OPINION

Casablanca Chandigarh at CCA

Montréal

29 November 2013

The new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, in Montreal, is both strange and familiar. “How architects, experts, politicians, international agencies and citizens negotiate modern planning: Casablanca Chandigarh” is a mouthful that looks at two familiar names and asks what we can learn from them by presenting them as cities that have been misunderstood as export destinations for European modernism.

The exhibition begins with a Strangelovian conference table (exhibition design by Atelier Bow-Wow) covered with reports from UN and other “missions” dispatched from America and Europe. It is surrounded by three tremendous maps detailing who went where, when, and why, as architecture and international development blurred in a new way.

Chandigarh and Casablanca – major Mid-20th Century urban redevelopment projects led by Le Corbusier and Michel Écochard respectively – are almost absent from this dense introduction, which places them in "a new league of modernist cities, where modernism is not universal but something that engages with local conditions… and is dynamic," says co-curator Tom Avermaete, who worked with the architectural historian Maristella Casciato to create the exhibition. Casablanca and Chandigarh are just two examples from a list of projects formed by post-war modernism, decolonization, and the Cold War.

Chandigarh was a new capital for post-partition East Punjab. Designed for 500,000 it is typically seen as Le Corbusier let loose in a sparsely inhabited Indian valley. Yet the exhibition critiques this myth through documentation of Corbusier’s exploration and analysis of the site, including full size reproductions of the panels on Chandigarh and Casablanca from the CIAM (Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne) meeting at Aix-en-Provence in 1953, attached to elegantly curved Bow-Wow walls. Several such rarities come as reproductions from the collections of the Chandigarh Museum.

Michel Écochard’s surveying of Casablanca in Morocco is more analytical, highly photographic, and easier to grasp than Corbusier’s explorations, which include surprises like a topographical map but are mostly the sketching you expect, although Corbusier's collaborator and cousin Pierre Jeanneret took thousands of photos. You can flip through Corbusier’s notebooks on a tablet, some of the many facsimiles on hand, and 1950s UN report fetishists will be content. The difference in the approaches also reflects how the densely inhabited Casablanca was more resistant to intervention.

The exhibition continues into two rooms detailing the complexity of Écochard’s work planning the city’s expansion at a time of massive rural migration. Unlike Chandigarh, Écochard's project was not for a new city but for the rationalized periphery of a very old one. Écochard’s primary tool as Director of the Morocco Department of Urban Planning was a slum clearance grid, an "element of negotiation" for others to engage with. It produced thousands of minimum houses with courtyards, but the best examples of “negotiation” seem to be the vertical cities designed by invited (European) architects to densify the mostly horizontal new developments.

The CCA has a tradition of photography commissions, famously sending Robert Burley, Lee Friedlander, and Geoffrey James to visit Frederick Law Olmstead’s projects for seven years. For Casablanca Chandigarh, the artists Yto Barrada and Takashi Homma were commissioned to produce work on the contemporary situation in these cities, with Homma also producing videos showing people moving through the Chandigarh bus terminal and the law courts. These are some of the most interesting and frustrating objects in the exhibition because they raise questions that are not answered.

The exhibition convincingly and beautifully shows the complexity and contingency of two modernist projects, but it struggles to balance strongly historic material with a desire for contemporary relevance. Few of us recognise heroic plans beneath our cities, but we are intimately familiar with what happens after: the negotiations of generations of citizens, politicians, and planners. But these 60 years do not appear in Casablanca Chandigarh, even though Chandigarh is twice as populous today as planned and Écochard’s grid was used until 1984.

Events and lectures would have been one strategy to fill the gap that the exhibition ambitiously creates for itself. The book—not a catalogue—comes out in 2014 and would be another. Current plans for the public programs are to expand the range of examples by looking at alternate locations, while the book will develop the historical themes in greater detail. Perhaps it will also offer more recent evidence for these cities “built-in capacity to constantly negotiate the changing practices of modern life.”

Casablanca Chandigarh is a fascinating exploration of how two modernist projects were actually planned, but it could say more about how they have been inhabited. The new photography is a start in this direction and this is an achievement: when is the last time a historical architectural exhibition gestured so clearly and suggestively at the present?