(Under)dogged determination: Chand, Corbu and Chandigarh

I wrote the following for a magazine on the theme of "winners and losers," but they didn't end up using it. Since the themes of creative autonomy, persistence, reclamation, and "mastery" are so strong, I'd like to post it here.

In 1951, Nek Chand was hired as a roads inspector to help construct LeCorbusier’s master plan for the new capital city of Chandigarh in northern India. When not laboring in service of the great architect’s vision, Chand quietly carved out a secret legacy of his own in the jungle outside town—one that eventually trumped the great Corbu’s city of Chandigarh.

To give LeCorbusier a blank slate to design an entire 240-acre city, the shining symbol of a modernizing India, twenty villages had to be razed. Chand worked in a secluded clearing under cover of darkness for 18 years transforming scavenged materials from that rubble into mosaic-tile trees, monkeys, bears, men, women, walls, and waterfalls--all using the newest construction techniques he picked up during his day job. He created some 2,000 sculptures by the time his illegal Rock Garden--created without permission on government land--was discovered in 1972. Despite countless threats to destroy the garden--one in which a human wall prevented bulldozers from plowing a roadway through the park (when has "legitimate" art inspired this kind of passion?)—Chand’s work still stands, a symbol of his autonymous spirit.

John Maizels, editor of Raw Vision, a magazine dedicated to contemporary outsider art, wrote that Chand is "a self-taught genius whose use of spatial relationships on such a massive scale could compete with the greatest of architects." In fact, it can be argued that Chand not only competed with, but triumphed over Corbu. Criticized by Indians for its user-unfriendly designs, cold lines, and Western building materials ill-fit for India’s harsh elements, Chandigarh is considered Le Corbusier’s great failure. By contrast, Chand--whose kingdom was birthed from the discarded waste of LeCorbusier’s city--was relieved of his job as road inspector so he could work full time with pay on his dream city, a work now memorialized on one of India’s postage stamps.

In an "edict" summarizing his work in Chandigarh, LeCorbusier wrote: "The age of personal statues is gone. No personal statues shall be erected in the city or parks of Chandigarh. The city is planned to breathe the new sublimated spirit of art." Thankfully, it’s an edict Chand managed to ignore.

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