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Chandigarh: Ernst Scheidegger's previously unseen photographs

Ernst Scheidegger’s previously unpublished photos reveal the daily lives of the inhabitants of Chandigarh, Le Corbusier’s most significant urbanism project, writes Andrew Mead

In the big Le Corbusier show that came to Liverpool and London last year (Le Corbusier: The Art of Architecture) there was little focus on what happened to his designs once built: no occupants’ or users’ viewpoint; no search for what had or hadn’t worked. In this respect Chandigarh was a glaring omission.

Masterplanned primarily by Le Corbusier in the 1950s as the capital of the northern Indian state of Punjab, it was his one great chance to put his city planning theories into practice. But the show gave no sense of Chandigarh now.

So the first thought on opening Chandigarh 1956 is whether it will be the retrospective study that the city demands. It’s not - but it’s enlightening nonetheless. The bulk of the book consists of photographs from the mid-1950s The Critics by Swiss photojournalist Ernst Scheidegger, so we see the foundation of the city, not its later development. But Scheidegger wasn’t out to idealise the architecture and produce a purely formalist account.

As art historian Stanislaus von Moos says in one of the brief essays that accompany the photos, Scheidegger’s approach was more anthropological: ‘the quiet observation of ordinary people as they go about their daily lives’. So a human dimension is paramount and Chandigarh is inhabited from the start.

One section places us right among the workforce as the city takes shape. We see bricks being made for the residential sector, masons laying rubblestone walls for a school, and workers perched on bamboo scaffolding around the Government Press Building.

Scheidegger wasn’t so mesmerised by Le Corbusier that he looked only at the capitol complex, where Corb’s Palace of Justice was just completed and the Secretariat well underway. He gives as much attention to the work of Le Corbusier’s collaborators: his Swiss cousin Pierre Jeanneret and the British architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry.

In contrast to the slick international style form-making of Brasilia, Le Corbusier was seeking to give an archaic quality to the capitol complex

‘The schools were a real eye-opener,’ says Scheidegger. ‘I was impressed by the imagination and inventiveness invested in these buildings, and by the models they provided for education in general.’

In many of his photos the lessons are taking place alfresco, with children bent over desks or squatting on the grass and the school’s boldly gridded facade in the background. Already occupied as well were some of the residential schemes, which in one shot Scheidegger shows alongside housing that was there before the architects arrived - rammed-earth dwellings that look immemorial. His coverage is textured by street-life scenes of rickshaw drivers, food stalls, barbers and the like.

Even when Scheidegger turns to the capitol, with all the opportunities for abstraction its monuments offer, he tends to keep people in the frame

Even when Scheidegger turns to the capitol, with all the opportunities for abstraction that its monuments o­ er, he tends to keep people in the frame, or to stand well away from the buildings to emphasise their site. ‘We’re in the midst of an eternal landscape… Everything is calm, slow, harmonious, lovable,’ wrote Le Corbusier to his wife.

In Scheidegger’s photographs, oxen root around in the sparse bleached grass while behind them the Secretariat commands a wide-open landscape as decisively as the Temple of Segesta in Sicily. Encouraging such comparisons is the incomplete state of the Secretariat, which could almost pass for a ruin. Moreover, in contrast to the slick international style form-making of Brasilia (also being built in the 1950s), Le Corbusier was consciously seeking to give an archaic quality to the capitol complex.

Ironically, the Le Corbusier retrospective at London’s Hayward Gallery in 1987 made much more of an attempt than last year’s exhibition to assess the pros and cons of Chandigarh. In the 1987 catalogue, Sunand Prasad said: ‘the fact remains that for all its immense shortcomings, a vital city has come into being which seems to command much pride and love from its citizens’.

When a thorough retrospective study of Chandigarh does eventually come to be published, it needs the same humane inclusive eye that Scheidegger displays in this book.

The unpublished work

Scheidegger & Spiess’ book is the realisation of a project which goes back to the 1950s. A student of Le Corbusier’s work, and signifi cant photographer in his own right, Ernst Scheidegger made several trips to the Punjab capital to record Chandigarh’s construction. Scheidegger was a Swiss photographer contemporary to Man Ray, Salvador Dali and Alberto Giacometti and, along with Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, a member of the Magnum photo agency. His unfulfi lled plan was to publish a book of his Indian pictures to popularise the ideas of Le Corbusier. Scheidegger has lived to see his photographs published for the fi rst time in Chandigarh 1956, published shortly after his 86th birthday.

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