What is Chandigarh famous for

Architecture films are a sub-genre of documentary film. With Une ville à Chandigarh Alain Tanner presented a first important cinematic essay on an urban planning topic. Many important representatives of this genre, especially from Switzerland, will follow. But what role does architecture play in Tanner's work, and how is Le Corbusier's urban vision staged? One thing is certain: the filmmaker from French-speaking Switzerland does not use the classic narrative “from the idea to the plan to the finished building”.

When Alain Tanner returned from India in 1966, he was a little at a loss. He had shot six weeks in Chandigarh, supported by cameraman Ernest Artaria and assistant Fred Hufschmid. He was traveling the subcontinent for the first time, was fascinated by the spirit of optimism he found and struggled with foreign customs. Without a script and equipped with the new lightweight Eclair camera, he captures what he finds.

Tanner brings a lot of film material back to western Switzerland, but doesn't really know how to arrange it. Then his friend John Berger steps in. Unlike Tanner, the English writer knows Le Corbusier's work well and is immediately interested in the subject. Together they sit down at the cutting table and sift through the material. You develop the structure of the film, and Berger writes the voiceover.It is the start of ten years of successful collaboration

At the time, both were interested in the political left and wanted to artistically adapt Bertolt Brecht's ideas for the theater.And indeed they mix a hefty pinch of Brecht into their Chandigarh portrait. The filmmakers do not want a didactic documentary that strongly steers the audience with a certain perspective and creates connections all too quickly. The audience should be able to form their own picture.

So it is convenient that Berger himself was not in India and can look at the topic from a certain distance. This fact inscribes itself into the film: image and sound tracks develop a strong autonomy and are placed in an exciting relationship to one another. The result is an almost one-hour cinematic essay that arranges the documentary material associatively and does not claim to be complete. Not even for the topics of architecture and urban planning.

Change and departure

After Brasilia, Chandigarh is the second major urban development project in the 20th century. It was made possible or necessary by India's independence from the British throne in 1947. The state of Punjab was divided into an Indian and a Pakistani province. As a result, the former capital Lahore was now in Pakistan. Prime Minister Pandit Nehru took this as an opportunity to build a new city in the Indian part and to send a strong signal for the modernization of the country. The location chosen was an area at the foot of the Himalayas in the immediate vicinity of the village of Chandigarh, whose name was transferred to the new capital. The city was planned for 500,000 people; today over a million Indians live there.

First of all, the city planner Albert Mayer developed the master plan. From 1950 the Swiss architect Le Corbusier was responsible for the overall planning and designed the Capitol building. His team soon included the Englishman Jane Drew and her husband Maxwell Fry, both experts in the field of building in tropical climates, and Le Corbusier's cousin Pierre Jeanneret, with whom he had worked for a long time and who was to take over the project management on site.For the Swiss architect, this assignment represented a great challenge and at the same time a high point in his successful career.

As Une ville à Chandigarh was filmed, Le Corbusier had already been dead a year. The construction of the utopian city had taken 16 years up to this point, and there was no end in sight. "The city is there to learn," says the voiceover at one point, which emphasizes the ongoing process of renewal and appropriation that the filmmakers encountered in India.

Focus on people

According to Tanner himself, it was Une ville à Chandigarh a commissioned film. The Le Corbusier Foundation and the architect's niece approached him with the proposal for this project. The film was produced by TV in French-speaking Switzerland, the BBC and by Tanner himself. By this time, the filmmaker had already made several documentaries, for example about a school or apprentices in Switzerland, and had made shorter reports, especially for TV in French-speaking Switzerland. His name is still known to a few insiders. It only follows a short time later La salamandre (1971) his international breakthrough in fictional film.

Tanner and Berger were clearly interested in sociopolitical issues. Chandigarh was a major construction site in this regard: Nehru wanted to open up his country to the west and modernize Indian society. His first five-year plan provided for some revolutionary measures for education. Chandigarh was, so to speak, a testing ground for new types of schools, which is why educators and architects worked closely together. The filmmakers were interested in this upheaval situation, in which "centuries were bridged", according to the off-screen spokesman, "centuries on foot". The central question for them was whether these reforms, and especially the architecture, lead to a better way of life. Because in the end it is always about people. The film makes this clear with thematic brackets at the beginning and the end: we don't see imposing buildings at the beginning, but residents on bicycles leaving to work. And at the end the camera lingers on an Indian woman who sings a song straight into the camera, accompanied acoustically by sitar and tabla.

This interest in people already emerged in photography in the 1950s. A shift away from carefully composed architectural photographs towards the users constitutes a kind of paradigm shift in photography of those years.Asia, including India, was a popular destination for reportage photographers. Important artists such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Ernst Scheidegger and Werner Bischof have traveled there several times.

The Swiss Ernst Scheidegger documented the creation of Chandigarh in detail. He was interested in everyday life, how people live and work in the new buildings and how they gradually take possession of the city. Above all, he photographed the many construction sites with an ethnographic eye. Several thousand people built the new metropolis with their bare hands: the scaffolding made of bamboo tied with cords, the building materials carried on their heads. The futuristic buildings of Le Corbusier form an irritating counter-backdrop to the ancient handicraft of the Indians. Above all, the many women and children, who made up about half of the workforce, are an interesting photographic subject for Europeans.

Working people and the processes on the building site can be shown even better in the moving image. Tanner also captures such a scene in an impressive sequence: the camera shows a long shot of women carrying the building material on their heads, how the concrete plates are passed from hand to hand in a human chain and then passed over the stair-like scaffolding all the way to the top become. The camera continuously moves closer to the action and amazes the viewer at the speed of the processes.

The off-commentary chooses its own path: He does not comment on what is shown, but gives the sequence a poetic-ideological twist. The first verses of Bertolt Brecht's poem “Questions from a Reading Worker” are quoted: “Who built the seven-door Thebes? The books contain the names of kings. Did the kings drag in the boulders? " This desynchronization of image and sound creates a dazzling narrative space that provokes diverse perspectives.

Teaser dramaturgy

In general, Tanner and Berger seem to be concerned about the complexity of the topic. In their documentary they create a kaleidoscopic perspective on Chandigarh. There are around 40 topics that they address: the film alternates between urban planning concepts and daily activities of people, social inequalities and the importance of animals in India, illiteracy and a Sikh harvest dance, traditional handicrafts and the role of women. No topic is particularly emphasized, none of which necessarily develops from the previous one. They are only ever torn a little and then replaced by the next. This teaser dramaturgy means that all content is next to each other as if it were of equal value, with no classic arc of suspense dragging the viewer along. And this structure means that none of the topics are actually carried out.

The voiceover by John Berger, which Alain Tanner himself voiced relatively quickly for the French version, further expands this associative character of the film. Often the visual is supplemented, alienated, counteracted with literary quotations, from Rousseau to Yeats. Sometimes the voiceover points to social grievances (wage inequality) in an agitational way, rarely is it an expression of a certain skepticism (caste system) or becomes pathetic (hope for a new generation). Since the original noises and the Indian music are pushed into the background, the voiceover is a strong, also dominant counterpart to the picture.

What applies to the entire film also applies to the architectural themes. Interior spaces can be experienced in their dimensions by moving the camera backwards, lateral pans and journeys capture the facades and the horizontal expansion of the city, and backward zooms locate the new buildings in their context. Tanner focuses primarily on the residential buildings designed by Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry and the school buildings designed by Pierre Jeanneret. Representative architecture, such as the Capitol, which Le Corbusier designed himself, interests him less. The focus is always on the specific use - i.e. how people appropriate the built space.

This focus on people, already mentioned several times, is a great quality of the film. Those who are interested in architecture have a harder time. The people in the picture quickly distract from the spatial parameters, and here too the film blocks itself against mediating communication. You have to look at it several times to filter out the architectural aspects mentioned. And even then some things remain open

Because the documentary does not follow the principle of continuity montage, spatial orientation is difficult for the audience in this already complex urban structure. Something like a cognitive map, i.e. a mental representation of the spatial conditions, can hardly be created in the viewer. There is no information about the historical background, the team of architects or about design and construction. This refusal is most evident in a sequence in which Le Corbusier's hand sculpture is shown. It is only in the picture for a few seconds and remains uncommented. Anyone who does not know that “La main ouverte” was an important symbol for Le Corbusier, a kind of artistic signature and, especially in Chandigarh, should stand as a symbol for the non-aligned countries, cannot classify this cut.5

Distance through openness

"Although my films are dramatically flat and soft, they seem to me to be much more subversive and subtle than most so-called political films."What Tanner relates to the fictional film also applies in a certain sense to Une ville à Chandigarh. By treating all topics equally, there is no pulsating drama, but an even, horizontal narrative axis, sometimes quite anemic.

Montage repeatedly breaks off content prematurely and leaves it as fragments. A well-rounded image can hardly be seen in front of the viewer. This blurring is additionally nourished by the verbal interjections of the voiceover. Overall, a clear reading is made more difficult, the audience is kept at a distance, not too emotionally involved. It must remain attentive and develop its own attitude towards what is shown. Here we are close to Brecht's epic ideas.

Architecture and urban planning are thematized, but never stand alone as aesthetic and constructive phenomena, but are part of larger socio-political contexts. A certain personality cult or an exaggeration of the architecture through well-composed settings, which are sometimes characteristic of representatives of this genre, are completely alien to the film. Rather, the built is always checked for its usability and human dimension.



1 Interview with Alain Tanner. Les hommes du port / Une ville à Chandigarh. trigon-film dvd-edition 61. Ennetbaden 2006.

2 Christian Dimitriu: A film poet between utopia and realism. Zurich 1991.

3 Stanislaus von Moos (ed.): Chandigarh 1956. Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Jane B. Drew, E. Maxwell Fry. Photographs by Ernst Scheidegger. Zurich 2010.

4 Verena Huber Nievergelt: Between reportage and architectural documentation. Ernst Scheidegger's India. In: Chandigarh 1956. Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret, Jane B. Drew, E. Maxwell Fry. Photographs by Ernst Scheidegger. Zurich 2010, pp. 204–213.

5 Marie-Jeanne Dumont: The open hand. From the political symbol to the artist's signature. In: Le Corbusier. The human crowd. Zurich 2015, pp. 135–141.

6 Quoted from Karl Saurer: Seeing the present with the eyes of the future. In: Film in Switzerland. Munich, Vienna 1978, p. 179.

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