[November 17 2016]
“After India won its independance in 1947, Le Corbusier was asked to design the city of Chandigarh. What he created, realizing his modernist vision, became known as The City Beautiful. While wandering through this brutalist utopia, Martien Mulder found a story in the raw concrete and the artful details that make up the city. Her photographs are soulful impressions of Chandigarh’s modernist form, and a delicately abstract interepretation of the architect’s masterpiece. This book is her ode to Le Corbusier’s core belief that ‘architecture is the skillful, correct,and magnificient play of volumes assembled in the light.'”
Ten years ago, I found myself on assignment for The Independent in Chandigarh, India. Almost immediately upon entering the city, I knew I needed to return, alone, and take pictures purely for myself. I wanted the freedom to roam around, linger in one spot, follow my instincts, track the light and not think about anything other than my desire to capture the poetics of this unique place. Nearly a decade later, I fulfilled my wish.
What I love about walking through Chandigarh is that, as a westerner, one is viscerally impressed by its historical and architectural weight. In the 1950s, Prime Minister Nehru commissioned Le Corbusier to design a new capital city that would express the country’s newfound independence. With the help of his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, Le Corbusier seized the opportunity to implement his programmatic vision on a monumental scale. From the sprawling residential neighborhoods to the magnificent High Court edifice, this total urban environment is a masterwork of Modernism.
The people who live in Chandigarh, however, don’t perceive it that way; they have just made the city their home. They use and decorate their houses like anywhere else in India, ignoring the minimalism and rigidity of the concrete forms. There are very stringent rules in Chandigarh about the use of public space, and new development is strictly regulated. Yet the city is as colorful and dirty and alive as any other Indian city.
The Indian mentality is visible everywhere, completely resistant to the European mindset that shaped the architecture. Many of Le Corbusier’s “rationalist” plans didn’t actually work for the local culture, and so the residents of Chandigarh have appropriated the spaces by adjusting the details to their own liking. The result is a fascinating collocation of Eastern and Western thinking and a beautiful collage of daily life unfolding within the high-concept, constructed design.
An especially wonderful example of the tension between the “big” design and the “small” everyday reality in Chandigarh is a particular street that has been taken over by the city’s lawyers. Their desks, chairs, and typewriters are set up like any office, but in the open air. The scene is incredible, almost absurd, especially on a Sunday when the lawyers are off work and the desks sit empty with little combination locks securing the drawers full of paperwork. It looks like a theater stage during intermission, framed by an implausibly high, overhanging façade.
More than anything though, the architectural forms directed my shots. The severity of the grids, the utter squareness of all the buildings, and the austere geometry of the brise soleil are all so intense; they just demand a certain angle. Wanting to capture these forms at the scale of life, I framed the city’s inhabitants as general figures, almost silhouettes, engulfed by the massive structures, and zoomed in on small plants penetrating the brutalist surfaces. I would find my perfect composition and wait for the right person or animal to pass by, such as someone wearing a brightly colored turban echoing the color in the buildings, or a dog with the perfect vulnerable cuteness defying the harshness of the concrete.
Sometimes I would introduce unexpected elements into the streetscapes, placing props that would respond to my favorite aspects of the architecture. I collaborated with my good friends Xander Vervoort and Leon Van Boxtel (from the talented Dutch design studio X+L) who have been travelling to Chandigarh for years. They collect homespun cotton textiles known as Khadi cloth, which they use to create patchwork wall tapestries inspired by Modernist compositions. As it turned out, the fabrics and the patchworks were the perfect graphic addition to my pictures.
Of course as a photographer I am always chasing the light, and, in Chandigarh, the light is just a dream. One day, during a public holiday, I wandered into the totally empty, three-story courtyard of the Department of Law in one of the main university buildings on campus. The sunlight was hitting the corridors from above, casting bold, dazzling rays onto and into the building. I took baby powder from my bag and asked my friends to blow it into the air to make the rays even more visible, mimicking the effect of smoke. When I looked at the result, I realized: I have been here for hours, experimenting with the light, arranging fabrics on the floor to reflect colors onto the walls, and trying to find different ways of capturing the architectural space. I was playing with Corbu’s design to create my own art! That was an incredible feeling.” – Martien Mulder
Photo Inès Manai and text Martien Mulder