Cities & Architecture

Charles Correa, Modern India’s Architect of Time and Space

Salt Lake City Centre, Kolkata. Photo: Ambuja Neotia

Salt Lake City Centre, Kolkata. Photo: Ambuja Neotia

Charles Correa’s incessantly restless and creative journey ended on Tuesday night. Strangely, when I heard about the passing of this challenging and inspirational architect and urban planner, the first thing I remembered was a conversation about a teashop I had with him in 2008. I say strangely, because Correa was a giant of modern architecture nationally, of course, but also internationally. He had won almost every major national and international architectural award (as well as the Padma Vibhushan), co-designed the biggest new city ever planned (Navi Mumbai), chaired the National Commission on Urbanisation in the 1980s, designed very different iconic buildings like National Crafts Museum (New Delhi) or Kanchenjunga (Mumbai), and invented his own ‘language’ of architecture.

This, out of apparently incommensurable inspirations: Le Corbusier’s monumental and abstract modernism, Buckminster Fuller’s technical imagination, and the nurturing sociability of the Indian small town courtyard and veranda, as well as the emotional charge of traditional colour systems. If you looked hard enough, you could also find the poetic depth of the Mexican architect Luis Barragan in his work.

So, the teashop. We were discussing his masterly Salt Lake City Centre in Kolkata. In this project Correa had turned the ‘mall’ as a building type, inside out. The typically closed box became a (relatively) open space of sociability offered to the city in an appropriately generous spatial gesture. During the conversation, we had been talking about the ‘bigger’ stuff when he suddenly broke off into a long story about a small café (if I remember right, a modish tea place actually, when I visited) in the complex. A decades old conversation with a successful mall developer in the US had led him to insist (and could he insist!) that whatever else happened anywhere in the mall, there would be a small café at this particular place. That particular place was perhaps 200 square feet in size. The project covered five and a half lakh.

Meaningful paradox

The big picture came naturally to Correa. But more remarkable was the acute recognition that finally it was the smallest of switches that turned any big picture on. In thinking of cities, he naturally thought both at systemic and everyday scales: the clever twinning of bus and rail routes in Dronagiri, a node in Navi Mumbai, is matched elsewhere by a design for multi-purpose work-sleep platforms for Mumbai’s street vendors. Not surprisingly then, the unrelenting (if unconscious) pursuit of the meaningful paradox is key to Correa’s architectural approach.

From Charles Correa's drawings of Artists' Village, Navi Mumbai

From Charles Correa’s drawings of Artists’ Village, Navi Mumbai

Passionately committed to the perfectibility of architectural form, he was equally satisfied when the gestures of decades of everyday habitation had modified his original architecture beyond recognition in the housing project at Artists Village in Navi Mumbai. After all, the greater commitment there had been to the structure of open spaces that provided a setting for a community life to emerge. In his vision of housing design, thus, Correa’s vision often did have place for the visually messy order inherent to ordinary dwelling.

Perhaps, then, he was always grappling with one tension in his work: between a harmonising (imposed) order and the freedom and conviviality of chance that human dwelling and presence brings with it. Take the centrality of space to his aesthetic language. Correa could make the emptiness of space assume the definiteness of built mass. In his most memorable buildings it is the well-formed void that he sculpted, while the built masses appeared to gather around them as counterpoint.

The courtyards in Bharat Bhavan are an extreme example: there is no other presence, since the building is entirely pushed underfoot. The framed void – an empty space, not a big domineering mass – is quite literally the main architectural element in many of his buildings. Scaled just out of the reach of the human body, but not beyond its ambit, the well-formed void replayed the exhilarating promise of monumental natural spaces but in the heart of the city. In inviting occupation, it also invites the viewer to participate in architecture.

Correa’s architecture was an architecture of time, as much as it was of space. He often spoke about the ritualised pathway of traditional Hindu architecture as an inspirational organising principle. But again, even if buildings like his National Crafts Museum, New Delhi, do lead you down a fixed sequential journey through light and darkness, they also reward the aimless and habituated wanderer. At Kala Akademi, Panaji, the architecture steers, but also allows you to find your own pleasurable itinerary of seeping in, settling down, stepping out and walking along the river Mandovi.

Staging tensions can be risky business, and Correa’s architecture sometimes failed to find the poise he sought on the tightrope. For me, Vidhan Bhavan at Bhopal and the Inter University Centre for Astrophysics and Astronomy (IUCAA), Pune are instructive in their ‘failure’. Both seek to leaven the enigmatic power of modernist abstraction (is this a building or a cylinder?) with the engaging legibility of contemporary art and traditional architectural motifs.  Unfortunately, each force cancels the truth of the other’s fulfilment in our experience. The dough doesn’t quite rise, or at least does so unevenly.

Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal. Photo akdn.org

Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal. Photo akdn.org

Not a postmodernist for sure

Correa would not have liked being called a postmodernist. Yet, he certainly sought to overcome the very dominant modernism he had been trained in, in order to preserve the promise it held for post independence architecture in India. Along with Balkrishna Doshi, Raj Rewal and Joseph Stein, Correa gave direction to a fledgling, but significant, Indian revisualization of modernism in architecture after Independence. Together these architects broke the modernist box, or rather broke it in so we could live in it.

That re-visualisation involved going back to the (sometimes oversimplified) traditional vernacular architecture of the country. It thus mainstreamed habits of design that are at the heart of truly sustainable approaches to architecture for India: the disaggregated built masses, courtyards, natural lighting and ventilation. What distinguished his approach from that of these equally distinguished colleagues was the creative tension of the paradox. His work reveals the value of holding onto a vision that pulls in opposite but equally worthwhile directions.

That is a lesson that is increasingly relevant today, when architecture as a to-and-fro conversation is increasingly being replaced by architecture as linear output: of software, technology, or the consumption economy.

Himanshu Burte is an architectural theorist, urbanist and faculty at TISS, Mumbai.