No discussion of the life and work of Oscar Niemeyer is complete without Brasília, the dazzling capital that sprung up in the Brazilian savanna in 1961. The Brazilian starchitect who passed away on Wednesday, was responsible for the project’s crowning achievement: the monumental government buildings that stood proudly as emblems of the power of Modernist architecture’s promise--and, later, unfortunate failure--to shape a utopian society.
What gets less attention is that, a decade earlier, another urban vision was taking form more than 8,000 miles away, in India, under the supervision of Le Corbusier. Chandigarh, like Brasília, was intended to be a sparkling new city, created from scratch as a way of shaking off the albatross of colonialism and instating a native, democratic government. And modern notions of urban planning and architecture were central to both new capitals, as the premier architectural photographer Iwan Baan documents in a recent book from Lars Muller Publishers, Brasília-Chandigarh. Fifty years into existence, the two cities have evolved into examples of how grand utopian projects can both inspire and disappoint.
India became independent in 1947 and quickly entered a civil war, resulting in two separate states: Hindu-dominated India and what became the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The border that bisected the two entities ran straight through the former province of Punjab and left India without its historical capital, Lahore. That hole inspired Indian leaders to commission an altogether new political center--one infused with the progressive ideals of Modernism. In addition to the architect couple Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, Le Corbusier was brought on to execute the plan, which included a gridiron scheme that reflected Corbu’s obsession with the car--one of the scheme’s ultimate failings, as the residents to this day mainly use bikes and rickshaws. Corbu also failed to create spaces for street vending, an essential part of Indian culture. And finally, the plan didn’t provide enough housing, despite the 14 different housing types intended to accommodate every class level. The city’s population has ballooned to roughly 1 million, twice the original projected number of inhabitants.
As an ode to Modernism, Brasília has similarly been plagued by problems. As Martino Stierli writes in Brasília-Chandigarh, “Brasília has been characterized from early on by a sharp contrast between the rigid monumental center and the seemingly chaotic urban sprawl that surrounded it.” Unable to afford to live in the city center, the working classes found themselves banished to the periphery, resulting in fringes of urban sprawl.
While the cities are not without their troubles, they’re also testaments to how residents have adapted their surroundings to suit their needs. That phenomenon is what Baan attempts to portray, showing people coping and even thriving in these Modernist test cities. In Brasília, the photographer writes, “the city center feels markedly devoid of life in plazas, where the pigeons far outnumber the people. However, in great contrast, the city becomes alive behind the doors of residences, in bus stations and underpasses, or within cars.” He continues that in Chandigarh, “The nooks that Le Corbusier designed originally to dilute the Punjabi sun are used by outdoor businesses that rig up their own canopies,” thereby managing to breathe life into Corbu’s concrete framework.