Everyday Life in a Former Utopia

Revisiting Chandigargh

Ideal cities like Chandigarh are 1:1 models of a better world – they represent a political programme that came true, and then, over time, failed. What makes such cities interesting from today’s standpoint is the way they deal with visions and illusions. Werner Feiersinger’s photographic explorations of daily life in this Indian city show what the political and ideological will executed, and how people are dealing with the results 50 years later. Wide, straight boulevards, multistorey structures, standardised building types, and rows and clusters of residential blocks: Werner Feiersinger’s photographic essay focuses on the architecture, public space, and interiors in the city of Chandigarh, the iconic capital of Punjab and Haryana. But the Austrian artist is not interested in a devout view. His works does not celebrate the myth of India’s famous, artificially planned city by Le Corbusier known as The City Beautiful. Instead, the images reveal everyday life at the present time, in all its detail. Thus, observations such as promotional signs on façades, crumbling concrete surfaces, and nature growing wild are not hidden or blurred, but constitute part of the atmosphere conveyed by the pictures. Through the photographer’s camera lens, Chandigarh becomes a relic of a former dream – a dream dreamt a long time ago and that at certain moments can be retraced, from a distance. So it can be observed that the cinema is now abandoned, while other public buildings are spirited ruins that still function. All in all, this city near the foothills of the Himalayas belongs to a former architectural and political dream that conditions an often-inconvenient reality nowadays.

Pie in the Sky
In 1950, Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret where invited, together with English architects Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, to work on a new design for Chandigarh, a young city founded shortly beforehand as India’s first post-independence city. “And I tell you, this will be my lifework, in the Indian nation; an extraordinary, civilised nation”, wrote Le Corbusier in a letter from 1951. According to his ideology, the planning of Chandigarh was synonymous with a better world, full of vitality and positive simplicity. The matrix for the urban area of 80 square kilometres was held together by Corb’s strict ideals of rhythm and expression, scale and function. Grids and clusters were the leitmotif for the better life the architect was planning; he was commissioned by Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, who wanted the future vision for India to come true. Ideal cities like Chandigarh, Brasilia, or Putrajaya, the ultra-modern administrative centre in the southwest of Malaysia, deal with future expectations and with the utopic potential of political visions. Similar to the absolutistic or renaissance ideal for cities, they are arranged as perfect societies without mistakes, with no place remaining for unforeseen developments. Compared to open city structures that can grow according to the needs of the people, those 1:1 models of cities are totalitarian, in a certain sense. They categorically exclude other ideas, with no place for the unexpected; they do not respond to diverse political opinions or historical changes that might arise unplanned. And they do not respond to individual requirements other than the ones that had been surmised in the overall planning.

Stricly Elementary
Le Corbusier’s master plan for Chandigarh is no exception. The strict grid for the urban site was arranged according to a system of hierarchic building types. For government employees, there were thirteen types and subtypes of housing. And of course there were also clear rules for private upper and middle class housing, for dormitories, and so on. But in the end, the houses and the planning possessed much too little individuality from today’s point of view. There was no desire to avoid catering to the class system in India; rather, the architecture and the master plan strengthened it. “In the end, the caste system was latently inscribed into the order of the city”, emphasises Andreas Vass in his essay accompanying the photographs in the book Chandigarh Redux. Everything in Corbusier’s planning was classified and quantified, from the whole of the city to the 17 single sectors to each housing type and architectural form. Cylinders and cuboids, round columns… the elementary vocabulary of the city centre is typical of modernity and reminiscent of Corbusier’s architectural language in his European projects. But how shall we deal with an architecture that obviously followed strict ideals and later failed? Werner Feiersinger’s photographs can provide an answer to this question. The 17 different sectors of the city are documented through a large collection of images. The photos respect the buildings and spaces, but the contemporary surroundings attest to the distance.

Text: Sandra Hofmeister

Chandigargh Redux: Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Jane B. Drew, E. Maxwell Fry, ed. by Martin and Werner Feiersinger, with photographs by Werner Feiersinger and an essay by Andreas Cass; 416 pages, Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich, 2015, ISBN 978-85881-762-4

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