Photographs by Ernst Scheidegger
Edited by Stanislaus von Moos
Verlag Scheidegger & Spiess
Distributed by University of Chicago Press, $75.00
For those who have not been to Chandigarh, and for those who think of Le Corbusier as the conceptual source of all crimes against urbanity, in other words for most people, the photographs by Ernst Scheidegger in Chandigarh 1956 will come as a revelation. Here is a lowrise, residential town of brick and bougainvillea that owes much to Ebenezer Howard’s British Garden City movement and to Albert Mayer, the American planner who admired it, and who was in fact the first commissioned planner of the new capital for the Punjab.
When Mayer’s architectural partner Matthew Nowicki died in a plane crash early on, Nehru went in search of a new team, which led to a youngish British couple identified with Team 10, Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, as architects for the bulk of the city and to Le Corbusier in the unavoidable role as guiding design force as well as architect of the monumental Capitol Complex. Le Corbusier in turn brought on his cousin and longtime partner Pierre Jeanneret, who provided design continuity for the place, remaining in Chandigarh for years. The city revealed in the photographs is the city of Jeanneret with Drew and Fry as much as of Le Corbusier, who had only one of his buildings, the High Court, completed in 1956.
The book briefly recounts this history, sheds a bit of light on the relationships among the architectural bedfellows, and selectively explores elements of design process. But the more significant essays deal with the photography of the place and the role of photography in the work of Le Corbusier and in postwar urbanism, Brasília in particular. As Stanislaus von Moos and Verena Nievergelt illuminate, Scheidegger wedded the photojournalism of the Magnum Group, to which he belonged, with a Swiss objectivism based on patient observation. His approach stressed the narrative content of the picture as a source of ethnographic fact and formal structure.
Moos contrasts Scheidegger with Lucien Hervé, Le Corbusier’s house photographer, whose pictures in the Oeuvre Complète have come to define our image of the architecture as black-and-white still lives empty of figures but haunted by the traces of the inhabitants through props of bowler hats and dead fish, like a gentler film noir. One might argue that there is a cagey anthropologist at work in Hervé as well, but Moos’ point is well taken: Scheidegger’s photographs are bursting with life to the degree that the architecture becomes either a backdrop for action or a foreground for an outsized nature.
The sheer number of images and their repetitive content give a sense of the state and even pace of a city coming into being. In two shots seemingly taken within moments, a small group of male teachers is seen meeting, and then two women teachers fill the empty chairs—or do we see them leave? In any case, to publish only the photo of the men with chairs, as Scheidegger originally proposed for the slim pamphlet that is reproduced at the end of the book, is to lose the sense of the womens’ camaraderie as they take their rightful place in the circle.
Some of the differences among shots are subtle: a change of light, the appearance of cow patties on a ledge. The one overwhelming similarity among the plates is that they are all exterior shots. Even the interiors are exteriors: classrooms on the lawns of new schools, breezeways clad only with screens, bazaar stalls in the city arcades, a barbershop under a tree on the road edge. Le Corbusier’s High Court fits seamlessly into Scheidegger’s conceit of this city as outdoor theater, for it was conceived as a building without an interior, where the courts open directly on the plaza to display democratic justice in action, and the open-air ramp through the vaults is akin to circulation in a Roman ruin.
For those who know Chandigarh, not all of this comes as a surprise. Some of Scheidegger’s photographs were indeed included in the Oeuvre Complète, where they are recognizable classics. And the city he captured is still very much present, including shantytowns that originally housed the construction (now migrant) workers, the kitsch (now postmodern) houses of the free zones, the street barbers, the bicycles, and the bougainvillea.
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