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Architecture: how public space in India was refined by Charles Correa and Nek Chand Saini

In a single week this June, the world of architecture lost two artists who celebrated modern India through buildings, landscape, sculpture and gardens. Charles Correa, India’s best known architect, died on June 16 in Mumbai. Nek Chand Saini, the creator of the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, died on June 12. A self-taught artist, he created art work out of junk.

My research in India has taken me to some truly wonderful sites, not least the 16th-century city of Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, commissioned by Mughal emperor Akbar. Well-designed spaces bring pleasure and even improve health and well-being, rather like a good piece of music.

Like those at Fatehpur Sikri, Correa and Nek Chand simply made structures and spaces that feel “better” than others. Despite hailing from opposite ends of the social spectrum, both reached shared conclusions about what makes a space work. But more than this, through their lives and work, they tell us something of the story of India.

Honouring nature and values

Born in 1930 in the colonial town of Secunderabad, Correa studied architecture at MIT in the US before returning to India in 1954. He immediately set out to develop an architecture that responded to climate, rejecting the US euphoria for air-conditioning. Instead, he sought solutions that would exploit cool breeze and shade.

Courtyard cafe of architect Charles Correa’s Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, built in 1993.
Meena Kadri, CC BY-SA

Charles Correa.
Holcim Foundation

Correa was also pursuing an architecture that would respond to India’s recent independence. He sought to introduce notions of “Indian-ness” into his proposals. His architecture is not overly concerned with elaborate forms, rather it seeks to create a series of flowing spaces often centred around an “open-to-sky” element. The visitor moves through the buildings blurring divisions between inside and outside, taking in carefully incorporated views.

Art out of waste

Nek Chand, creator of the Rock Garden in Chandigarh
Iain Jackson,

Nek Chand took a less conventional approach. Often referred to as an outsider artist, he received no formal training. Born in 1926 in what is now Pakistan, the son of a farmer, he was forced to flee his home in 1947 as a result of India’s Partition.

In 1951, Nek Chand obtained work at the construction site that was Chandigarh – a new city to replace the loss of Lahore – designed by the modernist architect Le Corbusier. He worked as a road inspector by day. By night, he created a secret sculpture park full of figures made from found objects, broken ceramics and the remnants of the villages demolished to make way for Chandigarh.

Nek Chand’s Rock Garden

He also crafted the landscape to include waterfalls, courtyards and caverns clad in river rocks and broken sanitary ware fittings. Nek Chand’s Rock Garden, a truly wondrous place invoking playful narratives at every turn, now receives thousands of visitors every day.

Space that evokes and engages

Both Correa and Nek Chand were concerned with the notion of promenade, where the visitor is taken on a journey through a series of enclosed spaces, proceeding spaces hidden from view and revealed suddenly to dramatic effect. Both exploit a site’s natural attributes, responding to contours and always incorporating sculpture and artwork.

Both make a subtle reference to the past, often suggestive of village life, not in a sentimental manner but rather as an integral part of the design. Use of devices such as a space to talk and meet with friends, or a spot to sit quietly with strangers to share a view, have a profound effect. The powerful experience of simply walking through a courtyard clad in a careful selection of materials whilst admiring nature, landscape and artwork, cannot be understated.

Both Correa and Nek Chand were deeply affected by India’s independence and sought to contemplate this event through their work. For Correa, it was a time to rebuild and rethink the nation, to debate what it meant to be both modern and Indian. At the same time, his use of Mughal-inspired red sandstone demonstrates the idea that India’s pre-colonial past was to be celebrated.

Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, India
Dharmesh Thakker, CC BY-NC-ND

As a migrant to the symbol of India’s political ambition, Nek Chand was also well aware of the changes afoot. In his work there is a sense of loss, a longing to remember the past, as well as a childlike desire to recreate mythological scenes from folk tales and epics.

After their deaths, the works of Charles Correa and Nek Chand will remain wonderful tributes to their passion to improve built urban space in modern India. There can’t be many better legacies than the simple fact that we can learn much about space, light, form and beauty from the spatial experience of joy which their creations have given us.

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

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“Harjant Gill’s dissertation, a study of young men living in Chandigarh, Punjab, India, focuses on patterns of migration, masculinity, and identity-making. Gill discusses traditional gender norms among Punjabi men, and the notion of ‘successful masculinity’ as resting upon the ability to become transnational citizens by migrating abroad. Gill explains the juxtaposition between urban dwellers of Chandigarh and young men who come from rural areas to the city for vocational and language training to migrate abroad. Gill contends that contemporary notions of Punjabi masculinity are characterized through successful migration and transnational movements.” Kamal Arora

The full review of the work can be read at: http://dissertationreviews.org/archives/7037

Transnational Architecture Group

Chandigarh Exhibitions in Canada and Belgium

There are two exhibitions on the architecture and planning of Chandigarh currently on show – one at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montreal, and the other by Archipel at Kortrijk, Belgium.

The CCA exhibition is entitled How architects, experts, politicians, international agencies and citizens negotiate modern planning: Casablanca Chandigarh, and has been curated by Maristella Casciato and Tom Avermaete. It runs until 20th April 2014 and a publication to accompany the exhibition is to be released early 2014. I haven’t seen the CCA exhibition, but its extensive use of Pierre Jeanneret archival material promises to open up new vantage points from which we can view this intriguing city.

The Archipel exhibition has been curated following a visit to Chandigarh by 130 Belgian architects who descended onto the city, and captured not only the architecture but also something of the daily life of…

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Housing in Chandigarh

 Nostalgia – (coined in 1668 by Johannes Hefer), from Greek algos, “pain, grief, distress + nostos, homecoming

Part I

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Photo 1. The Red Brick House, Sector 9. 

  Let me welcome you to gaze/or intrusively look into a house in Sector 9, one of the first original sectors of Chandigarh’s master plan. Its design consists of stark horizontal lines, flat, single story roof, the entrance protected from the sun by a white cover.  The red paint or brick is marked by black water dribble marks at the end. Two small windows are visible and a narrow entrance door seems hidden in the shadows.  The gate sags at the hinges.  The low red brick wall exposes the house to the gaze of passers by like me on the road.  Typically, a few distinct shrubs frame the driveway, while we can also catch a shadow of a small palm tree.   Unpretentious, simple lines, a bare bones aesthetic concept of a house with windows and a door, this is the spirit of the early decades of Chandigarh.   The house could be dated to the 1970s, possibly a bit earlier, not likely after the early1980s, which marked a watershed in the emergence of ‘new money’ in the city.

Sector 9 has been the home of our extended family since the mid 1960s when my grandparents built a similar 1-story, utilitarian house, as we anecdotally hear, depending more on the contractors, who had the house built than on an architect with a distinct aesthetic vision.  The house, on which a second unit was added in the 1970s, included a room created out of a front porch and an extra room added on the ground floor.  Some of these additions were made by my parents for their family in the mid 1970s.  The house is still drafty and cold in winter, with pinched, narrow windows that make it somewhat stifling in summer.  At some point it will be demolished and sold, as part of the family will.  In its place will arise a new, grandiose structure, since Sector 9 is one of the most affluent areas.

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Photo 2. Family Home, Sector 9 Front garden

What is stunning however in our somewhat faded family house, and typical of all of the Chandigarh aesthetic, especially in the old, original sectors, is the garden in any season, with profusions of potted flowers, a small vegetable garden, with bougainvillea on the ledges, though the fruit trees, lychees, lemons, mangoes seem to have had their day.  See photo 2 of front lawn of the house.  Other houses in sector 9 of the same vintage (roughly) depict a similar aesthetic, straight lines, some second story rooms, an open terrace upstairs (called kotha) where through the 1970s families may have slept out doors in an era when air conditioning was not commonplace. See photo 3.

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Photo 3. Another house -probably 1970s (sector-9)

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Photo 4. Same vintage, with the 2nd floor probably an add-on

Aesthetic effects, or refreshing vistas were found in the greenery, shrubs, trees, and flowers that graced the whole sector 9. A common practice that persists even today is to plant flowers or greenery outside the boundary wall of your house. See photos 5 and 6.  Petunias, sweet peas straggling along the wall and a bougainvillea drooping from the other side.  Another feature that continues as a part of the original plan is a green space between inner streets. Here is a lovely long space with a bench close to our family home (photo 5). Sometimes kids play cricket here or people sit on benches. In the pre-television era (or shall I say pre-cable era till the mid 1980s) one saw more kids out doors; all of India draws kids to TV and other electronic screens now.

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Photo 5. A lovely green space, mini park inside a square –all in sector 9. Facing another house 1970s
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Photo 6 A classic Chandigarh garden aesthetic,especially in the older sectors, some floral landscaping outside the house wall (all homes have clearly demarcated walls) here petunias, sweet peas, with bougainvillea flowing over the hedge

Why am I praising these somewhat non-descript functional houses that dot Sector 9?  Starkly simple, utilitarian, undecorated homes dominated this sector until the mid 1980s at least.   Is it because these old houses and the childhood world I recall, evokes in me a nostalgia, even somewhat forced, not for some idyll, but for the stark simplicity of Chandigarh life in the original sectors.   Nostalgia implies a combined feeling of homecoming and loss and perhaps that is what Sector 9 stirs in me, especially as given the trend, the older vintage (1970s and before) of homes will be gone completely in a few years.  As prices are determined by the location of the land, older homes are inevitably demolished as new owners take them over.  However, ironically many of the new elaborately decorated and stylized houses commodify a nostalgia for cultural images of the past, often opulent, randomly evoked from coats of arms or haveli style balconies.  A vivid example of one such house in Chandigarh Sector 9 is the “House of Lions” or as all the Punjabi denizens call it, “Sheran Wala Ghar.”

II

The House of Lions

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Photo 7. The House of Lions: New Housing in Chandigarh

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Photo 8. The House of Lions: New Housing in Chandigarh

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Photo 9. The House of Lions, boundary wall.

This house is difficult to miss (see photos)!  It has an ornate black gate with a golden coat of arms emblem on each gate, the color palette is black on the gate and boundary wall, and a nice cornflower yellow colours the walls of the house.   On the gateposts two concrete statues of Lions strike a bold note. The name of the owner is followed by the word, “Niwas,” which means habitation and evokes a class-inflected dignity. It is not simply a house, “ghar.”  The house itself behind the self-aggrandizing gate certainly has a kind of elegance, one rounded balcony reminiscent of similar facades old “havelis” and nice symmetry of rounded arches, one in mottled black marble, and matching angular roofs, a range of varied lines, angles,  textures, and materials that make up this house.  If you walk around, small concrete peacocks are perched on the side walls.  Overall though, the house is not garish or overwrought like many other “Punjabi Baroque” styles in the newly moneyed sections of Chandigarh.  However, one can’t help think of the usage of self-minted family “arms” on the gate as a kind of commodified nostalgia for some aristocratic antecedents.

On asking around among other old families of the neighborhood (all the old families of sector 9 know each other) no one seems to know the owners of the Lion House, though from the last name they could assume some Punjabi landowning family, and otherwise possibly NRI money made in Canada or UK.  (Wealthy Punjabi immigrants from these two countries have come back home all over Punjab and invested in fancy homes).  That sense of anonymity or mystery seems to be typical of most of the homeowners of the houses built in the past two decades; some of them seem to be absentee denizens of Sector 9.  See other Punjabi baroque houses photos 10-11 similar circular balconies (“jharoka style of the old havelis) shut high gates, palm trees, and decorative trim, evoking some kind of emblem or arms.

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Photo 10. Recent Balcony evokes “Jharoka” from India Haveli style 

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Photo 11. Recent housing — another Balcony, Gold trim, “Punjabi Baroque”

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Photo 12. Housing in Chandigarh from 1990s

One house (photo 12) of more recent years is quite striking, red brick, straight lines, reminiscent of the Corbusier aesthetic, with a modernist brick motif (in the style of the Chandigarh logo of the hand).  What is also noticeable in this photo are the number of expensive looking cars parked in the drive-way.  It is also a signal of new money, but with some restrained individualistic taste.

Cars proliferate in Sector 9 in all the houses, it seems, but what seems to distinguish the old and new are the high gates, walls, and sense of closed-in space, surrounded by high trees, and often security guards (excluded in the photos).  So what may seem like signs of affluence and progress that are breathing new vitality into Sector 9 –and into the whole of Chandigarh with its growth into the Tri-City, new hotels, restaurants, a big shopping Malls, colleges, etc. also mark the end of a culture prior to consumerist-driven lifestyles of today. The world of the 1970s through the 1980s was caught up in India’s controlled, earlier pseudo-socialist economy, where a dependence on State funding was central to our lives.  So in that era Chandigarh was a city of civil servants, educators, a few businesses, restricted access to consumer goods, even for the wealthy, and few “choices” in consumption of any kind.  Bicycles proliferated as even the upper class kids biked everywhere.   Few restaurant options were available, but there was a decent public library in Sector 9, with a wonderful Children’s section.  The Rose Garden was the big attraction for city dwellers, and blooming gardens in the leisure valley and the University Campus were topics of conversation. The three movie theatres offered crude comforts, very weak air-conditioning if any, sometimes damaged film stock, inexpert screenings, and a selection of latest and re-run Bombay films (as they were called then). On weekends, we went to see the Hollywood offerings, often few years old.

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Photo 13. Masterplan of Chandigarh is cast into the manhole covers

Somehow despite familiar critiques of the Corbusier plan’s divisions into class-based sectors and on the bureaucratic atmosphere of the Chandigarh, what I remember are the associations between a stark, pragmatic architectural style, both of the Corbusier master plan and of the red house with a sagging gate in Sector 9.   (See photo of the Corbusier Master plan cast onto the manhole covers in photo 13.) We never felt the “presence” of money until houses like the one with Lions appeared!  Our consciousness as citizens and subjects of India was somewhat nationalistic but cynical about a government that did not seem to be moving India progressively ahead. However, what I value most of my years in Chandigarh is remembering a city of clean lines, gardens, trees, outdoor life on bicycles and walks, or motorbike rides, and little aspiration that endless wealth and consumer goods would make lives happier…

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Photo 14. A Lovely Lady of Sector 9 with her garden as a backdrop in one of the older houses — “the trees are now quite a jungle” she observes

Professor Jyotsna G. Singh, Department of English
Michigan State University

jsingh@msu.edu

Envisioning the Indian City: Spaces of Encounter- Inaugural Liverpool Reading Group Seminar (ETIC-RGS)

 1:30–4:30 pm Thursday 23 May in the Old Library, 19 Abercromby Square (refreshments provided)

Building number 148 on the campus map http://www.liv.ac.uk/files/docs/maps/liverpool-university-campus-map.pdf

Across a wide range of disciplines, the city has long provided a critical site for studying the major social, cultural and intellectual developments in any historical era. The ETIC project seeks to further our understanding of the crucial role played by Indian cities in negotiating contact between India and the world, and Europe in particular. The ETIC team comprises of a wide-ranging group of scholars and institutions from India and the UK, whose work will provide multidisciplinary, regional and historical coverage through its focus on 4 Indian cities (Goa, Kolkata, Pondicherry/Auroville, Chandigarh). The main objectives of ETIC are to examine the following broad areas of inquiry:

(1) how and why the city has functioned as the focus of cross-cultural exchanges in both colonial and post-colonial India;

(2) the nature of the marks that such exchanges have left on the socio-cultural and imaginative identities of the cities in question;

(3) the ways in which they have shaped, and been shaped by, the urban space and the physical fabric of the city in each case; and

(4) the ways in which the nature of such exchanges vary both synchronically, across geographical regions in the same period, and diachronically, across historical periods (sixteenth century till the present).

The aim of the ETIC Reading Group Seminar is peer review of the project’s aims and a refinement of its scope and methodology  via targeted interventions from external speakers and a round-table discussion of two influential theoretical texts (see links below to reading  and extract on the ETIC project’s methodology from bid documentation).

Programme

1:00 – 1:30 participants gather

1:30- 1:50 a brief update on the progress of the project strands Nandini Das, Liverpool (Goa), Supriya Chaudhuri, Jadavpur University (Kolkata), Ian Jackson (Chandigarh), Ian Magedera (Pondicherry/Auroville)

External Speaker Interventions

1:50-2:00: Steve Legg (University of Nottingham).

2:00-2:10 discussion

2:10-2:20 Tania Sengupta (UCL)

2:20-2:30 discussion

2:30- 2:45 tea/coffee

2:50-: 3:10 Round Table discussion of Simmel’s ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (pp. 69-79) (See bibliography for full citation) introduced by Ian Magedera, and ‘Collective Emotion and Urban Culture‘ by Kevin Robins, in Patsy Healy, Stuart Cameron, Simin Davoudi, et al (eds) Managing Cities: The New Urban Context, John Wiley (1995) introduced by Nandini Das

3:10-3:3:30 Round Table discussion on second theoretical text (TBC, email to follow)

3:30- 3:50 General comments on ETIC methodology and approach

3:50-4:00 Thanks and date for next ETIC-RGS.

From 4:00 informal discussion in a different venue http://www.beerintheevening.com/pubs/s/36/36492/Cambridge/Liverpool

Participants: Nandini Das (English, Liverpool), Iain Jackson (Architecture, Liverpool), Supriya Chaudhuri (English, Jadavpur University), Tania Sengupta (Architecture, UCL), Soumyen Bandyopadhay (Architecture, Nottingham Trent), Chris Pearson (History, Liverpool), Ian Magedera (French, Liverpool), Andy Davies (Geography, Liverpool), Steve Legg (Geography, Nottingham), Oliver Urquart Irvine (British Library), Andrew Popp (Management School, Liverpool)

For more information, please contact magedera@liv.ac.uk

PhD Studentship:

http://www.liv.ac.uk/working/job_vacancies/studentships/phd-etic/

If you would like to pursue a PhD that relates to our understanding of the Indian City then please consider applying for this studentship.

Further details can be found on the link above.

The main objectives of ETIC are to examine the following broad areas of inquiry:

(1) how and why the city has functioned as the focus of cross-cultural exchanges in both colonial and post-colonial India;

(2) the nature of the marks that such exchanges have left on the socio-cultural and imaginative identities of the cities in question;

(3) the ways in which they have shaped, and been shaped by, the urban space and the physical fabric of the city in each case; and

(4) the ways in which the nature of such exchanges vary both synchronically, across geographical regions in the same period, and diachronically, across historical periods (sixteenth century till the present).

ETIC involves scholars from English literature, History, Architecture and Modern Languages, with specialisms covering the sixteenth century till the present. The exact PhD topic is open to discussion with potential applicants, but must be related to furthering our understanding of the Indian city. Projects that work across disciplinary boundaries (such as attending to both cultural and spatial/architectural traces of encounter in sixteenth century Goa or twentieth century Pondicherry or Chandigarh, for instance), or those that work across one or more of the selected cities, are especially welcome. Responsibilities will also involve providing some support to the ETIC project, such as helping with meetings, organising reading lists, helping to organise small symposia and gathering source material, uploading data to blog/website.

Applications are invited from students with a good first degree (First, 2:1 or equivalent) or a post-graduate degree in a relevant discipline.

The Doctoral scholarship is available for up to three years full-time study starting on or before September 2013 which will cover the cost of University tuition fees at UK/EU rates, as well as providing tailored early career development training within a thriving intellectual and social community of over 800 researchers and 300 postgraduate researchers.

For more information or to discuss possible research projects further, please contact envisioningtheindiancity@gmail.com.