Le Corbusier (1887–1965) is considered to be one of the most important architects of the 20th century. His buildings, books, even his characteristic bow tie and thick black-rimmed glasses, affect our idea of modern architecture and despite the criticism his work has encountered, his ideas continue to influence architecture and town planning today.
Paris-based French photographer Manuel Bougot took his lens to Chandigarh (and Ahmedabad) to observe what Corbusier’s legacy in India amounts to in the twenty first century. Driven by an anthropological, rather than architectural impulse, he states, his desire was to interrogate what this city plan had amounted to sixty years post its construction – and what it meant to its inhabitants.
“On the day when contemporary society, at present so sick, has become properly aware that only architecture and city planning can provide the exact prescription for its ills, then the time will have come for the great machine to be put in motion and begin its functions. . . .The house that can be built for modern man (and the city too), a magnificently disciplined machine, can bring back the liberty of the individual, at present crushed out of existence, to each and every member of society.”
– Le Corbusier, The Radiant City
In the manner of Howard Wright’s “Garden City” that the British embraced as a model of modern construction, Corbusier’s “Radiant City” subscribes to what has since been dubbed an Utopian view of Modernism with a belief in its ability to affect change. One of the central critiques of this idea of modernism is the imperialistic nature of its vision, and the manner of its implementation in societies and cultures with incongruent landscapes. Franz Fannon, in his “The Wretched of the Earth” produces an anti colonial manifesto that takes apart the damaging premises of colonial urban planning, implicating them unequivocally as conduits to violence, trauma and psychic damage to the self. Whatever the degree of destruction, certainly, the recognition that certain modern aesthetic principles were reproduced and imposed upon cultures, irrespective of their contexts, is both a valid and necessary critical perspective.
The realisation of Corbusier’s town planning doctrine and the implementation of his idea of architectural monumentality, were best actualised in entirety, in the city of Chandigarh between the years of 1952 and 1964. Produced in a historical moment that Saloni Mathur neatly sums up as belonging “simultaneously to nationalism, decoloization, modernism’s varied responses to colonialism [and] residues of ‘orientalism’”, it forms an interesting entry point into understanding the central issues between these entanglements between the East and the West.
Nehru, first prime minister of the newly made independent India was a man with many ideals and a definitive vision. His belief in the ability of design to function as a catalyst for change and creativity, and as a symbol of the ‘new’ provides the central historical force behind the Chandigarh project. An adherent of those modernist principles expressed by Corbusier as related above, Nehru’s desire for accelerated industrialisation and technological advancement was brought on by his belief that India was in the throes of a ‘belated modernity’ moment – the delayed advent of which would certainly result in a liberation from older shackles, both symbolically and literally.
“There are no sculptors only, painters only, architects only. The plastic event fulfills itself in a form in duty of poetry.”
– Le Corbusier
The question of ‘form’, is of course, central to any discussion of Modernism in the arts. In Chandigarh, Corbusier’s most famous Captiol complex has long been interpreted in the vein of neoclassicism. Manuel Bougot’s photographs provide us with a sense of that imposing scale, where spaces seem larger than life itself, especially in conjunction with unusual angular perspectives in some instances. In many ways, the monumentality evoked by these buildings, about which much has been said, recalls a majesty not usually associated with the minimalist modern form. In fact, ironically, the modern form in this instance, calls to mind a haughty grandeur associated with the colonial buildings of erstwhile British India. In many ways, as Bougot’s images show us, Corbusier’s Chandigarh also belongs to another time. Situated within a displaced moment, it’s aesthetics principles untranslated into contemporary idioms, it functions as a window both into history, and into the future – precipiently on the edge of a world that is torn between the virtues of globalisation and the fear of homogenisation.
In academic discussions of Corbusier and his work in Chandigarh, much is made of the label of ‘public space’ so dominantly realised in the Secretariat, the Legislative Assembly and the High Court that make up the Capitol complex. There is a danger, however, as Stanislaus von Moos iterates, of conflating the labels public, civic and political, as usually happens in such theorising. Often these definitions are constructed in opposition to the private realm, which conversely includes commercial and is problematically seen as apoltical.
Further it runs contrary to Corbusier’s own approach to design. Corbusier was particularly interested in the dialectic between public and private spaces and heavily concerned with questions of interior design – often also working with furniture, colour and lighting. In the form that his buildings realise in fact, the boundaries between inside and outside are often dissolved, through threshold structures such as windows or latticed walls.
J. S Sandhu, Mathur informs us, was an advocate who wrote rather scathingly of Corbusier’s Chandigarh as “the most un-Indian and expensive of cities” seeing it as the epitome of “symbolic modernism” in India that while promoting a particular leadership vision, failed the rural masses it was in reality meant for. The accusation that Sandhu makes here, of Chandigarh as ‘un-Indian’ is one fairly commonly encountered, in writing on the subject. While there is unarguably no definitive ‘Indian character’ that is reflected in cities all over the country, this criticism points us toward the fact that with all the detailed planning that conceived this city – little import was given to the needs and desires of the people it was meant to accommodate. While the residential quarters were meant to be self sufficient, this ‘Indian character’ said to be lacking is often construed as the bustle of an Indian city and market that Chandigarh’s monumental spaces seem almost built to discourage.
Bougot’s investigation of the ‘humane element’ in Corbusier’s work at Chandigarh, highlights both the ideals and utopic vision that inspired this city through the images of large scale buldings and formal structural elements, as also a certain sense of discrepancy between the buildings and those who habitate them in his few portraits, especially in the context of the Captiol complex.
In many instances, Bougot’s photographs build for the viewer the atmosphere of a ghost city. The images of imposing structural elements, large scale realisations of form along with the absence of people, as if lurking somewhere just out of the frame, create a sense of suspended animation and reemphasise a milieu of lost narratives that despite change, linger in the very facades and structures of existence.
The most valid critique of Corbusier’s Chandigarh is informed by the imperial approach of the utopic moment in modernist architecture, and a top-down belief that one man’s vision of the modern would reflect that of the majority; further, that it would seamlessly integrate itself within a different cultural context. These problematics are exemplified by the fact that with India’s unprecedented population growth, Chandigarh is much more densely populated than envisioned – leading to a number of satellite towns that are as unplanned and scattered, as deliberately and ‘thoughtfully’ as Chandigarh was constructed. Further, the splitting of Punjab into two states, and the retaining of Chandigarh as a capital for the new state of Haryana – has created a constant competitive drive over its position in both states.
In many ways, Corbusier’s Chandigarh appears as if at an intersection between a displaced past and the will of the future, a crossing between time and timelessness; producing a specific identity for its inhabitants that is consistently negotiated and providing a reference point for modernist architecture in India, even today.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan
- Fanon Franz, The Wretched of the Earth (Grove, 1965)
- Mathur, Saloni, Charles and Ray Eames in India (art Journal, May 2011)
- Moos von, Stanislaus, Le Corbusier: Elements of a Synthesis (MIT Press, 1979 ed.)