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The canon and the Refle(cts)x: narrating a modern city in South Asia.


The state architecture of postcolonial nations in Asia and Africa is often an effort to assert their independence from the former metropoles, as well as an indication of power and identity in the new nations (Vale 12). While architecture and town planning, as physical constructs, are the subject of much debate and discussion, the same cannot be said of the discursive representations of these same objects. Indeed, much of the textual production that accompanies building is relegated as a secondary source compared to the buildings and monuments themselves (Lefebvre 24).

However, as Roland Barthes and Henri Lefebvre have shown, spatial production is in itself not related only to built form, but also carries within itself the all-important production of texts and the myths that accompany the written and spoken word (Barthes 72). Within this discourse is combined the discourse of post-colonialism, in which former colonies and their peoples attempt to "write back" thus aspiring to be at the level of their colonial metropoles, as well as reaching out for symbols of power as a shortcut to power itself (Prakash 15).

Architecture, thus, for a postcolonial state, is intensely involved in these processes of "writing back." While much has been said about the architecture and monumentality of postcolonial states, little has been written about the textual production that accompanies architecture (Vale 65). The case becomes even more gripping when architecture itself is the result of a convoluted process of borrowing from former colonial powers in terms of utilizing expertise, architects and materiel, and deploying these on the sites of the so-called third world.

A historic experiment in the building of a new and modern postcolonial town was carried out in India in 1950, when the independent state of India built a new capital city for the region of the Punjab, to replace the historic capital of Lahore, "lost" to Pakistan. Here, at Chandigarh, a French architect and town-planner, coupled with a British team of subordinates and Indian engineers, built a town that came to be renowned for its monumentality, its visionary and modernist town planning, and its potentially polemic architecture and built form (Joshi 15). As is the case with other such town planning schemes, a substantial amount of textual documentation accompanied this experiment. It is the intention of this paper to explore a canonical discourse that contributed to creating the iconicity of Chandigarh, and to problematize the myths inherent in such a key textual discourse that buttress the underlying dominance of the excolonial power, and that inherently suppress possible "native" voices that might challenge the canon.

Context: Le Corbusier and Chandigarh

In the history of modern architecture, the figure of Le Corbusier (ne Charles Edouard Jeanneret) is widely acknowledged to be seminal (Curtis 105). Though criticisms abound about the dehumanizing philosophy of Modernism in architecture, it is valid to say that Le Corbusier's and his contemporaries' theories about the role of architecture as a tool to further human moral and material development are well-documented (Frampton 2007). Through several path-breaking projects, such as the Plan Voisin, the chapel at Ronchamp, and the monastery at La Tourette, as well as the publication of several illuminating books on architecture, Le Corbusier had cemented his position by the middle of the 20th century as one of the leading lights of modern construction. It was thus, for the Indians, a happy coincidence that an Indian team of administrators and engineers chanced upon Le Corbusier to give shape to Punjab's new capital city.

Constructed over a period of twenty years from 1950 to 1970, Chandigarh marked the rallying point of Le Corbusier's oeuvre, a new city that was free from overt postcolonial associations and yet could hold its own, in terms of its architecture and monumentality, with Brazil's new capital and the Baroque planning of Washington, DC. Its culminating focus was the Capitol, a synergy of administrative, legislative and judicial buildings set in a mystical landscape of mountains, concrete memorials and vast landscaping elements. Le Corbusier's personal friendship with India's Prime Minister and the engineers involved in the project gained Chandigarh a certain notoriety and primacy in international discourse, so the city's architecture was widely publicized and visited by the architectural elite.

Complementary to Le Corbusier's city was also the somewhat prosaic Chandigarh, an infill of houses, parks, schools and public buildings designed to make the city actually habitable. Designed by Le Corbusier's cousin, Pierre Jeanneret, and the British couple of Edwin Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, this Chandigarh garnered less attention initially, but in later years would go on to form a vital part of Chandigarh's built "heritage" of modern buildings and architecture (Joshi 20).

Within this context of history and built form, the Chandigarh project was subject to close scrutiny and documentation by a host of historians, sociologists, and architects. What emerges from a close reading of these sources is an overlapping image of the town project as one that jousts alternately between two epistemologies: the first is a reading that privileges "empire" and the primacy of the Eurocentric world; and the second rises from Indian domestic reporting and a nationalistic view of history. While constructing the textual discourse of this postcolonial city, it would be prudent to examine a "canonical" source as supportive of a tentative hypothesis and question: what is the "true" location of the discursive representation of a postcolonial city? What is the "true" origin of the postcolonial city project? And to what extent does an overlapping, close reading help us identify these location(s) and origin(s)? Answering these questions about the Chandigarh project would help us form a general hypothesis about the origin and location of the postcolonial modern city through a reading of the textual documents that accompany its production.

Creating a Canon: Norma Evenson's Chandigarh

It was no surprise that Le Corbusier's polemic architecture attracted a great deal of attention in the West. In 1966, when the Chandigarh project was well on its way to completion, Norma Evenson, then a historian of architecture at the University of Berkeley, wrote the first "outside" appraisal of the project that was consumed in the West. Titled simply Chandigarh, Evenson's book went on to become in a way the canonical first resource on Chandigarh in the English language press for academics. It was in this work that Evenson laid the foundation for the appropriation of Chandigarh into the Western canon: a work built by Western architects according to Western principles of aesthetics and design.

What follows is an analysis of Norma Evenson's book through the optic of a postcolonial reading: that is, an analysis of Evenson's text as a production of Western epistemological canons that seeks to locate the origin of Chandigarh firmly in the West, and that hypothesizes her work as a metaphor for "location" as much as it is an objective account of the architecture and planning of the new city. This study has potentially serious ramifications for the study of postcolonial capital cities, especially as they are or may be built by "imported" expertise in the form of architects, planners, and administrators. Similar, parallel examples may be found, for example, in Nigeria's postcolonial capital city of Abuja, or Pakistan's capital city of Islamabad.

The Curious Case of the Missing "Natives"

As later histories would show, the site for Chandigarh was acquired by displacing 22 villages that occupied the land (Kalia 34). Little is known about these villagers, or what they had to say about this forcible displacement, in Western histories of Chandigarh. To Le Corbusier and his associates, Chandigarh was a tabula rasa, a magnificent landscape of mountains, bullocks and peasants--a civilization that hadn't really "invented an architecture for the machine age" (Boesiger 123).

Thus Chandigarh started with a latent revolt--a narrative that predates Le Corbusier's Chandigarh and yet is curiously missing from Evenson's book. Preferring instead to treat the city as a "pure" experiment in urban planning and architecture, Evenson arrogates to the city plan

... the gesture by which man takes possession of space, impressing on that space the ordering of his mind and devising a comprehensible man-made world for himself and his creations. By what gesture does man possess space? How does he make his mark in the natural world? ... Throughout history and human culture the town plan has become one of the universal signatures of man. It is a signature consistently legible, as the language is perhaps the oldest human language--visual order. (Evenson 1-2)

It is only in the second chapter ("The Creation of the City") that Evenson alludes to the significance the project held for the Indian State. It is worthwhile mentioning here the paradoxical nature of the urban process in India, which went against the grain of key meth odological requirements of modern urbanism at the time--requirements that presume the availability of data on which to base design. Maurice Besset is of the opinion that the absence of data was not really problematic for the Indian authorities, concerned as they were by the city as a largely political problem (Besset 148). The process by which the city is created is described as follows: it is a consequence of political division, designed to recreate an administrative capital for the Punjab government and to rehabilitate millions of refugees from the new state of Pakistan. Here the symbolic nature of the city is mentioned in passing:

Of more significance than practical consideration in influencing the decision to build a new city, however, may have been the need at this time for a symbolic gesture. India, filled with new national pride, needed focal points for unity; the Punjabis needed a lift for their morale. The new city, coming into existence at a time of disorder and uncertainty, could stand as a tangible embodiment of the will to maintain a stable society.... The colonial yoke had been thrown off, and the moment had arrived for India to show the world that she could stand alone, that she could command her own destiny and govern her own house, and that against the brutality of nature and the vastness of her continent she could impress an ordered yet viable pattern of human life--proof that Indian civilisation, though ancient, was still vigorous and creative. (Evenson 6)

This analysis raises several questions. Firstly, there is the question of a new state filled with "national pride." While this was undoubtedly true for a section of the population, it does not take into account the reactions of regional groupings that had not yet been integrated into the nation, or that of dispossessed minorities. Would it be more precise to say that a reason for creating a city was also to create national pride? The second assumption that the text makes is implicit: that ancient civilizations have, in one way or the other, frittered away their vigor, strength and vitality, and that proof contrary to this is necessary--in the form of a city. Much of this is Evenson's imbrication in Orientalist assumptions of Eastern civilizations--effete and lacking virility, and by extension, lacking an architecture for the modern age.

Yet there is a section in Evenson's book that pre-dates Le Corbusier. This part deals with the roles played by Albert Mayer, an American planner, and Mathieu Nowicki, an American emigre architect, in their capacity as the original team hired by the Indians for the Chandigarh project. Prior to Le Corbusier, it was this team that gave shape to the city plan. It is interesting to note that Mayer was largely based in India before his work on Chandigarh. Did this fact "locate" him, for the postcolonial state, in a place unacceptably far from the colonial metropole? Was Indian familiarity with Mayer a reason that his plan was eventually put aside for that of Le Corbusier? Certainly Evenson does not think so: her analysis of Mayer and Nowicki's contribution puts her on surer ground, along with her access to Mayer's archives and letters on the project. Mayer's approach to city planning is characterized as "empirical" rather than formal, associating by default an inherently organic nature to the Mayer plan. This may or may not have been a conclusion drawn from the material available; and it may also, one must not discount, be a hypothesis arrived at by the need to distinguish Mayer's plan from that of Le Corbusier. A valuable source--or extract--here is Evenson's use of direct quotations attributed to Nowicki:

It seems very obvious to me that some of our present judgements are based on the relation, first, to the inadequacies of our gridiron street system, and secondly, to the lack of diversity in the creation of modern architecture. We love irregularity because we have too much boring regularity around. Here the abuse of a notion is confused in our minds with the notion itself. We do not know how future generations will react to this problem. However, it seems to me that a city always has been and will be a 'modular problem' based on a regularity of design because there has been a regularity of purpose. Every conscious planning effort was to create an order. The clarity of this order was always admired by posterity and comprehended in the same way as it was intended by the planner. A perfect city was the result of time and I am afraid no planner can make it so without the help of time. I feel that it would be a mistake to attempt to create a perfect city incorporating in it a notion of diversity that the perfect city, as we know them, have. A logical and true city plan is always a modular diagram expressing a certain philosophy and principle of life (true for a certain period) applied to specific conditions. The amount of sensitivity in applying the diagram will be responsible for legitimate variations. But the main objective should be order and not diversity. It seems to me that only in this way can one achieve the highest standard and the uniqueness of a truly great plan.... I have the opinion that none of our plans have approached this standard. (Evenson 15)


The difference in design philosophy between Mayer and Nowicki is already apparent. While Mayer advocates "empiricalism" in his work, Nowicki stresses order and regularity even within a plan that gives apparent weight to "diversity" (Evenson 12-24). It is perhaps no surprise that Nowicki had his own version of an "ideal" city plan--a leaf-pattern that mimics the venous structure of the leaf in its circulation system--a projection of organic growth and structure within the confines of a visible order--the "legitimate variations" that he alludes to.

Evenson details the Mayer plan as composed of basic superblock or neighbourhood units. Mayer believed that the sense of community induced by the superblock made it particularly suited for Indian conditions, where community life was one of the keystones of semi-rural living, and indeed was manifested in most of the major urban centers around the country. So Mayer's superblock, in its final form, takes on the following characteristics: it accommodates about 1150 families each, and the superblocks in turn are grouped into three-block districts of 3500 families; each district is also designed to be self-sufficient, incorporating housing, local shopping, schools and parks; the zones are stratified according to income type, from low to high income groups; and finally, the aggregated "urban" area occupies a maximum area of one hundred acres, with the superblock itself being about 3000 by 1500 feet.


In conclusion, Evenson offers a tentative analysis of the Mayer plan:

... one begins to feel that much of its form springs from what is almost an anti-urban aesthetic, and, although it might have been developed as an attractive and comfortable city, the overall plan somehow does not read as a monumental capital--as that positive act of possession by which a capital may symbolize the control of a people over their destiny.

(Evenson 18)

Matthew Nowicki, apart from illustrating children's books and maintaining a design practice in the United States, had surprisingly little experience that would make him capable of designing the postcolonial monument. It is partly rhetorical to conjecture about the nature of a Mayer-Nowicki capital, especially as none of their efforts were ultimately realized. Still, Nowicki's sketches and drawings for the capital bear testimony to his vision. Left to Mayer and Nowicki, there is every chance that Chandigarh would have gone the way of new towns in England or France in terms of architectural and urban fragmentation. Nevertheless, Evenson cites from Nowicki's letters:

As important as the problem of each housing unit is the type of their overall [sic] relations. The low-cost housing occupies large areas of the town. If we are to avoid the drab appearance of the well-known refugee housing groups, the relations between houses have to be different from the monotonous repetition of a parallel block. The richness of perspectives within the areas of pedestrian movement is not resulting from the quality of architectural detail alone (in our case, strongly handicapped by the budget). It is the result of relations between the buildings which provide a frame for a particularly interesting view where color and silhouette are seen in shade, or strong projections offer diversified shadow pattern in sunlight. The change of those views, none of them large-scale within our residential area, should follow a well-planned sequence.... Human well-being seems to depend on the emotional quality of space as much as on the sanitary factors of light and air. This fact explains why people become attached to crowded and seemingly uncomfortable conditions in many cities, and remain cold to some modern developments, sanitary as they may be. (Evenson 23)

Evenson attributes, finally, to Nowicki an almost prophetic sense of his own destiny and place in the world. In a letter to Mayer, two weeks before his death over Cairo, Nowicki writes:

I have found at last the exact words of Krishna. 'Indifferent to pleasure and pain, to gain or loss, to conquest or defeat, thus make ready for the fight.... As do the foolish, attached to works, so should the wise do, but without attachment, seeking to establish order in the world.' (Evenson 24)

Perhaps Nowicki, in some sense, foresaw his own fiery death. On August 31, 1950, TWA Flight 903 from Cairo to Rome, a Lockheed Constellation named "Star of Maryland," crashed near Wadi Natrun near Cairo. All 55 passengers and the crew perished: the time was just a few minutes after midnight. (1) It was time for the Indian administrators to select another team: the first had produced a plan, it was true, but with little direction on how to implement it, nor any clear vision of where it took its place within a changing world. Evenson's chapters on the "second team," once again, went almost without criticism into the canonical literature on Chandigarh. But who was Nowicki, and what were his motives for coming to Chandigarh? Why did he collaborate with Albert Mayer, and what were the techniques used by Mayer to convince Nowicki to participate ? How did Mayer use Nowicki's status as a recent immigrant from Poland--and his pending immigration application (sponsored by Albert Mayer)--as a tool to alternately cajole, bully, and persuade Nowicki? These answers and more are in the Mayer archives, a story that still lies waiting to be told. The drawings that Nowicki made of his proposals for Chandigarh are too disparate to offer any real sense of what the entire finished city might have looked like: certainly it is characterised by experimentation with vernacular Indian forms, Nowicki's own tendencies to decorate surfaces, and a marked lack of true monumentality that would characterise Le Corbusier's work.

After Nowicki's death and Mayer's continued absence, the Indians lost little time in contracting for another team; already, the Mayer plan was close to being relegated to the past.

The urban myth that the story has become goes, roughly speaking, as follows: P.L. Varna and P.N. Thapar, able engineer and administrator, respectively, leave for Europe after Nowicki's death to look for an architectural consultant. After much rambling around in the capitals of that fair continent, Varma and Thapar finally meet Fry and Drew, who recommend Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret (for the second time). Le Corbusier, finally enticed by the possibility of not having to completely abandon Paris, inks the contract and, forthwith, on his first visit to India, makes changes to Mayer's (and Nowicki's!) master plan, altering it to his own taste in "less than four days." Le Corbusier's plan consists of the by-now famous systems of circulation, an anthropomorphic conception of the city, and finally (and perhaps for the future, most importantly) rules and regulations that govern the nature of the city, its future expansion, and its relation to the surrounding countryside. For Le Corbusier's intervention and final contribution to the Capitol, Evenson says:

It is this monumental aspect of the city which obviously attracted Le Corbusier's primary interest, and his efforts were directed toward the immediate development of a powerful capitol complex and toward giving the whole urban fabric the imprint of a monumental symbolism, drawing certain of its dimensions from the large-scale ordering of Paris. (Evenson 68)

The book's following chapters analyze what Evenson calls the "dual character" of the city--its division, so to speak, into an overarching macro-order, that then branches down into smaller units, each with its own system and hierarchy of routes, spaces and built form. Evenson devotes a chapter each to the Sector, the Commercial Area, Educational and Cultural Areas, and finally the Capitol. Within the empirical analysis lies useful data, for example on the nature and quantity of plots sold, and zoning distribution of the city. For example, applications for plots were invited by 1948, with a final 62,729 respondents applying by the end of June 1951. The first phase of development had provisions for 23,000 residential sites, with about 70% reserved for private holding.


House types (especially government housing by Fry, Drew, and Jeanneret) were designated by number and type (from Type 14 to Type 1), and the first sector to be developed was Sector 22. Evenson, taking Jane Drew's lead, criticizes the sector for its apparent lack of coherence. She quotes Fry:

... house design and sector layouts should have been considered as one, but there were not enough houses of any one type to enable us to design complete districts of our own type houses. Inevitably there was a mixing of interests and only an approximation to a comprehensive design was achieved. (Evenson 47)

Evenson's bias and training for analyzing a city plan is apparent in her treatment and critique of the sector, as well as in her interest in smaller details that may escape a purely "architectural" agenda. Witness, for example, her interest in chulhas and water closets, as well as her critique of the sectors as lacking any real "focal points for general community interest" (Evenson 68). This critique of the sector continues into the conclusion for the chapter:

For most visitors, the contrast between the architectural quality of the monumental building and that which makes up the bulk of the city is startling, and for many, those with hopes of finding a model city, disillusioning.... The designers of the Capital Project Office headed by Jeanneret appear incapable of producing anything other than augmentation of the established monotony. Far from being a center of creative thought, the project office has dwindled into a typical Indian bureaucratic establishment routinely grinding out its task, and Chandigarh has become merely another government housing project. (Evenson 61)


While Evenson's depth and breadth of research is comprehensive, Maurice Besset, again, was more circumspect in his critique of the book. While appreciating the scholarship that goes into the chapters on the Capitol and Le Corbusier's architecture therein, he calls for a comparative analysis with other contemporaneous examples: the Villas La Roche and Savoye, La Tourette, or the Maisons Jaoul, Shodan and Sarabhai. He also underscores that Evenson steers clear of "succumbing to sentimental sociology" and that she is sufficiently convinced of the "instrinsic virtues of the plan" to conclude that it will overcome any shortcomings in design and execution (Besset 99). Evenson herself was less circumspect than Maurice Besset--though more cautious about Chandigarh itself--in her final verdict at the conclusion of the book:

At present, Chandigarh represents a generous investment of courage and hope, of talent and devoted effort, and it will continue to require such investments. If Chandigarh is to ever become a true city, however, it will be only when its people have given it a history, when it has become free of its planners to acquire a destiny of its own. Ultimately the people of Chandigarh must achieve the city they deserve. (Evenson 102)

It is important to understand the kind of ideological work that Evenson's Chandigarh is actually doing. It is quite clear that Evenson uses essentialisms that are potentially problematic, but it is also quite apparent that these are inevitable in such a work that inscribes itself within a genre of positivist historical thought. Such essentialisms--inscribing the Indian state as a homogeneous entity, conflating the political center with people's intent, and more--are characteristic of Orientalist understandings of the East. Is Evenson's Chandigarh a fundamentally Orientalist text? I'd argue that this question is wrongly posed. The basis of the Orientalist critique lies on the power of the text, as an ideological deployment, to capture and to consolidate the territory of knowledge, to lay a claim for the superiority of the West not only militarily and economically, but also culturally. The "objective" and "true" text is produced by the West, using Western scientific epistemology as its narrative basis. But this textual production is also designed to be consumed by the West, or at least by a homogeneous identity whose identity is close enough to the author's to restrict, as far as possible, a multiplicity of meaning. There is no implied Orientalism in this gesture. This does not absolve Evenson of all critique: indeed, her failure to recognize the value of indigenous sources, or at the very least acknowledge this as one of the limitations of her text, means that she lays claim (tacitly at least) to writing a true, and objective, and thus final, version of the history of the city. (2) Much of this stems from her position within mid-20th century ways of writing architectural history, and the social and political hegemony that modernism claimed at the time.

Conclusion: Location and Canon

Over time, Evenson's book became a canonical reference for Chandigarh's architecture and town planning: the first stop for academics from around the world. The main argument of this article is that Evenson's work is undoubtedly canonic: and yet it is an incomplete architectural and social history. There are missing voices inherent in the work: the Indians displaced by a Western "town planning" project, reportages from the local media, oral histories of the citizens, and so on. If Chandigarh was the project of a postcolonial state that sought to rediscover the sheen of power and identity, then, as a parallel, its canonical representation as evidenced by Evenson's book is equally complicit in this project of locating Chandigarh within Eurocentric historiography.


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Prakash, Vikramaditya. Colonial Modernities: Building, Dwelling and Architecture in British India and Ceylon. Taylor and Francis, 2007.

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Ashish Nangia, Indo Global Education Foundation

(1) "While en route from Cairo to Rome, witnesses observed the aircraft on fi re. After turning back toward Cairo, it crashed and burned. Failure of the rear master rod bearing in the No. 3 engine led to an uncontrollable fire. The aircraft was named Star of Maryland." From the Plane Crash Information Database. http:// (Accessed 1 December, 2007)

(2) Much of Evenson's work inscribes itself within the ways and methodologies of writing art history, with architectural history as a subset. In the 1960s, there was a methodological change in the ways this was done. For an account of Continental institutions and the writing of architectural history, see Barry Bergdoll and Alice Thomine, "Teaching Architectural History in France: A Shifting Institutional Landscape" The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 61, No. 4. (Dec., 2002), 509-518. Nicholas Adams interprets, in an editorial for the JSAH, the change in architectural history from analogical comparisons with the past to critical commentary on modernist praxis. See Nicholas Adams, "History in the Age of Interpretation" The Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 53, No. 1. (Mar., 1994), 5-6.
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Author:Nangia, Ashish
Publication:East-West Connections: Review of Asian Studies
Article Type:Report
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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