Two Apparitions of the Modern Urbanism for the Global South

Two Apparitions of the Modern Urbanism for the Global South

Reviews: Exhibits

Two Apparitions of the Modern Urbanism for the Global South

Casablanca-Chandigarh

Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal
November 26, 2013April 20, 2014
By Vikram Bhatt
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How Architects, Experts, Politicians, International Agencies and Citizens Negotiate Modern Planning: Casablanca Chandigarh

For a recent exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture(CCA), curators Tom Avermaete and Maristella Casciato pitched a large tent under the banner “How architects, experts, politicians, international agencies, and citizens negotiate modern planning: Casablanca Chandigarh.” Using an array of archival materials,specially commissioned photographs, and public events, all fine CCA traditions, they showed the power and reach of modernism at its best and not so glorious.

Much of the material in the show originated from the archives of Pierre Jeanneret, which were acquired by the CCA in 2010. Le Corbusier was the Architectural Advisor of the Chandigarh project, and from 1951 to 1965, Jeanneret directed the Chandigarh Project and served as the Chief Architect and Planner of Punjab; essentially, he was the site architect of one of the greatest modernist projects of the twentieth century. The main body of work the CCA received spans this important period.

The frequent depiction of Le Corbusier as the public face of the Chandigarh project and Jeanneret as the nuts-and-bolts production man is a cliché lacking historical insight and nuance. The richness of modern architecture and design are rooted in its interconnected nature considering its application on the scale of cities and its global expanse, and therefore, this is a thorough and thoughtful exhibit. In the footsteps of Cohen’s Le Corbusier: An Atlas of Modern Landscape, billed by MoMA as “the largest exhibition ever produced on Le Corbusier’s prolific oeuvre,” a show only on Chandigarh could be seen as a revisionist history, which this one partially is. However, curators have managed to avoid retelling of the history by giving due place to Le Corbusier in the show and allowing other players to fill in the color. They have also sidestepped the issue by making the show about two cities and framing it in a postcolonial discourse.
 

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A Tale of Two Cities

Visitors are greeted by a giant photograph of the Chandigarh High Court and ushered under its imaginary portal into a room set up to evoke memories of the first Non-Aligned Movement Conference. The room and the round table in it, an uncertain makeshift copy, are no match for the original 1961 Belgrade venue, but the idea works. The wall displays with maps and dates of independence of different countries and of regions and locations where aid agencies were active, photos of international development meetings, and technical publications fill the room, giving it an air of a war room and not of a Peace Movement. Those were heydays of the United Nations and international donors active in the field of planning and urban development, when great hopes were pinned on Modernism. Reports by Otto H. Koenigsberger and other leading experts on improving public health, village sanitation, housing, building, planning, and so on are there to be perused. It is a somewhat belabored but insightful introduction to the broad theme. Case studies, exemplifying the process, are housed in two side wings and in a long gallery at the back, where Casablanca and Chandigarh come together in a linear fashion on a CIAM-inspired grid, beautifully re-created using simple interlocking wood strips by Atelier Bow-Wow.

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Chandigarh was indeed an iconic postcolonial creation born of an odd but inspired marriage of an aging French master and the ambitions of the young Indian nation. At independence in 1947, the country was divided in two: India and Pakistan; in the process, Lahore, the original capitol of Punjab, ended up on the side of Pakistan requiring a new state capital for the remaining territories in India. The impetus for it came from Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, because for him the new town would be “symbolic of freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past ... an expression of nation’s faith in the future.” The Chandigarh half of the exhibit, curated by Maristella Casciato, does justice to these noble aspirations by pulling together many diverse strands: archival materials, old photographs, sketchbooks, newly commissioned models and photographs, and a film. It is a treasure trove of items: Jeanneret’s early reconnaissance visit and project photographs; recordings of the site and surroundings by two cousins; Le Corbusier’s first concept sketch of the city with a note he wrote to Marguerite Tjader Harris, which is captivating, because in a single small sketch he is able to portray so much of the city he was imagining and planning in Himalayan foothills; the sectorial master plan; low-income group housing’s drawings and models, particularly of the Sector 22 where the peons and sweepers, the poorest individuals, would live and to which great attention was paid, because 80 percent of housing built for the city was originally aimed at low-income groups; key projects designed by Pierre Jeanneret, and so on. Photographs and a film of the contemporary city complete an impressionistic tableau. Japanese photographer Takashi Homma’s photographs taken in soft light easily transport viewers into the lush tropical landscape. Images of people bathing in the open, sleeping in columned great spaces of the modernist edifices, hawkers with their wears defiantly spread out at the feet of public arcades, different income housing as lived in, are sympathetic renditions of the vie quotidienne, but they also show that tradition and Modernity are not inconsistent with one another. They can and do meld in Chandigarh, which began as an alien creation but over the last sixty years has been adopted remarkably well by its inhabitants.
 

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Casablanca tells quite a different tale. In this half of the exhibit, we see only a small slice of a multifaceted metropolis: the efforts of the French colonial administration under the Marshall Plan toaccommodate migrant masses and those who were encamped in bidonvilles, or slums. In particular, the exhibit focuses on the Regional Master Plan developed and implemented by Michel Écochard, Director of Planning for Morocco from 1946 to 1953, and a team of young French and Moroccan architects. The show expands on Tom Avermaete’s 2010 article “Framing the Afropolis: Michel Écochard and the African City for the Greatest Number.” What makes the Casablanca side of the show interesting is theenquete, or the survey and analytical tools, and the module of 8 × 8 meter housing and la trame, or the planning grid, developed to create habitat for the greatest numbers by Écochard. He was trained as an archaeologist and an architect, was an avid photographer, pilot of light aircraft, and a motorcycle buff, all of which he put to good use in his professional practice. He took aerial photos (he was way ahead of Google Earth) and, going deep in the field, documented communities and explored places. A bit like Indiana Jones, the fictional character created by Steven Spielberg, Écochard employed all his skills and ingenuity in recording strange places and people to inform his designs and city plans. In the contemporary scontext of Southern Cities with exploding slums and squatter settlements, his methods are appealing. The Moroccan projects had made the cover page of L’Architecture d’aujoud’hui and were signaled by Alison and Peter Smithson as “the biggest success after l’Unite d’habitation.

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