The Difficulties and Pleasures of Being Charles Correa in India

Charles Correa's iconic LIC Building in New Delhi. Photo: Vaishali Ahuja. CC 2.0.

Charles Correa’s iconic LIC Building in New Delhi. Photo: Vaishali Ahuja. CC 2.0.

As young students of architecture, we visited three buildings in Pune as part of our Basic Design studio’s struggle to explain to us what ‘space’ means; one of them was IUCAA (the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics) designed by Charles Correa. That moment is still clear in memory when one moved through that building, court after court, wall after coloured or painted wall, realising for the first time a sense of what architecture should do – or what it can be all about. Those notions changed as one grew up, but that first moment of first contact between life and architecture, realising as a student what the profession is all about, still remains sharp and clear.

Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad. Credit:

Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya at Sabarmati Ashram, Ahmedabad. Credit:

Correa, who died today at the age of 85, was one of the defining architects of India. He was the person who shaped for us the idea of what it is to be a modern and contemporary designer in the country; his portfolio of the five big projects at the time was like a definitive thesis on the subject. In the 1990s, Correa’s name was also ever-present as the mill lands in Bombay/Mumbai were being discussed for redevelopment  and he authored the development report with the much quoted ‘one-third’ formula. This was also the time Navi Mumbai – conceptualised by Correa along with Praveena Mehta and Shirish Patel – was taking shape and had developed to be a living, twin-city to Mumbai. New Bombay or Navi Mumbai was one of the few bold planning initiatives undertaken in independent India and grew to be an important ground for many urban design, housing, and architecture related debates.

Kanchenjunga Apartments, Mumbai, one of Charles Correa's most significant landmarks.

Kanchenjunga Apartments, Mumbai, one of Charles Correa’s most significant landmarks.

His most enduring contribution to architecture in India may well be the ‘Indian idiom’ that he developed for the most courageous architectural phase in the country’s architectural history – the period about two decades after independence. In producing some of India’s most significant buildings, Correa has crafted a language of architecture that has often been the mainstay of arguments around ‘Indian’ architecture and the role of design references that move across different times and ideologies.

In a travelling exhibition of Correa’s work organised during the 1990s, there was a strong indication regarding the ‘story behind the building’ – it was ‘the concept’ that gave the building its shape and form – and this was the reference to an ‘Indianness’ and a revisiting of old and tested ideas such as the courtyard and the mandala or sacred diagram. This was evident in five of his important projects, showcased in the exhibition: IUCAA in Pune, the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, Vidhan Bhavan, also in Bhopal, and the Arts and Crafts Museum in New Delhi.

Jawahar Kala Kendra. Photo: Dharmesh Thakkar, CC 2.0

Jawahar Kala Kendra. Photo: Dharmesh Thakkar, CC 2.0

Viewing the complete oeuvre of Correa’s architectural works, one finds a great finesse in the tectonic crafting of buildings and form as well as a genuine concern with ‘good architecture’. There is also evidence of his investment in knowing historical precedents and learning from their experience with space organisation, the experience of visual sequencing they offer, and their role in making human life comfortable and beautiful. In the early phase of his career, from a couple of houses he designed to one of his finest buildings, the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya (1958-63) in Ahmedabad, one sees the skill, craft and sensitivity in his approach to architecture, along with a strong intellectual passion.

His early works are designed with an abstraction of thought focussing on the nature and quality of space and form, where the materiality of buildings and their formal manifestation evoked a universal synthesis with an ultimate ideal – where architecture is geared towards the perfect moment of meaning, firmness and delight.

My personal encounter with Correa came only a few years ago, as we met to discuss a feature in DOMUS India on his last completed project – the Ismaili Center in Toronto. Our conversations led to a discussion on jointly looking at his three latest works – the MIT Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex in Cambridge, Massachusettes; the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon; and the Ismaili Centre in Toronto, and this made sense as one judged how these three projects marked a sharp shift in the buildings that Correa had crafted and authored all his life. During these interactions, he one day shared with me an article on Turner which discussed how artists in their last days of life become unselfconscious in a way, and that brings in a burst of new energy and creativity – and he felt the same. Somewhere, this was true.

Champalimaud medical centre, Portugal. Photo: Pascal Guerra, CC 2.0

Champalimaud medical centre, Portugal. Photo: Pascal Guerra, CC 2.0

His last three buildings did form a third and very different phase of his work. “They do not drag anything superficially from the earlier projects in his career,” I wrote in my editorial, “but are fresh, and rethink some of the central concepts that always shaped his work. These projects could be seen as the third phase in this design career, where language is redrawn, materiality is expressed in new ways without shying away or denying the new mediums popular in the industry, and most of all, embraces technology, not blindly, but to the advantage of expression and the desired spatial idiom. These projects, in a way, return to the abstract nature of spatial and tectonic processes that Correa worked with, as against a middle phase where the role of images and diagrams within spatial patterns was more significant.

“The conceptual journey, the quest, the contemplations continued through and through, and one can see that deep structure becoming richer and stormier – much like the samudra-mathan – in his line-up of projects; but the figures of expression changed. I think, contemplation as well as arguments, marked his inner-self moving through the storm of architectural desires, aspirations, demands and the compulsions of industry and profession. Even today, when he talks, you are mesmerised by his beliefs and convictions – you may disagree with his thoughts, you may wish to argue with somethings he might say – but you cannot stop admiring his belief in architecture, his hold on the architectural system, and the fact that architecture is his axis-mundi, his cosmic centre and a frame to understand the expanses and nuances of life.”

One has, of course, also been critical of Correa’s work. Indeed, one also grew up in an atmosphere where the Master Architect had to be denied and critiqued, his exhibition Vistara, for example, is something one has struggled to digest in historical hindsight. No doubt Vistara, the exhibition in 1986 developed as part of the Festivals of India, curated by a team led by Charles Correa and Praveena Mehta, is a crucial moment for architecture in India but it does need debate.

Charles Correa.  By Dipz99 at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Charles Correa. By Dipz99 at English Wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

I gathered the courage one day to tell this to Correa. There was a trace of irritation on his face, not as a reaction to my critique but to the fact that he himself was troubled by the way the exhibition got misread. He said with some conviction that the exhibition had a much broader conceptual framework and the fact that it got read within narrow symbolism was indeed a disappointment.

When I heard of his death last night, I have been consumed by a feeling of having lost something precious. In my recent meetings with him, there was such a promise of energy. Correa was standing bold and sharp at a juncture in life where he wanted to revisit, reinforce, but even rethink what he had done, what he believed in, and all that he created. He leaves us with a vast body of work – buildings and texts – and these are a great repository of the struggles and journeys of modern Indian architecture. We will need to develop new ways of reading them to further understand the difficulties and pleasures of being Charles Correa in India.

Kaiwan Mehta is an architect and urban researcher, author of Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood and managing editor DOMUS India