sharma, and Aditya Prakash, and joined by an emerg­ing gen­er­a­tion of In­dian mod­ernists (Prime Min­is­ter Nehru also ap­pointed the en­gi­neer P.L. Varma and the ad­min­is­tra­tive man­ager P.N. Tha­par to rep­re­sent the In­dian gov­ern­ment and they were both in­stru­men­tal in the suc­cess­ful and rapid com­ple­tion of the plan). Al­though many great works of ar­chi­tec­ture are si­t­u­ated out­side the Capi­tol Com­plex, the com­po­si­tional po­etry so clearly demon­strated within the com­plex is not al­ways so ev­i­dent through­out the city.

Chandi­garh re­mains fas­ci­nat­ing to­day not only for the im­por­tance of Le Cor­bus­ier’s works but also for its patina of time and the changes that have shaped the city in ways he could never have fore­seen. The rich legacy of In­dian cul­ture has emerged in the adap­ta­tion and dec­o­ra­tion of build­ings, and has im­posed its own vis­ual codes. The en­tre­pre­neur­ial na­ture of In­dian so­ci­ety, par­tic­u­larly of the trader and the shop­keeper, has led to the adap­ta­tion, for com­mer­cial use, of spaces that were only seen as voids by Le Cor­bus­ier and his as­so­ciates. Fur­ther, the over­pop­u­la­tion of the city, which was planned for half a mil­lion in­hab­i­tants but now houses one mil­lion, has led to the de­vel­op­ment of res­i­den­tial ar­eas be­yond its orig­i­nal pa­ram­e­ters. Th­ese ar­eas do not ad­here to the codes set out by Le Cor­bus­ier’s team. The jhuggi (slum) ubiq­ui­tous in many In­dian cities to­day is also mak­ing it sp­res­ence felt on Chandi­garh’s pe­riph­ery.

Chandi­garh’s Capi­tol Com­plex has re­mained some­what veiled in se­crecy since its con­struc­tion. The 1995 car-bomb as­sas­si­na­tion of the Pun­jab chief min­is­ter out­side the Sec­re­tariat in­creased se­cu­rity con­cerns, which en­sured that the barbed wire fences that sur­round the Capi­tol Com­plex re­main to this day. Th­ese bar­ri­ers be­tween the build­ings and the peo­ple com­pro­mise

the vision and func­tion of the civic space, al­though they have con­trib­uted to the enigma of Chandi­garh, a city that half a cen­tury later still has much to re­veal, es­pe­cially through pho­tog­ra­phy. The mas­ter­piece of the plan re­mains the As­sem­bly, which was com­pleted in 1962 and is both one of Le Cor­bus­ier’s most mag­nif­i­cent cre­ations and a build­ing that de­fines a na­tion. If there were only one build­ing cho­sen to rep­re­sent mod­ern In­dia, surely it would be the As­sem­bly, a wor­thy ad­di­tion to an ar­chi­tec­tural her­itage that in­cludes the Taj Ma­hal, and hope­fully its equal in en­durance.

Ev­ery as­pect of Chandi­garh was de­signed and planned. Gov­ern­ment com­plexes, com­mer­cial sec­tors, ed­u­ca­tional, med­i­cal, and re­search in­sti­tu­tions, parks and hous­ing were all planned down to the last de­tail. Hous­ing makes up the largest body of con­struc­tion, with four­teen cat­e­gories of gov­ern­ment hous­ing, each with vari­ants, all built ac­cord­ing to a hi­er­ar­chy based on so­cioe­co­nomic sta­tus. Bricks, which were cheaper than con­crete and did not re­quire skilled labour while meet­ing the de­mands of the cli­mate, be­came the ma­te­rial of choice for the hous­ing. Most of the hous­ing de­vel­op­ments are the work of Jean­neret, Fry, and Drew, but some of the great­est mod­ernist ex­per­i­ments in the de­sign of Chandi­garh’s hous­ing de­vel­op­ments were un­der­taken by Jean­neret for the pri­vate res­i­dences in Sec­tors 4 and 5. Le Cor­bus­ier es­tab­lished the con­trol pa­ram­e­ters for the Sector 17 com­mer­cial cen­tre, al­though his as­so­ciates did have some in­flu­ence on the fi­nal de­sign man­i­fes­ta­tions. To­day, Sector 17 is in no­tice­able de­cline as it be­comes eclipsed by the malls and cine­mas ap­pear­ing on the city’s pe­riph­ery, where global brands pro­lif­er­ate in pro­tected, air-con­di­tioned com­plexes no dif­fer­ent from their coun­ter­parts else­where in the world. There is still a mag­nif­i­cence to Sector 17 even in its marked state of de­cay, and de­spite the sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence be­tween what the ar­chi­tects en­vi­sioned and the re­al­ity that eco­nomic and cul­tural forces have ex­erted on it. In a sense the ed­i­fices are mon­u­ments to a vision of ur­ban­ism that never ma­te­ri­alised.

Chandi­garh has many ex­cel­lent parks and recre­ation ar­eas that were cre­ated in align­ment with Le Cor­bus­ier’s be­lief in the ne­ces­sity of sup­port­ing and en­rich­ing the mind, body, and spirit. How­ever, the care of some of th­ese

civic spaces is a con­tentious is­sue, par­tic­u­larly in the lo­cal sector mar­kets and com­mer­cial spaces. How this is pos­si­ble in one of In­dia’s wealth­i­est city by GDP per capita is some­what per­plex­ing, al­though some an­swers lie in how the city was funded and in its shift­ing eco­nomic tides. His­tor­i­cally, prop­erty taxes were not col­lected from res­i­dents of the city, leav­ing it de­pen­dent on fi­nan­cial re­sources from the Cen­tral gov­ern­ment in dis­tant Delhi. To­day, Chandi­garh is a city proud to dis­play its pri­vate wealth through prop­erty and au­to­mo­bile as­sets, while the up­keep and preser­va­tion of the civic space re­mains an on­go­ing is­sue in need of short- and longterm res­o­lu­tion. A UNESCO World Her­itage Site des­ig­na­tion, which Chandi­garh fi­nally re­ceived in July 2016, had eluded the city for many years and for many rea­sons. This des­ig­na­tion reaf­firms the city’s sta­tus as one of mod­ernism’s finest ex­pres­sions and it will un­doubt­edly also as­sist in preser­va­tion ef­forts.

Chandi­garh is also sub­ject to the forces of pri­vate in­ter­est, which can some­times come be­fore the needs of the com­mu­nity and the city, of­ten in con­tra­dic­tion with the codes set out by Le Cor­bus­ier and his team. The need for eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment and the right of the peo­ple to pros­per is ir­refutable, par­tic­u­larly in the con­text of an emerg­ing econ­omy where large sec­tors of so­ci­ety are pre­oc­cu­pied with sur­vival. How­ever, the ques­tion re­mains: Can the twenty-first-cen­tury needs of Chandi­garh’s pop­u­la­tion be served by a mid-twen­ti­eth-cen­tury plan? Le Cor­bus­ier’s orig­i­nal plan cer­tainly has it mer­its and its fair share of faults. This is to be ex­pected of an en­tity as com­plex as a city. Per­haps the is­sue most press­ing for Chandi­garh and its fu­ture is how the cur­rent and fu­ture ad­min­is­tra­tions can foster the guardian­ship nec­es­sary to ef­fec­tively de­velop the orig­i­nal plan to suit the evolv­ing needs of its in­hab­i­tants while pre­serv­ing the in­tegrity and the unique char­ac­ter of the city. Chandi­garh also re­mains a suc­cess story from many points of view when con­sid­er­ing the un­planned traf­fic chaos grip­ping many In­dian cities in the throes of rapid de­vel­op­ment. To many, Chandi­garh is the most or­derly city in In­dia with its well-planned road in­fra­struc­ture, easy-to-nav­i­gate grid-based lay­out, and con­ve­nient lo­cal sector mar­kets.

Some fifty years af­ter Le Cor­bus­ier’s death, we live in a world that the

ar­chi­tect and his con­tem­po­raries could hardly have an­tic­i­pated. Rapid ur­ban­i­sa­tion, par­tic­u­larly in the de­vel­op­ing world and specif­i­cally in Asia— the con­text in which Chandi­garh ex­ists—presents a model of de­vel­op­ment in which the eco­nomic forces of a new industrial rev­o­lu­tion tran­spire to cre­ate ever-ex­pand­ing cities. Th­ese new ur­ban land­scapes rep­re­sent a fu­ture that seems to have aban­doned the all-en­com­pass­ing plan­ning con­cepts of twen­ti­eth-cen­tury mod­ernism and the prin­ci­ples of CIAM, an or­gan­i­sa­tion, of which Le Cor­bus­ier was an orig­i­nal mem­ber, that cre­ated a se­ries of in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tec­ture con­fer­ences pro­mot­ing mod­ernism. To­day, a jour­ney through the me­trop­o­lises of the de­vel­op­ing world re­veals a land­scape shaped more by sur­vival than by vi­sions of the fu­ture. Plan­ning and build­ing schemes as co­her­ent as Le Cor­bus­ier’s for Chandi­garh—or Niemeyer’s for Brasilia—are con­sid­er­ably more chal­leng­ing to pro­duce in a con­tem­po­rary con­text. To­day, the po­lit­i­cal and fi­nan­cial en­dorse­ment of such grand schemes seems to have been con­signed to the past as the dy­nam­ics of pop­u­la­tion growth meet the some­times spon­ta­neous and ran­dom pro­cesses of ur­ban de­vel­op­ment.

Pho­tog­ra­phy has the po­ten­tial to com­mu­ni­cate wider truths about the built world and to re­veal the po­lit­i­cal, so­cial, cul­tural, and eco­nomic forces that unite in to­day’s cities. Chandi­garh tells a story in which the ar­chi­tec­tural vi­sions of a great mas­ter meet the po­lit­i­cal vi­sions of a post­colo­nial so­ci­ety. Much has been writ­ten of this con­ver­gence, but the most per­ti­nent com­men­tary is one that not only ob­serves the in­ten­tions be­hind Chandi­garh’s plan but also pro­motes a di­a­logue about how the plan has de­vel­oped be­yond th­ese in­ten­tions. This book uses pho­tog­ra­phy as a medium to in­form this di­a­logue by pro­vid­ing a com­pre­hen­sive yet vis­ceral jour­ney through a re­mark­able mod­ernist land­scape. A de­sire to pro­mote re­flec­tion rather than to draw con­clu­sions is at the core of this pho­to­graphic nar­ra­tive, and bal­ances the book’s con­tent be­tween the mag­nif­i­cent, the iconic, and the ne­glected. Th­ese char­ac­ter­is­tics not only of­fer rich vis­ual con­tent but also frame the nec­es­sary de­bate about Chandi­garh, where it stands to­day, and where it will stand in the fu­ture. View­ing the work of Le Cor­bus­ier through the cam­era cel­e­brates and pays homage to the ar­chi­tect him­self, while ex­plor­ing the im­pro­vised and un­in­tended el­e­ments that

have shaped the city de­spite his plans, as well as the patina of time that has set­tled over it, re­veals the cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal dy­nam­ics un­der­ly­ing Chandi­garh’s con­tin­uum and ul­ti­mately its fu­ture.

Ex­tracted from Chandi­garh Re­vealed: Le Cor­bus­ier’s City To­day by Shaun Fynn with a fore­word by Maris­tella Cas­ci­ato (Prince­ton Ar­chi­tec­tural Press, £45)

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