Charles Correa was barely 30 when he started designing the Gandhi Memorial in Ahmedabad. The context was clear in his mind. It would have to honour the spirit of the man in terms of its scale and material choice and stay flexible for visitors. He sprinkled courtyards within display areas and centred a waterbody for contemplation. With several points of entry and exit, the space reveals itself through its street-like maze. Much like the villages Gandhi toured.
This building was emblematic of Correa’s designs, which celebrated open-to-sky spaces, and respect for climate, materials and context. He saw that India was growingly rapidly and many from its villages would flock cities and need housing. In his “bill of rights” for housing, there were principles that were non-negotiable. These included equity, pluralism, malleability and participation. So while the Belapur housing project in Navi Mumbai may not have any of his old designs, that pretty much reaffirmed Correa’s belief that “making housing is like a bird building its nest. You have to start with the basic house but you have to let people change it”.
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He was compassionate as he was tough, say people who have worked with him. It’s from that well of empathy that he drew inspiration for his many public projects. Most of Correa’s famous buildings are in the public domain, be it the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, which mimics the mandala or the National Crafts Museum in Delhi, which has a street-induced central spine, around which galleries are perched.
“The world was changing and Correa grew with the change. He evolved new concepts and ideas. Be it the Kovalam beach resort, which is a luxury property, or the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, which is set into the ground, with its sunken courtyards, his repertoire was wide for different typologies. Take his MIT Neuroscience Centre in Boston, besides the colours, which echo India, his design is rooted to the place, or be it the Champalimaud Research and Diagnostic Centre in Portugal — these buildings compare with the best in the world,” says Delhi-based architect Jasbir Sawhney.
Correa was winner of multiple awards including the Royal Institute of British Architects Gold Medal in 1984, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1998 and the Padma Vibhushan in 2007. The Charles Correa Foundation, which started in 2010, is an affirmation of Correa’s long evangelism towards inclusive architecture. He knew architecture didn’t work in isolation but involved economics and politics as well.
That primarily is what coaxes the Foundation to reach out to people in the public domain and work as a catalyst for urban projects and ideas. He had an eye for knowing what was important and it never strayed from making the common man comfortable in his home. A truly democratic architect, he built walls to take people higher, not to separate them.