The Beautiful City
Le Corbusier’s magnum opus, the Indian city Chandigarh, is revealed through photography by Manuel Bougot in “Voyage à Chandigarh”. Here, the photographer discusses his project and the “Beautiful City”.
In 1947, India gained independence from Britain, sparking the division of Punjab along religious lines. Lahore was ceded to Pakistan, and thus the need for a state capital emerged. Rather than passing the title over to an existing city, India’s President Jawaharlal Nehru saw an opportunity to build something new.
His dream was for a city that could be “symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past”; a city that would act as a symbol of modernity for the newly independent state. So he invited Le Corbusier, the pioneer of modern architecture, to build it.
For Le Corbusier, this project held even greater weight, giving the sometimes controversial architect an unrestricted opportunity to fully realise his long-harboured vision for a truly modern city – a trust no other had given him before. As he wrote in his diary: "It is the hour that I have been waiting for – India, that human and profound civilization – to construct a capital. Urbanism is the activity of society. Capital is the spirit of a nation." The result, Chandigarh, exemplifies a lifetime of ideas in practice.
Now a UNESCO World Heritage site, Chandigarh, which is entering its 7th decade, has remained a source of interest for its singularity as an Indian city and unadulterated examples of Le Corbusier’s modernist vision.
French photographer Manuel Bougot, who captured the city for his book Voyage à Chandigarh, explains that “In Chandigarh, the materials used are symbolic of the modernity of the period; the raw reinforced concrete and local brick. But it was also an amazing laboratory of architecture and town planning for this period. It posed questions about the relationships between city and nature, between private and public spaces, that remain relevant to this day.”
Now based in Paris, Bougot and his family moved into the Orgues de Flandre, the housing towers conceived by the architect Martin Van Treeck, when he was a teenager. This experience triggered a passion for architecture and town planning, which he explored through his photography. In Voyage à Chandigarh, Bougot set out to capture the architecture of Le Corbusier in India, as well as the everyday lives of the Indians still living with it.
“The idea for this photographic journey goes back to the 1980s when I worked with Caroline Maniaque on her architecture thesis about Le Corbusier’s Maison Jaoul. We often spoken about Le Corbusier’s Indian adventures,” Bougot explains.
“Later, I attended several talks on Chandigarh, most notably a conference with Mr Balkrishna Doshi in 2006. Mr Doshi has worked with Le Corbusier and is a prominent figure in Indian architecture. His presentation of the genesis of Chandigarh and elaboration on the project of building an independent India was fascinating.”
Bougot visited Chandigarh in 2009 and 2010 for a total of 10 weeks in order to obtain the images required. He explains that through his photography he wished to “portray the architecture of Le Corbusier through the test of time and Indian culture, not take traditional pictures of architecture but attempt to create a sense of ‘intimate architecture’.”
In these photos, Chandigarh appears like a city caught in amber: imposing concrete structures and the rooms inside seem abandoned, untouched since the 60s; expansive, uncluttered spaces are devoid of the bustle expected from a major Indian city.
Yet glimpses of everyday life remain. There are framed pictures of Mahatma Gandhi mounted on woven, abstract backdrops. Distinctive, Le Corbusier-style concrete walls have school bags propped up against them. Posters for the latest Bollywood release clash against mid-century modern wood walls. The contrast in these images – and it’s reasonable to expect, the city – are delightful and disorientating.
Chandigarh feels European while owing nothing to a colonial past. Its rational grid layout is made up of wide boulevards, intersected with parks, town squares and man-made lakes.“There are separate lanes for cars and pedestrians; and the water and electricity supply works very well, as well as the sewage system – which is far from being the case in India in general,” explains Bougot. “Le Corbusier’s urban planning is very efficient.”
“[People] are generally very proud about living there,” Bougot recalls. “They all know about the story of Le Corbusier, they’re grateful for his design and organisation.”
Known as “The Beautiful City” to residents, its reputation precedes it, and its living standard has attracted almost double its planned population in the years since its inception. New generations of Indian architects have been tasked with constructing the city’s burgeoning limits and many of them have continued where Le Corbusier left off, expanding Chandigarh without losing its unique character.
While Chandigarh isn’t without its challenges (concrete doesn’t age well under extreme weather conditions and the State Assembly building has such poor acoustics, microphones are needed despite the chamber’s small space) the lives of its residents are a testament to Le Corbusier’s ambitions for a city “planned to human scale” – one that provides “places and buildings for all human activities in which the citizens can live a full and harmonious life.”
As Le Corbusier himself once stated: “The seed of Chandigarh is well sown. It is for the citizens to see that the tree flourishes.”
All photography is taken from Voyage à Chandigarh by Manuel Bougot, published by Editions du Patrimoine.