From India to Chandigarh

The faults of architectural determinism

If we ask any architect or town planner whether he thinks that his plan will affect the user’s behaviour, his answer will be a categorical yes! Experience shows that we refrain from speaking loudly in quiet places, keep things tidy in clean places, and the smokers among us do not hesitate to throw out their butts in public places, especially when there’s no one around “because it’s part of the deplorable habit” - best evidenced in all the littered parking lots.


Born with the invention of architecture, this idea was scientifically reinforced by the behaviourist theory, maintaining that patterns of behaviour are acquired, as opposed to mentalist theories claiming that behaviour patterns are dictated by innate traits.

Between the behaviourist approach that deals with the explicit utterances of the soul and the psychoanalytical one dealing with its implicit complexities, there are many intermediate theories - the best known being Donald Winnicot’s ‘transition space’, whose aim is to bridge between the two. Hence, it is likely that most architects will support the opposite statement as well, saying that man’s behaviour is a crucial factor in the formation of the environment.


This reciprocal effect is well expressed by Churchill’s famous saying: “We shape our buildings and afterwards they shape us.”

Like in the chicken/egg case, the question of what is more important isn’t relevant, since in the post-modern period the majority rules, but the truth of the minority is no less important. To clarify - this article deals with the behaviourist approach, because - regarding architecture - its deterministic implications are crucial, especially when the architect/user relations are at stake. And the architects’ explanations (mainly the ones listened to) viewing every piece of space they create as enabling or encouraging activity - from the purpose to the form, or vice versa - speak for themselves.


The behaviourist theory actually developed on the basis of Ivan Pavlov’s ‘classic conditioning’; the work of Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who developed the ‘operant conditioning’; and John Broadus Watson, who formed models for quantifying, measuring and scientifically analysing overt patterns of behavior.


The underlying assumption of all three was that it is feasible, and even advisable, to teach (train) animals (including and particularly human beings) with the stick and carrot (or sugar lumps) method. That is - to encourage actions perceived as positive, while penalising negatively perceived actions. And evident for this are all the elephants, lions and slaves who automatically do as their master commands.

This way of thinking is so simple, that the article could easily terminate at this point. But the nature of articles is that they require expounding, or else they will be considered superficial.


As expressed already in his 1913 essay “Psychology as the Behaviourist Views It”, Watson’s assumption was that since behaviour is the only observable expression of the soul, it is also the only measurable aspect, so that intuitive psychoanalysis should give up its attempt to become scientific.


Skinner’s development of operant conditioning added strength to the deterministic aspect of the surroundings, claiming that “since animals tend to repeat actions that yield positive response, all that is needed is to reinforce certain patterns of their behaviour in order to achieve a desired respond.”

It should be noted that neither Watson nor Skinner ignored the existence of an inner reality. However, while architects assimilate intuitive content as well into the planning - decision-makers ignore it, and base their decisions solely on measurable values, which do not take into account the inner reality of the user with his personality, social and cultural aspects.

The relations between architecture and behavioural theory received its ultimate stamp of approval with the development of determinist theory, whose extreme expression is found in the planning of institutes such as penitentiaries, hospitals and schools - where the control over behaviour is perceived as obligatory (Bentham’s Panopticon). The problem is that determinist theory contends that our behaviour is dictated consciously or unconsciously by external forces.


Characterised by linear causality, Modernist architecture adopted this line of thought almost blindly. Lasting for about fifty years, this period was characterised by extreme adherence to the functionalist scheme that connects directly between needs and products, but its ramifications are still with us. A reality where all is deliberate with no room for randomness, a period where everything is budget based, creating nothing but minimalist standards. One has only to look at the public lavatories where you have to climb onto the seat in order to squeeze out, and always, but always see the user’s feet under the well-designed door, with pants crumpled down.

And urbanically speaking - the most devastating products of the functionalist approach are the slum neighbourhoods that popped up like mushrooms in post-war Europe, and here - in the dismal immigrant neighbourhoods erroneously perceived as an architecture one should yearn for - under the annoying title of “the Israeli project”.


With all its shortcomings, the Post-Modern period moderated the modernist determinism, and more or less created four levels of architectural relation to the user - here in order of intensity:

The first approach contends that man acts according to his own free will with no connection to his surroundings. Hence, an Israeli in Harrod’s London can shout to his wife at the other end of the prestigious shop: “Dina, come see these cool trousers on sale”;

The second approach believes that existing patterns of behavior can be reinforced by architecture, and the best example I can think of is the fast counter at the supermarket, where you can still leave the store in less than an hour;

The third approach expects to receive a reasonable response from the investment in total environment planning. For example - a flower shop in Rishpon, whose owners expected to finish the month well, based on the honesty of the buyers that paid up for the most part, while some got “confused” with the change in order to buy cigarettes;

The fourth approach claims that the planned environment can totally dictate behaviour patterns. In other words, that whoever lives in the president’s mansion automatically behaves according to the suitable code.

Ironically, the fourth approach - characterised by extreme determinism - is actually practiced in every school, with the student taken for an empty vessel to be filled with content. Which content? Whatever is deemed “right” by the decision-makers at the time - and needless to mention, much depends on the political winds which change periodically.

This presents a greater threat at the schools of architecture where the decision of what is right to fill up the “box” is, at best, in the hands of the tutor, while in the worst case - in the hands of the school director, who uses his “truths” to influence the teachers, and further on - the actual work in the field.


And so, in the name of protecting the environment, we promote the building of residential towers at the expense of the surroundings; produce green gimmicks instead of encouraging climate-awareness; and get carried away too fast by the digital trend, which still creates more frustrations than applicable solutions.


As a social medium par excellence, every type of architecture expresses the society that has created it and its generating events. In this reality, there is great importance to vernacular contents assimilated within, not only as they makes it easier for the user to operate in their framework, but particularly because they promise cultural stability over time. And conversely - every universal dimension robs the place of the vernacular component. In other words - the more universal is the architecture, the greater the chance of too wide a gap between the architecture and the user. Hence, vernacular architecture - even if expressing a considerable degree of social determinism (as in primitive societies), may be more well-suited to the user.


It would sound almost insensible to talk about architectural determinism without mentioning one of its most ardent lovers - le Corbusier, who believed in architecture’s unlimited power to change world patterns - both at the building level, and particularly at the urban one. When the worker estates that flooded European cities became poverty-stricken slums threatening the order, he proposed in 1922 to build “villas for the poor” to eliminate the lower classes. These were boxlike residential units including bedrooms, living-room, and kitchen. Named ‘villas immeubles’, they were piled one on another, with the innovation of an exit onto a small garden - an idea later improved upon by Safdie in his famous Montreal Habitat.


At that time le Corbusier also published his idea of the “contemporary city” planned for 3 million inhabitants, living in 60-story sky-scrapers, with green parks between, and layered transportation arteries. As we now know, it was the blind application of this idea that paralysed many of the cities world-wide. And by the way, it’s about time somebody whispered into his late ear that behind his public relation sculptural architecture, many social theories are buried.


One of the most extreme examples of determinist architecture is the Indian city of Chandigarh, planned in 1950 by le Corbusier as the joint capital of Punjab and Haryana - two states that were left with no capital after the division between India and Pakistan in 1947. Named for the goddess Chandi - the cosmic goddess and wife of Shiva - the city was intended as a symbol of the good future to which the founders of Punjab aspired.

The question is: Has the only planned city in India achieved its social purposes, and if so - at what cultural price? As expected from le Corbusier, the modern city is laid out as a grid of two-way streets with substantial separation between pedestrians and cars. According to the zoning idea, the urban functions have been separated along the abstract model of the human body. So, for instance: the “head” (sector 1) was designated for government buildings; the commercial core (sector 17) is the city’s “heart; the industrial zone - the “intestines”, etc.

To ensure that the buildings wouldn’t be built with the organic flow indigenous to India, but rather according to the severe universal code of international architecture, le Corbusier himself planned part of the city’s important centres, among them the museum complex in sector 10, including the national museum, the city museum, and the auditorium; several residential buildings in sectors 22 and 35; and the Capitol’s buildings, naturally of prominent significance to the city, and an important milestone in le Corbusier’s résumé, as well.


To better understand the vast gap between the universal truth of Chandigarh and the vernacular context containing it, every tour of the city requires a pre-visit to an ordinary Indian city - for instance, the neighbouring Jaipur, also called the Pink City of Rajasthan.


The exit from the Jaipur airport is an opening to another world with rules of its own. Teeming streets without sidewalks, covered with bottles, plates made of leaves, and clay chai glasses strewn on the ground. People, cars, bicycles, rickshas and holy cows roam about in an unfathomable chaotic order, along the bazaar streets inside the walled Old City. All this is accompanied by incessant honking - in lieu of traffic lights and signs - mixed with the toll of bells from the temples scattered along the bazaar, sounds of vendors calling to the passersby, and the hammering of a one-legged cobbler repairing a tired sandal.

To a foreigner it would seem that the Indians run all day long from one temple to another (they have about a thousand gods), dispersing ceremoniously aromas of nag champa (incense) that for moments rise above the smell of soot and filth emitted from the rikshas, while the bazaar spices it all with the smell of food and exotic perfumes, and chai that spreads a sweet aroma of cinnamon and carnation. In one frame one can see a vendor frying samosa, a riksha driver stopping for a pair of tourists, a cow munching on cardboard, and a guy peeing into the sewer stream that runs along the street. Many sounds, many colors, many smells, many tastes, many gods, many beliefs, many languages, many of everything, and all together existing in a wondrous superposition. And then silence.



Street signs remind one that honking is forbidden here, green circles show the traffic direction, and traffic lights are fixed with stop watches counting the seconds left till the lights change to green. Endless streets with six lanes and a green separation isle, parking spaces, sidewalks disproportionate in their width-height ratio, totally contrary to the idea of the module (a proportion system borrowed from the human body). Streets that divide the city into numbered sectors.


Chandigarh is more like an assemblage of neighborhoods separated by urban rivers where rikshas and family cars flow by in perfect order. Walking along its empty, alienated streets, alongside trains of monotonous buildings, void of character and identity, is like an exhausting journey into the creative head of le Corbusier. Every sector is like the others, sporting a green core center - like peas on a pod with no uniqueness or local identity.


The sharp contrast between the cultural context of India and the universal truth is so pronounced that only here can the latter and its by-products be truly understood. Carrying European prices, the grand shops in sector 17 create synthetic sides for the only public spaces of the city, at the ground floor of 3-4 story buildings. The residents of Chandigarh behave as Europeans in every aspect: most of the women have divested themselves of the colorful sari in favor of jeans and tailored shirts, drink coffee with girlfriends, and leave no trace of the familiar vibrant rhythm of life in Jaipur, Varanasi or Mumbai.


Here and there, there are still cultural remnants - some spots of color that look like bay leaves randomly spread over a precisely-composed gourmet dish: a barefoot cobbler reading the papers on a mat in the middle of the street; a riksha driver throwing rubbish out of the window; a vendor peddling watermelons on a sidewalk that maybe no one has walked along for years; and a tree with a mirror hanging on it, a chair opposite – defining, at intersection 26, the space of an elderly barber whose sole possessions are a razor, leather belt for sharpening, and scissors.


After two days of exhausting meandering around the city, I landed by riksha at Capitol Hill, where three paths split to the three government buildings: the High Court of Punjab and Haryana, the Secreteriat of government offices, and the Parliament - each having sprouted on its own spacious hill.


Between the three buildings, and adjacent to the courthouse, there’s a structure that the local kids have turned into a playground - the “Open Hand” sculpture in the shape of a dove, by le Corbusier, symbolizing the city that “opens to give and take”.


The entrance to the buildings requires a permit from the Dept. of Architecture in sector 9. But the ink signature of Nadim from the protocol office on the second floor allows entrance to only two of the three buildings: the High Court and the Secretariat, with the latter accompanied by a guard. The only building where one could roam inside and out almost freely was the High Court, peeking through the trees up the path. An abstract composition of a Greek temple reminds the visitor that he’s arrived at the "temple of modern man".

One cannot describe the experience of the building, especially along the fourth floor corridor that borders on one side with office rooms, and on the other with a “human” scaled mashrabia. One manages to forget the length of the corridor through the openings and verandas that create changing architectural scenes. The urban scenery viewed through a complex of geometric shapes grants the static building a considerable amount of dynamics, so lacking in the city.


Every movement in the building “shifts” it, altering the space perception. In one frame you can see a public space with a Sikh going down the stairs, three women sitting on mats eating a snack under a shading concrete pergola, a dove nesting in the human-scale mashrabia, lawyers making their way into the building from the plaza, and a well-dressed clerk exiting a crowded office for a chat on the corridor veranda.


Many compositions, many situations, many people, many structural elements, and among them the Secretariat building set as a rare jewel on the background of the frozen city. Most of the building is decorated with patterns of exposed concrete imprinting a delicate texture of wood. Delicate rails and colorful mashrabias in the Art-Deco style break the monotony of the gray. But to the same extent that they symbolize the colorfulness of India, they also remind one of the residential buildings built by le Corbusier in Marseilles.

I don’t know if le Corbusier himself planned the building or someone in his office did (quite likely), but the High Court creates a moving superposition between the extremely vernacular India and the universal truth of the democratic temple of the new society.

It would seem that in controversial India everything is possible - “Sab kuch milega” - a sentence the local people constantly repeat, means that “you will get all” - a contradiction that the outside viewer may like or not.

There are cities whose existential justification is around one building, for instance Amritsar with its golden palace. Chandigarh is such - for with all of its unbearable order, if there is a justification for Chandigarh’s existence, it is there among the walls of le Corbusier’s temples, at least for the few who can manage to comprehend them.