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In Chandigarh, India, planner Pierre Jeanneret and architects built a manual of 14 housing types, to respond to different needs and ways of life.Takashi Homma

When you talk about modernist city planning these days, you are evoking bad guys: The bureaucrats who reshaped North America's cities with expressways and cookie-cutter towers, developers who block-busted Victorian "slums," the planners who decided that homes and industry should be scattered and that cities should be built for drivers.

But the story is, of course, not so simple. A fascinating new exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture in Montreal makes a case that modernist planners of the 1940s and 1950s were much more sensitive and practical: They were responsive to culture and climate, devoted to making good public space, and careful to consult the public. In other words, these planners followed all the ideals we currently hold. And they actually built their dreams – not in Paris or New York, but in the developing world.

The show is titled "How architects, experts, politicians, international agencies and citizens negotiate modern planning: Casablanca Chandigarh." It focuses on the work of two obscure planners who wielded great power: Michel Écochard, a French planner who worked in Morocco; and Pierre Jeanneret, an architect and planner who worked with his cousin, the architect Le Corbusier.

Ecochard designed new neighbourhoods for the expansion of Casablanca. And in their biggest project, Jeanneret and Corbusier led the design of Chandigarh, the capital of the Punjab, for the newly independent India. The show's curators – Maristella Casciato, associate director of research at CCA, and Tom Averamete of TU Delft in the Netherlands – explain how the modernists and the developing world changed each other.

Your show touches on Le Corbusier, who is a towering figure, and yet you focus your attention on two relative unknowns. Why?

Tom Averamete: They are marginalized in architectural history, but they had an enormous impact. These people were planning large parts of cities, or entire cities. They are part of this era of the Cold War and "development aid" – the United Nations, in particular – were sending architects and planners on missions all over the global south, working simultaneously in different countries. We believe the fact that these people had to work in so many contexts affected their design approach.

Chandigarh was huge in scale and its complexity, a modern city built from scratch. What shaped its design?

Maristella Casciato: Corbusier had been writing on cities and on urbanism since the 1920s. But when he arrives in Chandigarh, this is a place with inhabitants, with villages. Prime Minister [Jawaharlal] Nehru is very clear about what he wants: something that accommodates rural life, and at the same time becomes modern. The Indian administration was very present almost daily in overseeing the work of the team. And this is also what was happening with the French administration in Casablanca. This was having a theory, working with the local environment, but also responding to a local authority.

When most people think of Le Corbusier, they think of the Ville Radieuse, this grand, utopian model that imposes a modern city on a blank slate. What we are talking about suggests the opposite.

Averamete: Exactly. Chandigarh and Casablanca don't fit a universal model of the modern city, which can be placed anywhere according to the same recipe. They are designing to fit the local climate, and the city is built to be dynamic – it is constantly changing.

Chandigarh is a city built on a grid, with government buildings at the heart. How did the city take shape, and how does it work today?

Casciato: In Chandigarh, Jeanneret and the architects built a manual of 14 housing types with many variations. There is an effort to respond to different needs, to different ways of life. There is an understanding that society has different classes. And today, you see that there is a variety to the city, while also everywhere the same quality in the design. It is a design that responds to all aspects of society. That sounds obvious, but it not obvious today in the gated communities in Asia.

What did Écochard's streets in Casablanca look like?

Averamete: Écochard was planning with an eight-metre by eight-metre "module." Each module was planned as a courtyard house – but he was imagining that people would build within the courtyards, and in fact people started to extend the city vertically, building the houses upward. But there is also a complex hierarchy of public space: small squares, alleys, large parks. This is what has kept the neighbourhoods alive – squares, streets that have bound the community together.

That is the opposite of the car-centred city we think of as "modernist planning" here. But most contemporary planners believe that pedestrian-friendly public space is essential to a strong city.

Averamete: [In North America] that is true. But in Casablanca and in Chandigarh, these lessons have been lost. Public space is forgotten. People are building condominiums and they are gated. You get in your car and you drive away.

You argue that these cities still work today. Why is that?

Averamete: The issue of public space – that is the essence: That a city can transform, and also retain a strong urban fabric.

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