When Swiss architect Le Corbusier responded to popular agitation against his design of Chandigarh city, India, with the wry anecdote “I am like a lightning conductor… I attract storms”, it was clear that he had created two cities, but heeded one.
The project of Chandigarh was commissioned by Jawarharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, in 1950. Nehru imagined a city that would serve as a clear symbol of India’s break with the past, in the aftermath of its independence. It was born of a deeply paternalistic vision that, providing its architects could innovate the right formula, the shapes of its urban space would exert a transformative and “civilising” influence on its inhabitants. This remarkable confidence in spatial determinism might, in one sense, make Chandigarh the closest we come to observing a postcolonial vision. Throughout the city, Le Corbusier distils Nehru’s vision of India’s modernity into a “city of rectangles and pure volumes”; the “symbols of perfection”, as he described them. This modernist construction was one arm of a wider comprehensive plan for India, through which Nehru envisioned an enlightened state which would propel its citizens into modernity through a programme of rapid industrialisation and economic planning – all guided by the principles of rationalism, secularism and social justice.
Photography is a forgiving medium through which to record a claim to human mastery. A photograph is necessarily reductive in some sense, and it is in this way – as a series of reductions – that we are most able to envisage Chandigarh as Le Corbusier intended; as the product of a victorious “battle of space, fought within the mind”.
The photos in the Conway Library, taken principally during the construction of the Capitol and the city’s early years, capture the instant when Nehru’s ideal loomed most plausible in the eyes of those who encountered it. Pausing at each photograph in the digitised archive some seventy years later, it is almost possible to be persuaded by them: the clean elegance of the Secretariat building, poised dramatically against an empty landscape. Le Corbusier sat soberly in front of an anthropomorphic map, on which the Capitol government complex sits elevated like the head on a human body. The “rippling, beautiful rhythm” of the Assembly Chamber, designed to give space for the circulation of high ideas – strikingly different from the classical vocabulary of the British Raj. These photos of Chandigarh at its most persuasive have gained a complex novelty, as their optimism is increasingly set apart from a growing body of works documenting their natural decay in the passage of time. Against the plethora of anxieties about the future that attend life in the twenty-first century, there is an undeniable charm to the vision of confidence offered by the photos.
Yet this evocation of rupture from the past does not bear scrutiny.
In taking a closer look at the ideas that undergird Chandigarh as a symbol of modernity, it becomes clear why the city falls so easily into dialogue with the architecture of the British Raj. Whilst Nehru opposed the British imperialist claim that India required western tutelage, he embraced the basic framework of human “development” upon which this was premised. This development, a historicist discourse in which human societies around the globe could be placed on a temporal scale from barbarity to civilisation, was a principal means through which Britain legitimised its imperial venture across the world from the eighteenth century. In The Discovery of India, Nehru sought to rework this framework, by drawing instead on the historic achievements of India’s Indus Valley Civilisation to posit a theory of modernity as cycles of development and decay. In this way, Nehru’s thought stops short of a complete reconstitution of imperial modes of thought, and it can be difficult to tease apart Orientalist tropes of India’s decline from his own invocations for modernisation.
The spirituality of India was one of the key targets of Nehru’s conception of backwardness. He dismissed the religiosity of people in India as “absurd”, and attributed it not to their own world experiences, but to the “exploitation of the[ir] emotions” by elites. The imperial resonances in Nehru’s vision for India can be usefully set against Gandhi’s alternative projection of Indianness, and its embracing of Orientalist depictions of village India. Taken together, they provide a powerful insight into the postcolonial dilemma; the apparent impossibility of asserting an identity that is oppositional to, but not restricted by, the terms set out by the imperial power.
If Le Corbusier understood his role as architect as commensurate with puppet-master then he, like Nehru, underestimated the agency of the city’s people in staking the terms of their lives. Even the photos in The Courtauld’s collection, taken in the city’s early years, hint at numerous sites of contestation and the quiet persistence of traditional Indian mores with Le Corbusier’s metropolis. Le Corbusier designed the city around a series of single purpose zones, neatly separating the residential, industrial, leisure and government elements of city life. He appears to have operated under the assumption that, if placed in the spatial context of a middle-class commuter lifestyle, incoming peasant masses would be transformed into a socio-economic position to fill that role.
The photos in the Conway Library hint at the way the city’s people defied Le Corbusier’s rigid prescriptions; buffalo and goats are crammed into tiny spaces outside the geometrical houses, shacks are set up next to the highway. In the residential area, dubbed the “container of family life” by the architect, residents opened small shops in the ground floor of their houses, and maintained the local principles of caste, kinship and religion in areas purportedly organised by administrative rank. We might think of Le Corbusier’s design as laying the groundwork for two cities; the perfect geometry of the Capitol, set against the rhythmic irregularities of its inhabitants’ lives.
In this light, Le Corbusier’s response to popular agitation to his stringent demands is telling. His aggrandised sense of his own monumentality as a catalyst for modernity precluded him from heeding the unshakeable influence of the city’s people in determining the quality of their own lives.
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