By Anil Dharker
Charles Correa’s favourite story was about Hornby trains. I had one as a child, so I knew what he was talking about. This was a miniature train made by a British company called Hornby. It had a locomotive, carriages and a set of inter-locking rails, both straight and curved. You could make a loop, or lay the track so that the train went straight, then curved into an imaginary tunnel (which could well be a dining room chair).
“I became an architect because of my Hornby train set,” Charles told me. He explained it this way. He had a basic set to which he couldn’t add more components and rails because the Second World War was on, so he dreamt. And he drew, anticipating a time when imports would be resumed and he could add more and more inter-locking rails to let the train go in increasingly more complex loops and figures of 8 and curves around an imagined topography.
“That’s what I drew — my form of day-dreaming in class. I drew so much that when I first saw architectural drawings, I understood them quite quickly – plans, elevations, sections…” That Hornby train not only was his first step in architecture, it was also his inspiration: you started with limited resources (your basic train set) and from them built something of increasing complexity.
Most of us look at a building and say, ‘What good architecture!’ when what we really mean is ‘What a good façade!’ But architecture is going beyond the façade (which gives the onlooker instant gratification) to all the things that make a building a “Machine for Living”, a phrase Correa used in one of his brilliant essays.
For Charles, architecture was like Origami, those colourful paper cut-outs which you could put together in very many formations. He called it working with finite resources to create infinite possibilities. Or perhaps, he once said to me, architecture is like the stories told by Scheherazade in Arabian Nights: one story unfolding into another, then another, and yet another. Each story had you hooked, and made you wait for the next with eager anticipation. Another metaphor was a Chinese garden which seemed, at the outset, just like a cloyingly sweet picture. But when you walked through it, you noticed how it used different slopes and heights to change your perspective so that (once again), you were faced with multiple possibilities. That’s what you get in a Charles Correa building.
Years ago, I did a series of Doordarshan programmes on his architecture, moving from one notable building to another as he explained his vision to the viewer. We also shot in New Bombay (Navi Mumbai), the city of 2 million people he created to work as a counter-magnet to Bombay. He knew it had failed in its main objective, and admitted it ruefully; the failure was not of the planners but was a result of the lack of political will. Incidentally, this extended shoot was a nightmare for Charles and me, and a nightmare for the Doordarshan crew. As they failed to grasp what Charles wanted them to shoot, the famed Correa temper would manifest itself. Working for him in his office had its moments, I am told. You had better be standing on the tips of your mental toes. Mr Correa brooked no stupid questions.
In his many notable buildings, the apparent simplicity is deceptive. You turn a corner and are faced with an expanse of sky (his favourite ally); somewhere there’s a flash of local colour or an encounter with a different art form (murals, sculptures). The IUCAA building in Pune which houses the institute of astronomy and astro-physics, uses (like most of his buildings) the vernacular – in material, in style, in its blend of colours. You are, at once, looking at the future and the past, at the old and the new. The building in spite of its simple lines, takes on a mythic quality. Nothing illustrates this more than the Mahatma Gandhi memorial at Sabarmati which he designed when he was only 28.
Kanchenjanga, the residential building which towers over Kemp’s Corner in Mumbai is important because it shows that you can build tall buildings without doing the usual thing of encasing them in steel and glass. As we stood on one of the double-floor balconies, I saw him looking at me. “Why would you need air-conditioning here?” he asked. What Kanchenjanga shows – and this is the tragedy of modern India that even after so many years, it still does so uniquely – is that a 20th century building could be designed to use nature and natural elements, be environmentally friendly, give its occupants the feeling of living in a spacious bungalow, yet be what it was: a modern-day skyscraper.
For an architect who was also a town planner, Charles occupied that unique space where he was what one could call a pragmatic environmentalist. All development, he said, involves a certain exploitation of resources. What we should aim to do was to be resource efficient and be gentle as possible on the environment. He was scathing about knee-jerk environmentalists: If they were around a hundred years ago, he said, there would be no Marine Drive. After all, it involved reclamation, that dirty 11-letter word! Mumbai would have then been without its most recognisable signature. History is full of such interventions, the results of which are hard to predict, he said.
If our political leadership had the vision to let Charles guide the development of Mumbai instead of leaving it to the builder, ours would still be a crowded place, but it would have been more livable and far more sustainable.
But that wasn’t to be. For now we must be grateful that some people at least, in government and outside, had the good sense to commission Charles Correa buildings which stand as architectural landmarks in India and overseas. There are very many of them, and perhaps it’s only our greed that makes us wish there were more.
Personally, what I wish for were more interactions with him, especially over the Correa’s dinner table: His wife Monika provided a sumptuous meal, and while we ate, Charles threw around ideas that challenged conventional wisdom. We felt energised, our minds full of new thoughts; in fact we felt incredibly intelligent. That was Charles’ magic, to inspire everyone he met, wherever he met them. There won’t be another like him.
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