Recycling the future

After the communal riots that followed the partition of the Punjab, the government in Delhi commissioned the architect Le Corbusier to design a new administrative capital for the Indian part of the Punjab, to design not only the public buildings, but the urban layout, the residential dwellings, even the furniture. The architect was not to incorporate traditional Indian motifs; Nehru said the new city of Chandigarh would be turned wholly to the future.

Alphonso Lingis, “Coals of Fire,” Abuses (University of California Press, 1994)

Unlike [Albert] Mayer [the original designer of the city], Le Corbusier had never set foot in India until the Chandigarh project first brought him to the country in 1951. In February of that year Le Corbusier and his colleagues camped in a rest house at what is now called Chandimandir. In four days of feverish activity, they redesigned the city. The leaf-like outline of Mayer’s plan was squared up into a mesh of rectangles. Le Corbusier was ready to “come to grips” with the project. In his words: “To take possession of space is the first gesture of the living, men and beasts, plants and animals; the fundamental manifestation of equilibrium and permanence. The first proof of existence is to occupy space.” …

While [Mayer] preferred a naturalistic, curving street pattern without the rigidity of a sterile geometric grid — [Le Corbusier] was adverse to “solidification of the accidental”. For Le Corbusier the straight line was the logical connecting path between two points, and any “forced naturalness” was superfluous. …

Le Corbusier liked to compare the city he planned to a biological entity: the head was the Capitol, the City Centre was the heart[,] and work areas of the institutional area and the university were limbs. Aside from the Leisure Valley traversing almost the entire city, parks extended lengthwise through each sector to enable every resident to lift their eyes to the changing panorama of hills and sky. Le Corbusier identified four basic functions of a city: living, working, circulation and care of the body and spirit. Each sector was provided with its own shopping and community facilities, schools and places of worship. “Circulation” was of great importance to Le Corbusier and determined the other three basic functions. By creating a hierarchy of roads, Le Corbusier sought to make every place in the city swiftly and easily accessible and at the same time ensure tranquility and safety of living spaces.

If “circulation” was the dominant function, then of all “bodily elements”, it was the “head” — that is the Capitol — that most completely engaged the master architect’s interest. Le Corbusier always looked for a chance to make a dramatic statement: in the context of Chandigarh, that was the Capitol — in this, the priorities of the Indian government and Le Corbusier’s natural inclination converged. …

The Periphery Control Act of 1952 created a wide green-belt around the entire union territory. It regulated all development within 16 kilometers of the city limit, prohibited the establishment of any other town or village and forbade commercial or industrial development. The idea was to guarantee that Chandigarh would always be surrounded by countryside.

Enunciating the spirit of the city, Le Corbusier said: “The sun, space and verdure are the ancient influences, which have fashioned our body and spirit. Isolated from their natural environment, all organisms perish, some slowly, some quickly, and man is no exception to this general rule. Our towns have snatched men from essential conditions, starved them, embittered them, crushed them, and even sterilised them…. Unless the conditions of nature are re-established in man’s life, he cannot be healthy in body and spirit… ”

Chandigarh, Official Website of the Chandigarh Administration

In 1965 General Ayub Khan, who had seized power in Pakistan, commissioned the American architect Louis Khan to design new public buildings for Dhaka. Made of bricks and with techniques available locally, laid out with the sun and wind in mind, the American-designed administrative capital [of East Pakistan, now Bangladesh] was to be not only beautiful and monumental, but the model for construction throughout Muslim Bengal. You were told at the desk it was some seven miles across the city from the hotel. You took a rickshaw. Every few blocks there was a huge square pit filled with stagnant water choked with the masses of water hyacinths, their inedible thick leaves bright green, their flowers and unhealthy pale violet, thick with flies. Some of the pits were being dug; men and women were spading out the thick clay into wooden forms for bricks, which they put out to bake in the blazing sun. The city is made of these bricks, roofed over with sheets of corrugated metal, palm-leaf thatching, or sheets of plastic or tarpaper. The rain is continually wearing down the bricks, draining in yellow rivulets back into the pits. In the bands of earth about the houses vegetables are grown; along the railroad tracks, the canals, there were pineapple thickets, the knobs of cabbages, cucumber vines. There were clumps of banana trees, like sprawling mutations of the grass, betel, coconut, and oil palms, great mango trees and papaya trees that were just stems with a few leaves spread over heavy hanging fruits. Along the road vendors sold strong tea, milk, and fruit and sugarcane juices in unbaked clay cups which were smashed on the ground when emptied. The rains would reduce them to mud, and with time level the mounds. There were piles of decaying vegetable scraps and husks, vibrating with hornets and butterflies. Beggars, children, dogs furrowed over the mounds; men scooped up the decayed muck into sacks to spread between their plantings. Girls wandered down the road collecting in baskets cow and ox dung, which would be slapped on the walls of the houses in round cakes to dry; they would be burnt for cooking. Under trees kerosene cans were being cut apart and pounded into pots, lanterns, spoons; old truck tires were being cut into sandals; bottles were being refilled and caps bent again over them. Small children were scavenging for cigarette butts; they will be opened and new cigarettes rolled around the wads of wet tobacco with strips of newspaper covered with Devanagiri script.

Alphonso Lingis, op. cit.

Many of my friends and colleagues live in fear of the federal government turning into Big Brother tyranny. I’m skeptical. Once the permanent global energy crisis really gets underway, the federal government will be lucky if it can answer the phones. Same thing for Microsoft or even the Hannaford supermarket chain.

All indications are that American life will have to be reconstituted along the lines of traditional towns, villages, and cities much reduced in their current scale. These will be the most successful places once we are gripped by the profound challenge of a permanent reduced energy supply.

The land development industry as we have known it is going to vanish in the years ahead. The production home-builders, as they like to call themselves. The strip mall developers. The fried food shack developers. Say goodbye to all that.

We are entering a period of economic hardship and declining incomes. The increment of new development will be very small, probably the individual building lot.

The suburbs as are going to tank spectacularly. We are going to see an unprecedented loss of equity value and, of course, basic usefulness. We are going to see an amazing distress sale of properties, with few buyers. We’re going to see a fight over the table scraps of the 20th century. We’ll be lucky if the immense failure of suburbia doesn’t result in an extreme political orgy of grievance and scapegoating.

The action in the years ahead will be in renovating existing towns and villages, and connecting them with regions of productive agriculture. Where the big cities are concerned, there is simply no historical precedent for the downscaling they will require. The possibilities for social and political distress ought to be obvious, though. The process is liable to be painful and disorderly.
The post cheap oil future will be much more about staying where you are than about being mobile. And, unless we rebuild a US passenger railroad network, a lot of people will not be going anywhere. Today, we have a passenger railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

Don’t make too many plans to design parking structures. The post cheap oil world is not going to be about parking, either.

But it will be about the design and assembly and reconstituting of places that are worth caring about and worth being in. When you have to stay where you are and live locally, you will pay a lot more attention to the quality of your surroundings, especially if you are not moving through the landscape at 50 miles-per-hour.

James Howard Kunstler, “Remarks in Hudson, NY, January 8, 2005” (previewing his new book, due in May: The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-first Century. For more on Kunstler, see here.)

Nek Chand believes that in Nature everything is used, even fallen leaves go back to enrich the soil, similarly the waste of a city should be recycled back into use once more. He had moved to Chandigarh in 1951, after losing his home and native village in the 1948 partition of India, to work on the vast construction of the new city designed by Le Corbusier. In this process a mass of waste was created by the demolition of over 20 villages, and numerous other buildings, to clear the ground for the new town.

In 1958, Nek Chand, who was working as a Roads Inspector for the Chandigarh Public Works Department, made for himself a little clearing in the thick undergrowth outside the city and began to collect together the stones and the waste materials that he knew he would be using, storing them in a little hut he had built. … He had access to waste dumps in his Department and after his working day he brought materials and stones back to his clearing on the back of a bicycle… By 1965 he was ready to begin his kingdom. The land he was working on was not his own, but a Government area where no development or building of any kind was permitted. Unlike other Indian cities, Chandigarh was carefully planned and only authorised development was permitted.

Nek Chand set his stones around the little clearing and before long had sculpted his first figures, made of cement with an outer skin of broken bangles. Gradually the creation developed and grew; before long the sculptures and stones covered several acres. After his working day as a roads inspector ended, he worked alone in the undergrowth. He cleared the land and built his environment. Day after day, and at night by the light of burning tyres, he worked in total secrecy for fear of being discovered by the authorities. Apart from his wife Kamla and a few trusted friends nobody was aware what Nek Chand was doing.

When in 1972 a Government working party began clearing the jungle they came across acres of stones and statues. Almost two thousand sculptures of various sizes inhabited the undergrowth. Amazed by what they had discovered, local government officials were thrown into turmoil. Nek Chand’s creation was completely illegal – a development in a forbidden area which by rights should be demolished. Within a few days of his discovery everyone in Chandigarh knew about the extraordinary creations in the forest. Hundreds flocked to see them and Nek Chand received his first reactions from the world.

Although many city officials were outraged, local business men offered Chand free materials and transport and with this extra assistance he was able to embark on the First Phase of the environment proper. He formed a series of small courtyards to display his natural rocks and sculptures. As his creation developed so did the support and interest of the citizens of Chandigarh. By 1976 the city authorities were forced by public opinion to relieve Chand of his duties as Roads Inspector and give him a salary to continue with his environment on a full time basis. Nek Chand’s kingdom was officially inaugurated as the Rock Garden and administered by the City of Chandigarh.

Chand was given not only a salary but also a work force of fifty labourers and a truck to continue with his work. Electricity and water were at last available. He was now in a position to start work on the Second Phase, a series of large courtyards, many coated in a mosaic of natural stone or broken ceramic linked by winding paths and low archways. He developed complex and extensive methods of waste collection with many different collection points to form one of the largest recycling programmes in Asia.

The armatures for much of his sculpture were made from old cycle parts; saddles became animal heads, forks became legs, frames became bodies. For his extensive areas of mosaic he used not only broken crockery and tiles but whole bathrooms. He has built walls of oil drums, electric plug moulds and of old fluorescent tubes. His figures are clothed in thousands of broken glass bangles, in mosaic, or in foundry slag, even feathers.

In addition to the cement and concrete creations he also produces great quantities of animals and figures out of old rags and discarded clothing. These giant rag dolls are usually full size constructions with strong metal armatures. The interiors consist of hundreds of tightly bound rags, giving a rigidity and strength unusual in this medium.

Not only has Nek Chand transformed urban waste into beauty but he has also utilised a range of natural materials in the Rock Garden. He has made vast sculptures from the roots of upturned trees, built an extraordinary complex of interweaving waterfalls and placed several thousand strangely formed rocks, all collected locally, around the garden.
Nek Chand’s kingdom is set in a total area of twenty five acres and the vast Third Phase, started in 1983, is due to be completed by the end of 1995. …

In his days as a Roads Inspector he was completely involved in the Chandigarh project. Although he never knew Le Corbusier personally, he observed his building methods closely, especially his imaginative use of concrete. One of the features of the Le Corbusier buildings in Chandigarh are the flowing curves of concrete, constructed with complex shuttering to hold the liquid material. Chand has developed Corbusier’s techniques in the Rock Garden by using a large array of shuttering arrangements; from oil drums to sacking he has produced his own organic masses of concrete with a huge variety of different textural surfaces.

Chand knows Corbusier’s buildings inside out. He can explain the hidden vaulting on the roof of the High Court or the construction of the Assembly Building. Chandigarh has more Corbusier buildings in one place than anywhere in the world and it is extraordinary that one of the greatest architects of the Twentieth century should have had such an influence on one of the greatest contemporary Outsider artists.

John Maizels, Nek Chand’s Wonder of the World (Phaidon Press, 1996), excerpted here (via Marja-Leena Raathje)

No guide book gives a just description of The Rock Garden in Chandigarh. Built of industrial waste and thrown-away items, it is perhaps the world’s most poignant and salient statement of the possibility of finding beauty in the unexpected and accidental. It expresses the fragility of the environment, the need for conservation of the earth’s natural resources, the importance of balancing industrial development and sound environmental practices. It attests to the ingenuity and imagination of the people of Chandigarh and their awareness of these global concerns. Above all, it is a community’s testament of appreciation for art, expressing ideas and problems in a universal language.

Carl Lindquist, “Chandigarh and The Rock Garden”

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