Art Seen: International

CCA // CASABLANCA CHANDIGARH

by Tina Gelsomini

Founded in 1979, the Canadian Centre for Architecture houses one of the most extensive architectural archives in North America. Today, if you stroll down the left wing of the CCA towards the main gallery-space, you will encounter their most recent exhibition, exploring modern urbanism in Casablanca, Morocco and Chandigarh, India from the 1950s to the present day. In How architects, experts, politicians, international agencies and citizens negotiate modern planning: Casablanca Chandigarh, curators Tom Avermaete and Maristella Casciato collaborate to examine these cases with parallel urban histories.

As we approach the entrance to the exhibition, two large photographic prints hang on the walls to the left, establishing a dualism that nevertheless invokes a common visual aesthetic. The first image is a modern scene in Casablanca taken by Moroccan photographer Yto Barrada. The other, by Japanese photographer Takashi Homma, captures the entryway of a large government building in Chandigarh. These photographs, hanging on the fringes of the exhibition, are the first of Barrada and Homma’s works to appear and are part of a special collection commissioned by the CCA solely for this exhibition. Presented throughout the following galleries alongside archival materials, their contributions are central in forming the contemporary picture of Cassablanca and Chandigarh, emulating both the vestiges and divergences of the original 1950s planning.

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Photo d’Yto Barrada, une commande du Centre Canadien d’Architecture, Montréal. © Yto Barrada.
Commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. © Yto Barrada.

As we move past the images and cross the threshold into the first gallery, we enter the main room at the nexus of a figure-eight, which splits off in two separate directions only to loop back into the main room, allowing us to explore the other side. In this first room, we encounter what resembles a research library. On the walls to either side, large hanging maps and charts trace the phases of decolonization that preceded contemporary Casablanca and Chandigarh. An enormous circular wooden table fills the centre of the room, scattered with aged reports, images and documents from the mid-twentieth century, such as a series of small unpublished black and white annotated photographs by Otto Koenigsburger dating from 1953. His noted photographs trace the climatic conditions and urban plan of unnamed slums, visually documenting the proper ways to create shade or rig water systems. Directly behind the roundtable along the back wall, wooden planks support likewise dated books whose contents remain unknowable, though suggested, as in “Tropical Architecture in the Humid Zone” by Maxwell Fry & Jane Drew and in “An Architect-Planner on the Peripheries: Case Studies from the Less Developed World, the Retrospective Diary of Charles K. Polonyi.” The sensation of standing in the middle of a dense collage is not incidental, as we later learn that this technique mirrors the extensive research process performed by the planners.

Along the back wall of this first room, two separate yellow doorways bear the name of one city in black lettering, guiding us to either Casablanca, to our right, or to Chandigarh, to our left. No matter where we begin, Avermaete and Casciato gently pull us from phase to phase of the planning process, from early exploration to design and implementation, while still engaging with the modern versions of these cities. In Casablanca’s gallery space, crisp white housing models, displayed on centrally-placed tables, recreate urban planner Michel Écochard’s scheme for the Carrières centrales, which would build off of existing bidonvilles and incorporate shared public space. Grids, collections of old photographs, and texts on the gallery walls contextualize the rows of blocked model housing. Wrapped along the far walls, these imagined spaces are materialized in Barrada’s work. Here, he captures Écochard’s quest for an organized, shared civic space in evocative photographs of modern facades and public squares. Actual inhabitants remain absent from his photographs, though Barrada’s composition hints at the fundamental importance of the invisible subjects to these spaces.

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Photo de Takashi Homma, une commande du Centre Canadien d’Architecture, Montréal. © Takashi Homma. Commissioned by the Canadian Centre for Architecture, Montréal. © Takashi Homma

While Casablanca’s space in the CCA offers a subdued mediation on the development of urban space, across the gallery in Chandigarh, Takashi Homma captures a livelier and perhaps more immediately familiar urban environment. Once again presented alongside model housing, figures and old photographs, Homma’s large prints, often displayed alongside the length of one gallery wall, reveal bicycles resting outside of residential housing and busy milling back and forth at an outdoor street market. Unlike the opposite side of the gallery, Chandigarh’s space also includes two short videos by Homma, which complete his vision of the modern city. The first, a 7-minute video entitled High Court Portico, is displayed on a small television screen around the corner from his series of prints. Projected in slow-motion, the video depicts men dressed in court robes meandering through the square of Chandigarh’s colorful high-court building. If one studies closely, you will notice that the green, red-orange, and yellow walls of the portico are mimicked throughout the exhibition, and are reflected in the hanging gallery descriptions. Homma’s second video, Central Bus Station, a 25 minute sped-up video of Chandigarh’s bustling station, is projected in the adjacent room. Unlike Barrada’s Casablanca, the modern citizen of Chandigarh is nearly always present in Homma’s imagery.

As we pass through the final rooms of the exhibition, entrances and exits appear around us, offering to either return us to the central exhibition space, or to push us out into the hallways of the center, whose corridors continue to play upon the past and present of urban life. While complex, the CCA once again presents a visually stunning exhibition that mediates on the vestiges of history in two cities undergoing constant transformation.


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How architects, experts, politicians, international agencies and citizens negotiate modern planning: Casablanca Chandigarh at the Canadian Centre for Architecture runs through April 20, 2014.

Tina Gelsomini lives in Montréal and currently works for the non-profit media arts organization Cinema Politica.

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