(Originally published in Architecture+Design, October 2016)
It is a year since we lost Charles Correa. The news of his passing away stunned architects in India, and in other parts of the world. He always seemed so alive, radiating energy and enthusiasm, that to imagine a world without him seemed almost sacrilegious. Correa was amongst the greats – a gifted architect, a far sighted urban planner, an insightful thinker and an exceptional communicator. He was all of those things, and some. In an extraordinary career spanning from the post- Independence era to the 21st century, he had more accomplishments to his credit than any other Indian architect. His was an architecture that was quintessentially Indian, but to restrict his achievements to the country of his birth would be a travesty, because his many accomplishments were hardly restricted by location.
An early genius
To get a glimpse of Correa’s brilliance, we need to look at just one detail – the fact that he could talk (and did talk!) right until the end of his life about the first major project he had designed as a young architect in his independent practice, the Gandhi Sangrahalaya. In its elegant, spare lines, the Gandhi Sangrahalaya was akin to the khadi cloth that Gandhiji wore and popularized – simple, eminently suited to the weather, and when one looked closer, beneath the starkness of the cloth, one saw the complex texturing and grain of the warp and weft. Similarly, the museum looked simple and unpretentious at first sight, but if you looked beneath, you saw the sophistication of thinking that went into its crafting. Simplicity of this sort can only be achieved with great effort, but Correa had the gift of making it all seem quite effortless.
It is a rare architect who has the maturity to produce such a sublime piece of architecture so early in their career. Most architects would cringe at having to display their first work. More remarkable perhaps was his ability to stay true to these principles right from the beginning to the end of his working life. Architects often buckle to the demands of a fickle patron or tight budgets, but for the five decades and more that Correa practiced, he seldom swerved from that commitment.
The museum exemplified many of the ideas that he held dear all through his career. Time and again, he came back to the idea of open to sky spaces. As he put it,’ The sky is the source of light, which is the most primordial of stimuli acting on our senses. And across its face, every day, passes the sun – the origin of Life itself! Small wonder then that man has always perceived the sky above to be the abode of the gods, and that down all these many millennia, it has exerted such extraordinary power on us and on the architecture we build.’ Perhaps the greatest tragedy of contemporary architecture in India is the failure of architects to respect and respond to this wonderful gift of nature. India’s tropical climate gives us the great advantage of having a perfectly happy existence under the sky so long as some shade is available. This can help us build more economically, more in connection with nature, and most importantly, Correa saw how this could be used to create good habitation for the poorest in our society.
In his recognition of this, and in his consistent propagation of similar ideas, Correa was a first a humanist and then an architect. Whether it was the Belapur housing or the practical ideas of how pavements could be used in multiple ways, underlying all these ideas was a concern for improving built environments for everybody, no matter how indigent they were. If financial constraints limited the scope of how much could be physically constructed, the skillful manipulation of built and open spaces in his designs ensured that these buildings were never dismal or demeaning. The vindication of these ideas can be seen in present day Belapur where open to sky spaces have endured despite extensive renovations by the occupants. In fact, Correa strongly endorsed the idea of working in the flexibility that would allow for incremental growth and changes over time, but the underlying grammar was strong enough to accommodate the changes without itself being altered. How different from other architects who cannot tolerate the slightest of alterations in their buildings!
Agents of change
Perhaps this idealism came from his experience as a young architect in a newly independent country, perhaps it came from his respect for Gandhiji’s ideas, perhaps from his admiration of Corbusier, someone who approached architecture with an almost messianic zeal. Regardless of where it came from, it informed his attitude to architecture and more importantly, to planning. As the Chief Architect to CIDCO in the early sixties, he was responsible (along with Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel) for the recommendation to decongest Bombay with the creation of a new city across the bay. There is such a remarkable pragmatism, compassion and intelligence in those recommendations that one can only rue the shortsightedness of an unenlightened government. They lost an invaluable opportunity to make something wonderful out of that city.
In this perhaps, Correa was cast in the same mould as the Modernists who saw themselves as being something more than just architects, more as agents of change. Wherever he could, he exerted his intelligence to ferret out better solutions for problems, whether it was the pursuit of practical climate control in all his projects, or his interest in pressing urban issues (especially how to deliver the greatest good to the greatest number of people) or the quest for sensible housing that would be responsive to the needs of the users. This meant that his buildings were possibly not au courant, or ‘stylish’; they were often completely contrary to conventional wisdom, and yet, what wonderful architecture resulted from these exertions! When every mall design centred around the same narrative – an air conditioned box with artificial lighting recreating an ersatz urban atmosphere – Correa incorporated open streets and squares at the Salt Lake City mall in Kolkata. When planning for research laboratories meant creating windowless spaces crammed with scientific equipment, Correa created a green campus at the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research in Bangalore, where ‘our modern day rishis could step into the forest for wisdom and enlightenment’.
Not a movable feast
This was typical of Correa – his work in India was completely rooted in its’ philosophy and culture. He often said that architecture is not a ‘movable feast’ that can be recreated in the same manner anywhere across the world. His buildings always looked like they belonged to the place where they were built, because he built with the climate and the context in mind. Vibrant colours, large overhangs, soaring atria, courts, terraces and pathways were the hallmark of his architecture because most of his work was in a tropical or Mediterranean country, and these features grew out of the imperatives of that climate and culture. When he built in temperate climates, the details changed, but the basis for design ideation always grew organically from first principles.
Correa did not believe in ‘tranfer’, he believed in ‘transformation’. Therefore, while the glass roofed atrium at the MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex at Boston was a closed structure, and the courts at the JNIDB at Hyderabad were open to sky, the purpose behind them remained the same – of bringing people together so they could bounce ideas off each other. The provenance was the same but the manifestations were completely different. (Imagine transposing one set of ideas to an entirely different context – and ergo! – you get the sort of architecture that is prevalent across the world today.)
Architects tend to peg themselves at a level of problem solving or of providing aesthetic solutions that work only at the surface, and the designs consequently reflect the pedestrian nature of their cerebration. Correa’s work, on the other hand, was never pedestrian, never just an assemblage of solutions to a set of problems. Since his approach was never at a mundane level, his solutions were equally extraordinary. His architecture was also a search for a higher mystical truth and he was deeply influenced by the way the Ancients established a connection between Man and the Universe. He came back to this quest repeatedly in his designs.
Sometimes it was seen as directly as in the plan of the Jawahar Kala Kendra at Jaipur which was based on the Vaastupurusha mandala; sometimes it was through light that drew your eye upward and beyond, as in the truncated light cones of the Salvacao Church in Mumbai; and sometimes it was as elementary as establishing the connection between earth and sky through the clever placement of a court, as in his own home at Bangalore.
A different approach
There was an effortless elegance to his work. He worked with simple materials and details but it was the coming together of space, light and nature in a wondrous amalgam that made it beautiful. When he built for the elite, his palette of materials remained quite the same as when he was designing housing for the middle class. Whether it was the Dona Sylvia at Goa, or the Kovalam Beach Resort at Thiruvananthapuram (both five star hotels), the sense of luxury came from the scale of the spaces, from the way the built forms sat within the landscape, from the way they connected to the elements, and not from the employment of expensive materials. He never concealed his contempt for the superfluous aesthetic that was imposed as an afterthought in many architectural works. For him, the ‘interior’ was not a separate entity from the ‘exterior’ – they were different facets of the same entity.
As an extension to that attitude, art and craft were as much a part of his buildings as the other elements, never an ‘add on’. Whether it was the marble mural by Henry Hodgson on the façade of the British Council building in New Delhi, or Mario Miranda’s gently humorous sketches on the walls of Panjim’s Kala Kendra, or the surreal, trompe de l’oeil paintings at the Cidade de Goa (also at Panjim), art was blended into his architecture to heighten it, to bring layers of meaning to it and elevate it to a different plane. At the Cidade, the painted walls are so cleverly juxtaposed with the spaces that at times one wonders where reality ends and fantasy takes over. As he put it, ‘(These are) a highly fragmented, kaleidoscopic series of visual sensations and architectural spaces. What is real? The object? Or the image? Or the image of the image of the image?’
The Cidade de Goa also showed another trait in Correa’s work that sprang out at you at unexpected moments – his wonderful sense of humour! Whether it was the fleeting glimpse of a cassock behind the colonnade at Cidade (where was the priest going to in such a hurry?!) or the custom designed chairs for the Bay Island Resort at Port Blair (or the ‘Nico’Bar at the same resort!) or the sculpture of Einstein pondering the mysteries of the universe at IUCCA at Pune, you could sense that Correa was having a great deal of fun designing all of these. This also brought a sense of joy to his buildings, a magic of discovery as you moved through them, never knowing what would come next.
Part of that magic came from his understanding of the human affinity for movement along a path, where subtle variations of level, axis, light and atmosphere can create as much of an impact as the architecture of the building itself. He said, ‘A path is the essence of our experience (as) it represents a sacred journey, a ‘pradakshina’, a pilgrimage.’ Whether it was the meandering pathway through the courts at the National Crafts Museum at Delhi, or the formal axis that ran right through the building all the way to the rear garden wall at the British Council, or the gently sloping path at the Champaulimaud Centre at Lisbon that seemed to lead to some mystical destination, the path becomes as important as the structure itself. And in Correa’s case, he took it a step further by punctuating the path with platforms, and ‘non-buildings’ such as the sunken courts at the Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal or the Gandhi Darshan in Delhi.
If his achievements as a designer were not enough, he was also a gifted orator, writer and filmmaker, and through these media, he was as effective a communicator as he was through his architectural work. He was direct and fearless in his speech, and never one to shirk from calling a spade a spade. In India, this is hardly an asset, or a trait that could work well with prospective clients (least of all the Government!), but there was such practicality and sense in what he said, and such sincerity of intention, that one could never take it amiss. While his commentaries were always backed by his dry wit, his writings were equally infused with that incisive intelligence and humour. He wrote as he spoke – every word communicated itself to you with the same fervor and passion – but there was more to it. He picked from a vast canvas that spanned from music to films to art to philosophy. He could jump with felicity from Hindu philosophy to Hindemith, from De Sica to de Chardin. This catholicity meant that his worldview was not restricted to architecture alone, and when he spoke, you knew that it was with the wisdom distilled through several filters.
A vast legacy
Great architecture has the uncanny ability to move both the highest and the lowest denominator of users because it works with the instincts that are hardwired into us as human beings – our intuitive response to light, nature, and materials; the way we move through spaces; and our instinctive search for something more elevated than us, for a greater truth, even in the way we occupy a space. Correa’s work had that quality.
He strode like a colossus on the architectural firmament and he leaves us a vast legacy. Few others could match that ability to work across scales, across locations, across degrees of difficulty. Correa was someone far ahead of his time, and sometimes that acted against him. Some of his most seminal ideas were rejected (always to the detriment of that project), and nowhere are the consequences more evident than in the tragic unravelling of his beloved Bombay. Perhaps the only vindication of his untiring efforts to make architecture work as an ‘agent of change’ would be to implement his ideas in the coming decades when India is slated to urbanize at a furious pace.
In a public function at Bangalore that he attended just a few months before he died, his voice was hoarse and he needed a walking stick for support, but his beautiful spirit was undimmed. He was as gung-ho as ever, taking potshots at ineffectual architects, corrupt politicians, the bovine bureaucracy! He showed us a film on the ethereal Champaulimaud Centre for the Unknown, and a shot that stuck in my mind was of the pathway that led between the buildings to the sea beyond, to the place where Vasco da Gama set sail into uncharted waters many centuries ago.
I could imagine Charles Correa walking up that path, and disappearing into the great unknown – as he did soon after.