Architectural Photographer Ben Hosking ⏤ The Hand to Give and The Hand to Take
How do we decide to draw a line, a series of exact points, that carves one nation from another? An abstract squiggle, drawn from the mind and ink on a map to a boundary in the flesh? In 1948, in the wake of India’s independence of two hundred years of British Colonial rule, one such arbitrary line was gauged by a single hand. It was a line that would give the people of the Indian subcontinent two nation states – India and Pakistan, the idea being that Hindus could peacefully inhabit one, and Muslims the other. But in the mass migration that followed to fulfil this decree, it was a line that would also take away two million of their lives, leave fifteen million homeless and seventy- five thousand women raped as arson, riots and massacres erupted throughout the country.
The drawing of this line re-routed the capital city of Punjab, Lahore, away from India, and placed it in in the newly formed Pakistan, requiring a new capital city for the state. So, amidst the anguish, bitter bloodshed and displacement that plagued the Punjabi people, it was Le Corbusier, the famed Swiss architect at his zenith at seventy, whose hand was asked to plan, design and implement this new city.
Le Corbusier’s directive for the city from Jawaharlal Nehru, the first prime minister of Independent India, was to build ‘a new town, symbolic of the freedom of India, unfettered by the traditions of the past.’ The city became Chandigarh, or ‘stronghold of the goddess Chandi’, a goddess known for her ferocity and capability of destruction, the flipside of her powers to manifest.
Photographer Ben Hosking first discovered Chandigarh as a young student living in Melbourne. He and his flatmate, an architecture student, came across a poster outlining all of Corbusier’s works and became intrigued by how the brutalist master’s European architecture translated into this South Asian environment. They vowed they would visit the city on the completion of their studies.
Although the trip never eventuated, Chandigarh remained in the back of Hosking’s mind’s eye as he graduated from his photography degree and focused his camera lens on architecture throughout Australia and Asia. But in 2014, he travelled to Chandigarh and posed his lens to its iconic buildings and proud people. Here he found his renown as a photographer and his Australian nationality opened doors to interiors that may have otherwise been unseen. The photos you see here are from this trip.
Within his series of photographs, there is a photo of Le Corbusier’s hand sculpture; a palm open to the wind, held like an Indian mudra. The monument was completed in 1985, twenty years after his death, and so was never seen by him. But the hand was a motif that was prominent throughout Le Corbusier’s life, a hand which to him symbolised “the hand to give and the hand to take.”
We sat down in conversation with Ben a few months before he plans to go back to Chandigarh to finish this series of photographs, to talk about his impressions of the city, Le Corbusier’s work there and his experiences photographing this modernist city of hope.
SC: Tell me how you first came across Le Corbusier and his team’s work in Chandigarh?
BH: It would’ve been over ten years ago now. One of my close friends who’s an architect, we were both at university so we were quite young, we would’ve been around twenty-two or twenty-three, and we were going through all of Le Corbusier’s work, and she had a poster that listed every single project of his.
We were talking about his work and we planned a trip to India. We didn’t end up going but we had always planned on going once we graduated from university. I studied photography and she studied architecture and both of our worlds ended up colliding. But that was the initial fascination in seeing such a Euro-centric architect’s work in the East, not just Japan, which is still such a first world country. That was something that intrigued us at the time.
It wasn’t until three or four years ago, I was still thinking about it, and I wanted to shoot some of his work, but I didn’t really want to go and do any of the well-known projects in Europe. Even as beautiful as they are and as important as they are, it didn’t really hold that much interest for me. Whereas a lot of his stuff in India, hadn’t been seen as much. Even though Chandigarh sets a precedent for urban planning in a good way and in a bad way, I think that was far more interesting.
I started organising access to different places in Chandigarh and the southern city of Ahmedabad as well. I guess at that point it wasn’t really a reality but I’d already organised a lot of sites to through and meet different people there so I couldn’t really pull out by that point. I guess it was a double-edged sword, it was good in some ways and bad in others, because I ended up stuck there in the middle of summer where it was forty-five degrees and old people were kicking the bucket left, right and centre, so it was the worst time of year to go, but an amazing experience nonetheless.
I think that was the initial attraction, it feels so long ago. I’ve planned on going back every year since, and I’ve got a flight this year, but I haven’t been back for two years.
SC: So you started the series and you feel like you haven’t finished it?
BH: There’s enough there – I’ve got the imagery in front of me, and there’s quite a lot. But I feel like I can …I’m not sure….it doesn’t feel quite there yet.
SC: I can imagine, because there’s so much there – it’s a whole city. There is big architecture, monuments but even little things. I know that he even designed the sewerage covers and tourists rip them off and sell them on eBay.
BH: Everything’s been flogged off you know. Everything that’s small enough to move. There was a New York or LA Times article about all the government officials selling off the chairs to European auction firms. You can see the Jean Royère chairs for 40 or 50 thousand euros if they’re in good shape. And it’s quite an interesting experience because they can sense an opportunity there, and I mean, why wouldn’t you? I guess it depends on the way you value it. If they’ve lived in it or sat on those chairs their whole lives, they probably think they’re terribly uncomfortable, and they probably are!
I can understand – it’s an office chair and they can buy a house for the same price. It’s opportunism, but I can kind of understand it at the same time. You can’t see a lot of those things anymore, because they’ve been flogged off or a lot of the Swiss or French market have gone in and bought it all. But the buildings are obviously still intact and a lot of them are in amazing shape.
SC: Is that because they’re under a historic act to preserve it?
BH: I think just before I photographed it, it was added to the UNESCO world heritage list. It might have been two or three months before that, that I went, so I knew it was happening. And I thought, maybe I should go before they change anything, because it would be policed in a very different way and you might not be able to gain access to any of it, in the same way you did before.
I think it’s more that there isn’t the budget to change the buildings or put modern infrastructure in, not so much because it is highly valued in any way, and I don’t think it still is. I think that if it was anywhere else in the world, you’d still have all the sewerage covers and chairs and all the knick-knacks that Le Corbusier designed, would still be there and accounted for. I’m not sure what it is. No one’s really shown a great amount of interest in it till the last ten or fifteen years. Before that, without the internet, a lot of people didn’t know it existed, unless of course you’re an academic or an architecture professor or something like that. It flew under the radar.
SC: Do you think the residents of Chandigarh have a sense of pride about it?
BH: I think they do now, absolutely. And that’s only because of the recent interest, because you have professors leading school tours there throughout the course of the year. I think now they realise it’s of such significance, because I think it was Le Corbusier’s last project. I think he died towards the end of it and he got to oversee a lot of it. I think that because it’s considered such a clean city, the people of Chandigarh put a lot of pride in their city and the Punjab people in general.
SC: Le Corbusier’s work is quite divisive, people either love it or hate it, and you mention that Chandigarh sets a precedent for urban planning in both a good way and a bad way. So, what from your point of view are the positive and negative aspects of Chandigarh?
BH: I’ll start with the negative. I would say it is that there is so much security in and around the buildings and it feels very much like a police state. The officers and the army are just everywhere, and I can understand that due to the insurgence and tensions that surround it due to assassinations and that sort of thing. It feels very strange, despite being openly friendly. In an urbanism sense, it’s very difficult to get from point A to point B, and it just wasn’t a success because the public transport is terrible. You’re forced to get a car or a took-took and it’s terribly difficult to get anywhere, especially in summer where you can’t be out in the heat, even if it is a relatively green garden state. Way-finding is awful, and everything about getting around is incredibly hard.
The positive aspect is that his work is scattered throughout the whole city and whatever projects weren’t his, he still had an influence on. You can still see his style and ethos reverberate through that. I would say that is the most positive aspect about it. Even just going to the art schools, or even offices, you can just walk straight in and everyone’s very open about that. I’m sure it would be different if I wasn’t a westerner, but you can go right in and benches are still there, a lot of his concrete floor work is in beautiful condition, and aspects of these buildings, you see the most mundane, inane looking objects, to the complete opposite in the High Court. That’s the most beautiful aspect of the city itself. In comparison to Brasilia or another city which is not so well preserved, I think it’s quite special.
SC: Coming from a knowledge and understanding of architectural practice before you went there, what were you hoping or expecting to see, that became fulfilled when you were there?
BH: I wasn’t expecting or hoping to see that much. I’d seen three or four projects so my expectations were relatively low. I didn’t understand the scale of it prior. It’s not until you’re there, you know – universities, schools, medical practices, everything is by him or his cousin Pierre Jeanneret. I didn’t actually have any high hopes of photographing any of it because of how heavily policed most of those buildings are. So, it was only really circumstance at the time. I took all my camera equipment with me, but there weren’t any pre-ordained plans to actually take it seriously. I had access to go and view it, but I didn’t think I was going to photograph it.
SC: Was it hard to gain access in that respect or were they pretty open to you photographing?
BH: I had to organise beforehand when I sent reference letters form university lecturers, and architects, basically signalling what I do and who I’ve worked for. Afterwards they were quite open to it. There’s a lot of bureaucracy in India so it took quite a lot of time to get things done, but after that it was fine.
SC: When you talk before about how much security surrounds the city, you can see that in your images of the guards. Can you tell me about shooting them and what their reactions were?
BH: I’m not sure if I should disclose this anywhere, but even though I had prior access, money did exchange hands with some of the guards to make it happen, such is the way. The guards that are in those photographs are from the High Court. It was very sensitive, as there was an upcoming election at that time for either the state of Punjab or Haryana – one side of the building is Punjab, the other side is Haryana. Because of a previous assassination in that building, there are guards everywhere, littered with AK47’s. I think that was from the independence movement of Punjab state from the 1980’s to early 2000’s, so that is why the guards are literally everywhere.
But I think being a westerner you have certain freedoms that you wouldn’t have if you were Indian or Asian. The fact that I was Australian as well helps facilitate the process, because the cricket is absolutely massive, so as soon as you say you’re Australian it opens up doors, even though I have no interest in cricket, I made the most of it.
One of the guards, who is up the top on the rooftop, was one of my guides through the building and he didn’t want me to take photos anywhere but by the time we got to the top, he kind of relaxed a little bit. That’s when I started shooting. I think he had a barbeque up the top there and left me on my own for a little while. There was one part which was the Parliament Sitting building and I wasn’t able to shoot anything in there, I had to hand over everything. I think that was the site where one of the ministers was killed or assassinated, so that’s probably why I wasn’t allowed to sit in the chairs there, which I can understand.
SC: For me Chandigarh is such an interesting city, because at the time that it was built, it was made from the ashes of this horrific partition where millions died and millions were displaced. And then Nehru, as the first Prime Minister of Independent India after two hundred years of British rule, gave Le Corbusier and his team a directive to turn Chandigarh into this new capital city based on hope. The layout and architecture was meant to be unlike anything that had been before in India, and I was wondering what your feelings were personally witnessing these monuments, at this certain time of history?
BH: When you talk about hope, I don’t necessarily see the ideology behind Le Corbusier’s work fitting in with that idea, but in terms of the architecture itself I would say that his certain brand of modernism is more appropriate for India than what it was anywhere else. Having these huge, concrete, monolithic structures that actually work incredibly well in that environment, but don’t necessarily entrance as they would in Berlin or Switzerland.
But going back to when you talk about Nehru and that period, I never tend to feel overwhelmed by a building. There’s Gaudi in Barcelona, but never actually modern architecture. That was probably the first time I actually felt overwhelmed, going to Chandigarh and seeing the High Court and everything else. The sheer scale of it and the amount of work that’s gone into it as a city, it doesn’t even exist today – nothing’s come close to it. So, I would say it reflects that period really quite well, unlike anything else I’ve seen before. The monumentality of it all. I still think it’s incredibly relevant today.
SC: When you talk about how suited it is for India, these monolithic concrete structures, do you mean in how it houses the population?
BH: I guess more its environmental features. The concrete which is quite cooling in the shade. In that sun, it’s so stiflingly hot, and it would almost be fifteen degrees cooler in the shade, and its really quite cool inside. If you have that sort of building in Berlin in winter, it’s quite awful and it’s snowing outside. It’s perfect in a lot of ways for the West Asian climate, and that’s the first thing that you notice if you’re forced to walk around with all your camera equipment on the off chance that you might stumble upon something. You walk under the canopy of a building and you think ‘Thank God, we’re here.’
SC: What was the building or monument there that really spoke to you?
BH: I think it would be the High Court, the scale of it. It’s quite unbelievable seeing these tiny little figures as you walk along marshalling out the front, it feels very strange in comparison to this huge concrete building. I had to go there twice, because the first day I went they had a sitting day in court, a trial of some description, I think it was about corruption. So, I wasn’t allowed internally, so I had to organise another day to go inside, but I wasn’t allowed to photograph anything or anyone inside. I’m hoping if I persevere or push a little harder I may be allowed to photograph inside.
SC: So are you going back to just Chandigarh?
BH: Maybe Ahmedabad as well, as there’s the Mill Owner’s Association Building there designed by Le Corbusier and which I’ve got some images of. It’s from all the old mills around Ahmedabad from when it was the textile epicentre of the world. There’s a private house there too. There’s a lot there, and there’s an architect called B.V Doshi who came from the same lineage of architects, so he has a lot of work in Ahmedabad as well.
SC: What surprised you most about the city?
BH: The amount of money – It’s quite an affluent city because of the huge parliament there, so you have all the political offspring and the university is one of the best in India as well. That’s quite apparent. I just thought it was normal, but because I went to Chandigarh first and then Mumbai and Ahmedabad second, it was only then I realised how different it was to the rest of India, and how clean it was. You can kind of see the pride in the city from everyone you meet. I got a sense of the hospitality of the Punjab people, and I don’t often say that – I’ve travelled through Asia for the better part of fifteen years now, and that was one of the things that stood out. I still get correspondence from Architecture students there and it felt quite wholesome. I think that’s lovely.