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India’s architect Charles Correa

Charles Correa’s architecture drew from a deepening well of history and tradition, while simultaneously seeking a fearless approach to experimental living.

Written by Gautam Bhatia |
June 18, 2015 12:14:48 am
Charles Correa Charles Correa, one of India’s greatest urban planners, died at the age of 84 (Source: Express Archives)

Some 50 years ago, when Chandigarh was under construction,” wrote Charles Correa, “Indian architects were asked why we had not objected to Nehru’s appointment of a foreigner to create the city? The question astonished me. I knew the government could easily have selected some large commercial office for this assignment. Instead what an incredible good choice they made! India was lucky to get Corbusier.” India was luckier still to have had Correa. The architect, who died on Tuesday, was known as much as India’s architect as India’s world architect.

Since Independence, Indian architecture has lived in a widening crack of wilderness. If, by definition, architecture serves to invigorate its residents, the buildings of India have long lost their interest in their own culture. Bereft of idea, thought or ideology, architecture rides piggyback on the mildewed remains of structures that emerge on the streets of London, Paris and now Dubai. Its sheer invisibility — often behind high walls or through the sheer absence of content, anonymous — forces a monotonous and paralytic tedium on the cityscape. Walk down any street in the larger cities, the vision struggles to achieve urban coherence.

Correa’s forms have always been a reincarnation in the dreary landscape. His expression of ideas renewed buildings with a new order of freshness. “Transformation challenges society,” he wrote, “and architecture presents that opportunity every day.”

He called himself a planner and remained enmeshed in schemes to restore values to cities like Mumbai and Delhi, often using the metaphor of the Banyan tree to evoke the image of shaded places where people could congregate. Like other architects, Correa wrote extensively on architecture and urbanity. But unlike others, his writing was not as a detached or theoretical observer. Cities, he understood, were a messy, gut-wrenching, tiresome, illiterate and contaminating experience. As the founder of Mumbai’s Urban Design Research Institute, he spoke with a tireless eloquence on the need to confer value to urban life. His early book, The New Landscape, and later A Place in the Shade, drew on his experience of urban design and connected in an unerringly Correa way to his own buildings, his ideas for low-cost housing, the open life of the Indian slum, even the design idea of “Open to Sky” space.

An out-and-out Mumbai professional with a Goa background, his architecture practice drew inspiration from both sources. Mumbai’s collisions and crowded assemblies generated first the ideas on how to build in impossibly high densities; the papers and seminars then became the testing ground for actual construction. Architecture, when it came, drew with great ease from a deepening well of history and tradition, while simultaneously seeking a fearless approach to experimental living. At Belapur in Navi Mumbai, Correa’s low-cost housing footprint tracks the pattern of courtyard life and gives it the legitimacy of modern design. In a contrasting structure, the Kanchenjunga building on Napean Sea Road inserts two storied houses into an apartment block. Verandahs on the ninth floor leave you with the sensation of bungalow life suspended above the sea.

Years ago, while reviewing Correa’s hotel, the Cidade de Goa, a spreading Portuguese village along the sea, I was intrigued by the elongated window in my room with the extensive — but somewhat placid — view of the shoreline. Close up, when attempting
to open it, I realised it was clever painting that had merely duplicated the outside reality. The deception between the painted and the built, sculpture and architecture, intervened in a number of Correa’s projects that caused a frisson of disturbance in the mind’s eye, and placed architecture as a thinking artist’s medium.

Years earlier, modernism had served the connection between art and architecture, leaving behind a sad legacy that saw building as abstract enclosure and art as mere accessory. In the 1980s, Correa began to indulge in mesmerising compositions that were as much sculpture as architecture, as much painting as landscape. At the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, the plan is a pictorial display of the architect’s own interpretation of the emerging universe. The empty court at the centre, explained Correa, is indicative of the black hole, where “energy devours itself”. There stood larger-than-life-size sculpted portraits of Albert Einstein along with the astronomers, gazing heavenwards. Obviously, many scientists would balk at this pictorial version of their research, but whatever its flaws, the extravagance of Correa’s representations always took architecture a step beyond its mundane function of classrooms and corridors.

The very pinnacle of such pictorial expression occurred at the Jawahar Kala Kendra, a museum in Jaipur, based again on the architect’s interpretation of the nine planets revolving about the central sun. As you move from planet to planet, through the corner of your eye, you are always aware of the light and gravitational pull from the centre. The contrasting nature of the experience begins with a severe outside — like a rough unshaped piece of sandstone — into an inside composed of cellular accretions and a deliberate randomness. The building’s sequences, from the public to private, chaos to order, permanent to the temporal, from open to partially closed to complete enclosure, have all preoccupied Correa through his career.

When designing the Gandhi Museum in Ahmedabad, the austerity of his early modernist beliefs drew together a geometric abstraction on the raised ground above Sabarmati. The museum is an experience of literal reflection — a low building carries you across a polished stone
floor into a stilled darkness, where pockets of courtyard light reveal fragmented images of Gandhi. Its understated quality, and the randomness of its connections, conveys intentionally fragmentary images from the life of the Mahatma. To this day, visitors are seen in rapturous silence along the dark walls.

In the last few decades, Correa’s success had led him to foreign commissions. The Ishmaili Centre of Toronto and the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon were recent buildings. But unlike the earlier Indian work — and perhaps because of their foreign location — Correa had turned away from the powerful pictorial realism of his earlier days and produced, instead, artefacts of abstraction. Like Laurie Baker before him, who built his best work in his home-city of Trivandrum, Goa and Mumbai remained for Correa the two great canvases for his architecture and urbanism.

Bhatia is a Delhi-based architect and writer

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