Oculus Book Review: Casablanca Chandigarh: A Report on Modernization

It was a tremendous treat to hear scholars Tom Avermaete and Maristella Casciato discuss their process and share the evolution of the exhibition and subsequent publication Casablanca Chandigarh: A Report on Modernization on 10.06.14 at the Center for Architecture. Rarely is one privy to the process of assembling an architectural exhibition, and rarely is a book so close to the didactic mechanism of an exhibition. Avermaete and Casciato walked the audience through the intellectual findings of new material from the Pierre Jeanneret archive via the Canadian Centre for Architecture archive, and married the Jeanneret material on Chandigarh with research on its sister city in Modernism, Casablanca. Avermaete and Casciato crafted the exhibition and book around the idea that these two cities are a product of the history of Modernist ideals, and that they have worn exceedingly well as Modernist cities filled with inhabitants.

Avermaete and Casciato set up the story of the two cities with two heroes: Le Corbusier and Michel Ecochard (of course all Modernism needs a male hero). Le Corbusier’s story is typical: he glides through the countryside on his first visit to India with his sketchbook and romantically sketches half as journalist, half as visionary. The Punjab Notebook was described by Avermaete and Casciato as a prophetic manuscript, an example of the poetic research that Corbusier invented. With Casablanca, Ecochard is a dashing pilot and motorcyclist whose aerial photos and critical photojournalistic images developed into a rich method of anthropological research. Avermaete and Casciato cite the methods of both architects as valid. 

The research focused on the spatial conditions of both places. Whether it be the landscape or the interior building conditions, both methods of research lead to making habitable space. Most illuminating was a topographical model/master plan of Chandigarh photographed by Pierre Jeanneret. For me, this image illustrates the high level of sensitivity that those who worked with Corbusier, in particular Jeanneret, maintained. The model is as poetic as a landscape sketch by Corbusier, but evidently charted the two vital hydrologic systems that would service the city of Chandigarh.

So here lies the real story of who made Chandigarh and Casablanca. Avermaete and Casciato maintain and clearly illustrate that the “actors” in the evolution of these two cities are many, varied, and make up a new definition of how architecture and urban design were crafted during the important period of decolonization of the 1950s. They cite this time as the advent of specialists, when large organizations such as the UN and the Ford Foundation would deploy “specialists” to conceive, manage, and construct cities.  The result was world-changing, but the process was difficult. The text points to Jeanneret’s successes as the real conductor of Chandigarh’s progress, and it also illuminates his exhaustion to a certain extent. While Jeanneret was on the ground, a magnificent diagram created by Corbusier visualizing the power structure tells us how things worked in the bureaucracy of a young government.

Avermaete and Casciato have created a conversation that really gets at why history is an important filter to examine current cities. The idea of Yto Barrada’s and Takashi Homma’s “photographic missions” is amazing. The photo essays are beautifully crafted, clear, and mirror the research from Corbusier and Ecochard, illustrating each city’s sensibility. The Homma essay (and film shown at the Book Talk) on Chandigarh housing reframes designer Jeanneret as a master of the plastic arts; the photos really make you want much more of these buildings. The Casablanca images speak of real people who inhabit Modernism. The only flaw I see with these essays is that they are so beautiful that the actual reading of the text gets waylaid. I just want to be in those buildings, those streets.

The eloquent introduction outlines the dense and complex geo-political condition that was the genesis for Casablanca and Chandigarh. This body of research is fresh and exciting, and an entirely new realm of history and current cultural affairs for this reader. I particularly liked the “blue pages” that highlighted the “actors,” relating the biographies and impact of the many individuals who contributed to the two cities. The form of the book is compelling, bringing the conversation of two cities to us in this dense dossier format is a great pleasure.

Event: Oculus Book Talk: Casablanca Chandigarh: A Report on Modernization
Location: Center for Architecture, 10.06.14
Speakers: Tom Avermaete, Professor of Architecture, TU Delft; and Maristella Casciato, Associate Director of Research, Canadian Centre for Architecture
Organized by: AIANY Oculus Committee