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Life In Le Corbusier’s Utopian City, Photographed By A Resident

Photographer Shaun Fynn documents the complexities of Chandigarh, 70 years later.

Chandigarh, one of India’s capital cities, was conceived as a modernist utopia. When Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, commissioned Le Corbusier to design the city’s master plan in 1950, he envisioned a place that would symbolize independence, look to the future, and break with the country’s colonial past. But today, nearly 70 years after Le Corbusier begin his grand experiment in designing an entire city from the ground up, Chandigarh stands as a vestige to that grand aspiration–and evidence of its failure.

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[Photo: © Shaun Fynn/courtesy Princeton Architectural Press]
Designer and photographer Shaun Fynn documents this dichotomy in Chandigarh Revealed (Princeton Architectural Press, 2017), a new book charting the city’s evolution.

“Fifty years on from Le Corbusier’s death we live in a world that he and his contemporaries would have had little anticipation of,” Fynn writes in the book’s introduction. “The rapid urbanization of populations, particularly in the developing world and specifically in Asia, the context to which Chandigarh belongs, presents a model of development where the economic forces of a new industrial revolution transpire to create ever-expanding cities.”

Intended for a population of 500,000, Le Corbusier’s 15,000-acre master plan divided the city into 47 sectors each with housing, shops, schools, hospitals, and public space. His design preached democracy, with as much attention paid to housing as government buildings. Gardens were planted throughout the city as places where all city residents, not just the rich, could go for recreation.

[Photo: © Shaun Fynn]
Nehru and Le Corbusier attempted to create an orderly city, but what stands today is often just as chaotic as more conventionally planned urban areas in the country. Chandigarh’s population is close to 1 million people, and slums have cropped up around its periphery to accommodate residents. Shop owners have modified buildings to suit their needs. Power lines are haphazardly strewn between buildings.

“The visual language and codes of Indian culture has certainly made its mark on the city,” Fynn says. “I don’t think this is unexpected but the patina of time and manifestations of culture would have been very difficult for Le Corbusier and his team to plan for or anticipate in a prescribed manner. The entrepreneurial nature of Indian commerce and traders have made use of the blank space in the plan as can be seen in the billboards and advertisements of wares and services to the markets and vendors.”

[Photo: © Shaun Fynn]
The most famous part of the plan is the Capitol Complex–the large scale, Brutalist administrative buildings that house government offices that have become iconic. Some of the city’s buildings and sectors were never completed, some have suffered from neglect, and some have been meticulously maintained.

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Fynn, who lived in the city for a time, photographed nearly every element of it–including the lesser-documented residential and commercial neighborhoods, inside single-family homes and apartment buildings, and in the abandoned buildings squatters have taken over.

[Photo: © Shaun Fynn]
While the Capitol Complex became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2016, a move that protects the structure and provides access to preservation resources, the fate of the rest of the city, especially its derelict areas, is unclear. Individual buildings face the specter of demolition. Should they be preserved as part of an historically significant city, or recast for modern use? Meanwhile, the furniture from many of these structures, which fetch thousands at auction, has been pillaged.

“I think it’s possible to evolve a city like Chandigarh while preserving its historic nature,” Fynn says. “If the residents’ needs are well planned for, the question is how does Chandigarh evolve economically while preserving its original character? Legislation is a big part of this, as development can be allowed while remaining sensitive to the plan. Also, large areas such as sector 17 have never really realized their full potential and are in need of economic impetus and a plan to bring them to life in a contemporary sense. My view is there is latitude to develop within the plan.”

Fynn hopes his series sparks more curiosity and introspection about Chandigarh and a deeper understanding of Le Corbusier’s vision.

[Photo: © Shaun Fynn]
“A journey though today’s developing-world metropolises reveals a landscape preoccupied with survival as much as building coherent visions of the future,” he says. “Planning and building such clear and coherent schemes as Le Corbusier’s Chandigarh, or [Oscar] Niemeyer’s Brasilia is considerably more challenging in a contemporary context. Today, political and financial endorsement of such grand schemes seems to have been consigned to a previous era as the dynamics of population growth meet the sometimes spontaneous or random methodologies for urban development. I would hope my book will promote this debate and Le Corbusier’s place in it.”

Find Chandigarh Revealed at papress.com for $60, and see a selection of images in the slide show above.

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About the author

Diana Budds is a New York–based writer covering design and the built environment.

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