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FISHER, Sabine V.. Whose history is in India’s regional capital? Resenhas Online, São Paulo, year 06, n. 065.01, Vitruvius, may 2007 <https://vitruvius.com.br/revistas/read/resenhasonline/06.065/3114/en>.


“Chandigarh was/ is who I am,” writes Vikramaditya Prakash, the author of Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India. “The book, ostensibly and primarily about the making of Chandigarh, is also about my own making” (1).

Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier is both a historical and personal account: It is historical in that it tries to explore the question of identity, both of the city and its inhabitants, from the materials of architectural history. The incorporation of personal history makes Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier different from previous publications that relied solely on historical documents, regional population statistics or general aesthetic theories.

Raised and educated in Chandigarh, the author is currently chair of the department of architecture at the University of Washington. His father Aditya Prakash received his architectural training in England and worked as a junior architect under Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry in Chandigarh in the 1950’s. The elder Prakash then became one of the first inhabitants of the new capital that he helped to build.

The book is not merely a personal narrative, however; The biographies of the father and the son are coupled with the history of the Indian nation’s new beginning in 1947. After tracing the footsteps of his father’s career, the author quotes Jawaharlal Nehru’s legendary speech for the awakening of India to “life and freedom”, held at midnight of August 14-15 1947 when British Colonial rule came to an end, after decades of political resistance led by Mahatma Gandhi. The new prime minister Nehru set out to modernize the nation of India, now independent, yet separated from Pakistan. This entailed the construction of a new regional capital, since Lahore had become part of the later. Chandigarh was to be the city where independent India could promote the symbols of her postcolonial identity; though the precise nature and meaning of these symbols were yet to be discovered, invented and reinvented.

The literature on and around Chandigarh is extensive. Prakash’s bibliography lists 109 texts (2). Several books remain indispensable for their detailed historical accounts. Ravi Kalia’s 1987 book Chandigarh: In Search of an Identity (3) presents the most comprehensive description of the historical events, from the choice of site and the process of establishing the master plan to the subsequent strategies for organizing the city. In her 1982 book Urban Planning in the Third World: The Experience of Chandigarh (4), Madhu Sarin offers a thorough look at the social history and the evolution of the city’s unplanned sections. Other accounts focus on the architect’s design intention: Mogens Krustrup opens the horizons of Le Corbusier’s inventive imagery to readers, meditating in particular on the symbolic aspects of the enamel doors of the Capitol (5). Others focus on the evolution of Le Corbusier’s formal vocabulary with little reference to the political and cultural context; for example, Klaus-Peter Gast’s Paris – Chandigarh (6) largely limits itself to proportional analysis.

Prakash’s book differs from all the above mentioned works. Although he is interested in questions of aesthetics and form, Prakash is more concerned with their use as instruments in the search for a new national identity than as expressions of universal geometry. He focuses his research on how the Capitol’s forms and symbols reflect the communication between the planning officials and the architects in charge, and what they convey to Chandigarh’s inhabitants. One could wonder why scholars have debated for decades on the origins of Le Corbusier’s proportions and figuration, yet why they have asked so little about those for whom the buildings were ostensibly addressed. For whom are these symbols, commissioned by a state in search of a new identity, designed by a French modernist?

Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier is divided into five chapters which revolve around the aesthetics and politics of Chandigarh’s master plan and Capitol Complex. Prakash begins the book by describing the paradoxes that surround the modernism of Chandigarh. He links the personal biographies of those involved in Chandigarh’s planning with the political realities of the new nation-state of India, pointing out that the young country for its postcolonial image relied on western consultants and the western-derived concept of Modernism. The “East-West” opposition drives much of the book’s narrative. However, this opposition is not without complication. For, as Prakash puts it, the modernism of the postcolonial state embodies a paradox, “a reciprocal response of the colonized, the self-empowering act of dissolving contradiction by simultaneously rejecting and appropriating the unsolicited gift of colonization“ (7). Further, Prakash asserts that both Nehru and Le Corbusier “considered the question of whether to make an Indian or a European architecture as obsolete and pointless”. “To be modern was to be new, and the New and Good, in the Nehruvian semantics, were synonymous“, writes Prakash (8).

However, the author goes on to question their “faith in modernity” on two counts (9). First, he argues that “the modernism that was imported by Nehru was not the same as the modernism that was exported by Le Corbusier“(10), and further, that the concept of abstraction, as William Curtis employed it to explain the historical setting of Chandigarh, is “Eurocentric” since it does not historicize abstraction (11). In explicating the role of Modernism in the construction of a postcolonial identity for India, Prakash realizes that his book is a “deconstruction of modernism“ (12).

Whose history is embodied in Chandigarh? Chandigarh is the largest project of Europe’s best known architect, but first, and more important, it is a regional Indian capital. In 1953, it was inaugurated as the capital of the Indian part of Punjab, and since 1966, it has been the joint capital of the two states of Punjab and Haryana.

Who is writing history? In most of the available histories, the “orient” is directly or indirectly described as the “other”. Prakash assesses that this other is “not the Occident’s Other but the Other within – a disourse of the Other, by, for, and of the West“ (13). The text sets two different perspectives in the foreground of the analysis: the Eastern one of the author’s upbringing and the Western one of his academic education. What kind of dialogue can the two cultures produce? This is not a book of newly released facts, but of new questions; it attempts a critical historiography.

Continuing the personal tone of the introduction, the author opens each chapter with a memory from his time as a resident of Chandigarh, from childhood to college years until the 1999 international architecture symposium. The following chapters chronologically trace the evolution of the master plan, the design of the Capitol Complex including the State High Court, Legislative Assembly, and Secretariat, and the Open Hand; The last of which was only completed after both Le Corbusier’s and Nehru’s deaths.

The second chapter describes the development of the master plan from the Garden city concept developed under A. L. Fletcher as chief planner, its revision by his successor P. L. Verma, the first plan of Albert Mayer and Matthew Nowicki until the re-design under Le Corbusier. While Ravi Kalia’s book is more helpful to those wishing to learn all the historical details, Prakash’s account of the evolution of the city is more concise and exploratory in speculating on the different notions of ‘modern’ within aesthetics and attitudes. Yet, already the second chapter ends on a dystopic tone: Chandigarh’s modernism, according to Vikram Prakash, is not directed forward, towards the new, but closed off within artificial hills; The Capitol Complex is a “brief space of idealization“ to overcome the “city of regrets” (14).

The symbolic subtext of the Capitol buildings has been subject of speculation for countless critics. Chapter three deciphers the references on the enamel door and the expressive forms of the Assembly building. In the tradition of Mogens Krustrup’s poetic ruminations on the connotations of the cosmic symbols, landscapes, human figures and animals, Prakash searches for mythical and biblical sources of Le Corbusier’s figuration. He reveals that the black and white photographs published in the Oeuvre Complète (15) depict migrant and rural workers in the foreground of the buildings, but not the urban residents and administrators. This depiction of a rural paradise Prakash also finds in the earlier sketches; the subsequent choice of such photographs ultimately leads the author to hypothesize that Le Corbusier tried to reconstruct the biblical setting of the garden of Eden. Adolf Max Vogt in his book Le Corbusier, the Noble Savage (16) interpreted Corbusier’s piloti architecture as deriving from his fascination with the prehistoric stilt constructions of the Swiss lake regions; Jacques Gubler advanced a viewpoint similar to Vogt’s. Vikram Prakash transfers these pastoral readings to the Indian landscape, portraying Le Corbusier as a Rousseauesque romanticist who wants to see himself as “one with the savages, in perfect understanding” (17).

In chapter four, Prakash embarks on a “psycho-analytic reading of the Capitol”. Contrary to other interpretations, he argues that the buildings horizontal layout does not integrate them into the landscape, but renders the complex as self-contained and distant from the rest of the city, with the landscape serving merely as a backdrop. Le Corbusier, who had apparently lost his perception for spatial depth, was restricted to studying spatial relationships on a two-dimensional surface (18). Both the High Court with its horizontal symmetry and reflection in the water surface (which render the volume weightless) and the Assembly with its vertical composition that invoke the animalistic mass of Le Corbusier’s bull sketches, are portrayed as uncanny in the Freudian sense. In this reading (evidently informed by the architecture theory discourse popular in the U.S. during the 1990’s) Prakash finds the origins of the buildings aesthetic logic.

The last chapter focuses on the symbolic element of the “Open Hand”, where aesthetics and politics finally merge, as Prakash states. The Open Hand is now “everywhere in Chandigarh“: at the entrance to the city, in commercial graphics and on the driver’s license. The origin of the hand is difficult to locate in the design process for Chandigarh. The recently published biography of Jawaharlal Nehru by Shashi Tharoor reveals that Nehru had two objects on his desk: a golden statue of Gandhi, and a bronze cast of Lincoln's hand (19). The French writer André Malraux, in a letter quoted in Prakash’s book, describes his memory of a bronze cast of the “hand of peace”, about 18 inches long (20). Prakash, in an email conversation, writes: “I don't think there is a relationship between the two hands... Lincoln's bronze cast is close-fisted, while Le Corbusier's Open Hand is of course open. Both do however symbolize agency, the determination of the acting person to do things, to get things done“.

Prakash’s book includes some of the correspondence between Le Corbusier and Nehru, in which the architect expressed his wish to build the Open Hand. Given Nehru’s many political obligations, it seems a courtesy that he took the time to respond personally. In the case of the Hand, the prime minister, for once, dismissed the wish of the French architect, citing the “difficult financial position“ (21).

The Open Hand was finally constructed in 1984, nearly thirty years after the design. For the second generation of Chandigarh’s inhabitants, among whom the author counts himself, the completion of Le Corbusier’s design was considered a step forward in the construction of their own “postcolonial identity.” At the same time, the era during the presidency of Indira Gandhi was also marked by political repression and nationalistic movements which overshadowed the optimism of the Nehru era.

The reasons for Nehru’s opposition to the Open Hand remain a question for further speculation. Looking at recent historiographies, Sunil Khilnani casts a critical eye on the motivations for the design of the regional capital (22), while Tharoor’s biography of Nehru entirely omits the construction of Chandigarh. Possibly, Nehru did not need another symbolic hand, as he already displayed the cast of Lincoln’s fist on his desk? Or, a second speculation in the field of the East-West dialogue that Chandigarh was meant to be, leads to the architect’s sketches for the Open Hand, of which Prakash (as many scholars before him) reproduces many. Although many have searched for the deeper meaning within the lines of the architect’s drawings, why has no one yet asked what the Indian partners thought of Le Corbusier’s linking of the fingers of the Open Hand to the bodies of naked women? Prakash pairing of the sketch with a drawing of two naked female figures remains an unclear response to those who wonder.

Nehru attributed importance to the construction of Chandigarh in the context of promoting modernization in the newly independent India: Ravi Kalia in his book quotes Nehru’s speech held on March 17, 1959 in New Delhi (six years after the inauguration of Chandigarh) where he stated that “We may not, even if we have the capacity, build a Taj Mahal. It does not fit in with the society of today” (23).

Many have asked why the architects for this “society of today” were not from India. The planners in charge selected Le Corbusier together with his cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the English architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, after an initially engaging the American Albert Mayer who had previously served as a planner to the Colonial state. Prakash describes the selection as a “circumstantial choice, an unexpected opportunity seized by a team of bureaucrats”. He then develops his argument around the fascination with the “new.” “Nehru simply wanted a city characterized by free thinking and newness“ (24). The new from the West or for the East? One provocation of the book is that the modernism of Chandigarh is not the same modernism of Le Corbusier’s European years, but instead is India’s own “modern”.

In 1995, the Swiss government issued a new 10 Franc bill featuring the Chandigarh Capitol: The front of the bill displays Le Corbusier’s portrait, the back shows the Modulor, two views of the Secretariats’s façade and an entrance perspective of the High Court. It is an especially ironic turn of events as Le Corbusier, according to Jane Drew (25), made great efforts to prove that he was French and not Swiss after he became a French citizen in 1930. Claiming Chandigarh’s Capitol as part of the Swiss heritage accentuates the conflict inherent in the post-colonial import of foreign authorship for the identity of India’s new nation-state. Should one attribute the Swiss government with an attempt of latter-day Imperialism by making an Indian government building a daily feature in the middle of Europe? Vikramaditya Prakash is “simultaneously pleased and outraged” (26), as he writes in the after word. “If they [the Swiss government] could claim the Chandigarh Capitol as their own, surely I could claim Le Corbusier for India” (27). Others, like Charles Correa, have mused ironically whether Le Corbusier should now be considered the “greatest Indian architect” (28). Prakash might be the first to address this question with rigor and sincerity.

The design for the Swiss 10 Francs raises problems of authorship and ownership which complement the book’s question on national identity. Yet, it seems an unfortunate choice for the dust jacket of an architectural history and theory book, giving the architectural study the appearance of a business report, and subverting the title’s suggestion that the book is written from an Indian vantage point. The sketch of the Open Hand, inserted between the title and the representation of the bill, might be a half-hearted attempt at amelioration. The photographs included in the book, such as of a woman carrying plants from the Capitol Complex to her village on a path lined by abundant vegetation, or of cricket players besides the Open Hand, might have invoked a wider range of the issues at stake when discussing authorship, context and the meaning of India’s national symbols.

Prakash’s book, in its ambition to find the underlying logic of Chandigarh’s design intention, is illustrated with many of Le Corbusier’s sketches and plans, and with a series of black-and-white and color photographs. The obvious care with which these have been collected and reproduced, down to the high-quality of the paper on which they are printed, underlines the importance of the illustrations in this investigation on symbols, meanings and readings. The visual materials include not only the obligatory materials, such as Mayer’s and Corbusier’s 1951 plans, placed side-by-side, and views of the Capitol buildings and the housing. More specific to the investigation of the book are the images juxtaposing the Red Fort in Delhi with the High Court in Chandigarh – taken from Curtis (29) – or the pairing of the 1952 sketch for the Capitol’s intertwined axis with a photo of Lutyen’s layout for New Delhi’s monumental axis – taken from von Moos (30). Then a series of photographs, sketches and paintings trace the evolution of the ‘Open Hand’ design.

These images are not only documentary materials, they are part of the author’s search to understand the city as it was interpreted through the eyes of others, and then serve Prakash’s own critical historiography of Chandigarh. Le Corbusier’s sketches had absorbed the lines of the landscape and the figures of animals. Later, image pairings by Western critics established similarities between the Indian tradition and Corbusian volumes. Aesthetic readings have de-contextualized the Chandigarh Capitol: many photographic captures by visitors are cleaned of its Indian inhabitants. The enthusiasm for including people with those buildings that were to symbolize democracy has altogether faded with the political ideals of Nehru’s first years. In a similar way, the housing sectors are omitted from Prakash’s research, as they are from many studies: While they may not carry the obvious monumental power as the Capitol Complex, the residential areas, landscaped with wide streets, parks and gardens, are where Chandigarh differs most from other Indian cities.

Vikramaditya Prakash employs illustrations to reinforce the effects of the text; together they propel a differentiated reading of Modernism in the construction of his own and of a nation’s postcolonial identity. It is rare to read a book simultaneously sincere, theoretical and original, never abandoning its lyrical undertone. Both text and images search for similarities in that ambiguous space where the East and the West facilitate each other. Whether the author’s descriptions and own photographs suggest a new reading of the city remains uncertain – it might be that in the end we only can understand ourselves in the mirror, or in the eyes of others.

notes

1
PRAKASH, Vikramaditya. Chandigarh’s Le Corbusier: The Struggle for Modernity in Postcolonial India. Washington, University of Washington, 2002.

2
A sidenote regarding the bibliography: It includes 19 of Le Corbusier’s own publication, yet not the 6 volumes of sketchbooks documenting the ‘Journey to the East’ which Le Corbusier undertook in 1911. In 1965, a few weeks before his death, he finally edited Voyage d’Orient for publication. There seems to be no linkage of his experience as a young man traveling to the Near East to his grand oeuvre in Chandigarh. One explanation could be that the architect’s great fascination during the Voyage d’Orient were the mosques, while India in 1947 was founded as a secular state. Prakash, not including the Voyage d’Orient in the bibliography, mentions it when the discusses Corbusier’s travels as an enterprise to “question the naked man“ in the search of a Rousseauist paradise (p. 93 of Prakash’s book). Le Corbusier’s ‘East’ of 1911 is different from the ‘East’ of independent India not only geographically, but also culturally and historically.

3
KALIA, Ravi. Chandigarh, in search of a new identity. Carbondale, Southern Illinois University, 1987.

4
SARIN, Madhu. Urban Planning in the Third World: the Chandigarh experience. London, 1982.

5
KRUSTRUP, Mogens. Porte email / The enamel door: Le Corbusier, Palais de l’Assemblée de Chandigarh. Kobenhaven, 1991.

6
GAST, Klaus-Peter. Le Corbusier: Paris-Chandigarh. Boston, Birkhäuser, 2000 (reviewed in Neue Züricher Zeitung, 21.03.2001, page 68, by Sabine von Fischer).

7
PRAKASH, Vikramaditya. Op. cit., p. 11.

8
Idem, ibidem, p. 10.

9
Idem, ibidem, p. 18.

10
Idem, ibidem, p. 21.

11
Idem, ibidem, p. 24.

12
Idem, ibidem, p. 26.

13
Idem, ibidem, p. 25.

14
Idem, ibidem, p. 70.

15
LE CORBUSIER. Oeuvre complete, 1952-57. Boston, Birkhäuser, 1957.

16
VOGT, Adolf Max. Le Corbusier, the Noble Savage: Toward an Archeology of Modernism. Cambridge, MIT Press, 1992.

17
PRAKASH, Vikramaditya. Op. cit., p. 93.

18
Idem, ibidem, p. 105.

19
THAROOR, Shashi. Nehru: The Invention of India. New York, Arcade Publishing, 2003, p. 93 ff (the subtitle of the book seems to be an interpretation of Nehru’s book The Discovery of India from. 1964).

20
PRAKASH, Vikramaditya. Op. cit., p. 150.

21
Idem, ibidem, p. 125

22
KHILNANI, Sunil. The Idea of India. New York, 1997. Khilnani criticizes Le Corbusier’s involvement in the creation of Chandigarh’s symbols with the argument that the later created a museum piece detached from the real situation to represent the modern nation-state. A biography on Nehru by the author is forthcoming.

23
KALIA, Ravi. Op. cit., p. 28-29.

24
PRAKASH, Vikramaditya. Op. cit., p. 148.

25
DREW, Jane. “Le Corbusier as I knew him”. In WALDEN, Russell (ed). The Open Hand: Essays of Le Corbusier. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977, p. 365.

26
The new 10 Franc bill was released in 1995, as part of a series that represent outstanding cultural figures from Swiss history. Other personalities represented include Sophie Täuber-Arp and Alberto Giacometti. Like Le Corbusier, these two who also lived for parts of their lives in Paris. The series was designed by the Swiss graphic designer Jörg Zintzmeyer. The previous series of bills had featured scientists.

27
PRAKASH, Vikramaditya. Op. cit., p. 146-147.

28
CORREA, Charles. “Chandigarh: View from the Benares. “ In BROOKS, Allen H (ed). Le Corbusier. Princeton University Press, 1987, p. 197-202.

29
CURTIS, William. Le Corbusier: Ideas and Forms. New York, Rizzoli, 1986.

30
VON MOOS, Stanislaus. “The Politics of the Open Hand: Notes on Le Corbusier and Nehru at Chandigarh.“ In WALDEN, Russell (ed). The Open Hand: Essays of Le Corbusier. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1977, p. 412-57.

[many thanks to Mary McLeod from Columbia University for her support, scholarship and criticism]

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