Almost two decades ago, as a student of architecture, Charles Correa modernist adaptation of local building styles influenced my own interpretation of what architectural design is. Today, his unexpected demise, forces us to contemplate his outlook and if we have done justice to the vision of someone, hailed as “India’s greatest architect”.
Correa influenced by the modernist design tenets of Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller, was equally impressed by the imperial Mughal buildings and took inspiration from the spatial dynamics of Indian villages. This was showcased in his landmark projects like Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Delhi’s Crafts Museum, Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, the Permanent Mission of India at the UN in New York among many more. His buildings are contextual which complement the local climates and building styles and thus vary from project to project. Among his final works was the Ismaili Centre in Toronto, which won many International Awards.
Correa’s use of local materials and structures responding to local climate are like a discourse with the surrounding physical world.Like, the tube house (1961 – 1962) that he conceived for low-income families in Ahmedabad. Its shape drew in cool air and encouraged air circulation. “A mechanical engineer denies me my imagination,” Correa had once said in an interview. Or for that matter, ‘Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown’ (2010) in Lisbon, Portugal where, cancerpatients could sit in the internal courtyards with their families while having treatment. No doubt, he created thoughtful spaces and places for the people. The irony is that the architects who claim to follow his path are busy constructing glass towers which Correa termed as inept replicas of a Manhattan skyline and an unsustainable fiction. His design of Kanchanjunga apartments (1970-83) – a square, 85-metre-high tower in Mumbai is a lesson in contrast where the interlocking levels allowed effective thorough– ventilation while courtyards and interior gardens created a spacious environment.
From 1970 to 1975, much of Correa’s energy as Mumbai’s chief architect was devoted to the unruly growth of Mumbai, his home and to the creation of Navi Mumbai where he attempted to recreate a lively urban environment. But, the administrators and officials didn’t allow the city to shape the way he hope it would. Instead, neighbourhood after neighbourhood gave way to glass and concrete high-rises. In 1985, Charles Correa was advisor to the then BMRDA (now MMRDA) to formulate a policy for Mumbai’s centrally located mill lands – that would allow the mills to change from industrial to housing and commercial land-use. He proposed simple 3-part formula – one-third of the land for much needed public infrastructure; one-third for affordable housing and the remaining one- third to be sold by the mills at market prices. But, the distorted implementation by the government and private developers of his vision completely destroyed the very urban fabric it had set out to uplift. Although disillusioned by government attitudes, he continued to deploy his creative energy towards urban improvement. In 1984, he founded the Urban Design Research Institute in Mumbai, dedicated to protecting the environment and improving urban communities.
In India, much has been written about Correa works, design philosophy been praised by one and all and awards been heaped on him. He was termed the face of modern Indian architecture in the world. Yet, Correa donated all his drawings, models and records to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). It was a decision he made with a heavy heart. Correa had wanted his papers to stay in India, but he couldn’t find any archive whose standards lived up to his own.
Unfazed by host of laurels from Padma Vibhushan and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture to international prizes like Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), which billed him as “India’s greatest architect” honoring him with a retrospective in 2013, Correa once said, “Perhaps ‘the most inventive’ or ‘the most innovative’ might have been better. Greatest is so… so definite. It leaves no room.”
Correa taught in many universities, both in India and abroad, including MIT and Harvard University (both in Cambridge, Massachusetts) and the University of London. His numerous seminal essays and articles on issues ranging from urban planning to climate responsive designing of buildings have inspired generations of young architects.
As a an admirer of Correa’s design beliefs and a professional in the field of architecture, it seems only appropriate to take forward the nuances of his message that so passionately reprimanded the present designer’s appetite for constructing alienating glass towers. In fact, Correa’s PREVI affordable housing project in Lima, Peru is a befitting reply to those who dismiss his lowslung concepts as impractical and anachronistic. Probably, our best tribute to Charles Correa would be to follow his ideas that seemed to grow organically from their geography, climate and culture, to implement the infrastructure and affordable housing issues that he proposed and endeavor to make-up for the ingratitude that we have showed to the legend.
“I don’t expect anyone to follow me. But am I frustrated? Yes, reasonably so.”
– Charles Correa