Let Us Not 'Denude, by Design' the Legacy of Charles Correa

He produced unique architectural expressions by responding to living patterns, energy issues, and the nature of changes in society.

The prominence given to obituaries of Charles Correa, who died on June 16 in Mumbai at the age of 84, ought to have reassured us that a great architect has been duly honoured and the value of design recognized. But strangely it did not.

Many of the obituaries did what Megan Garber of The Atlantic complained such essays often do – ‘denude, by design.’ By ignoring critical facts, idealising Correa and overlooking the banalities of our milieu, they created a false impression that architecture is highly valued in India, its importance as public art is recognised, that bright professionals are nurtured, and the future is secure.

As an ungrateful nation basked in the great architect’s glory, it overlooked the fact that the builders who came to dominate the Indian urbanscape had ignored Correa in the last years of his life. Hardly any worthy commissions in India came his way in the last decade and a half. “I’m glad I stopped [practicing],” he told The Guardian in 2013, adding that “architecture has become too mundane” to interest him. These bitter words were not a case of sour grapes but a sad reflection on the state of architecture in the country.

Architects concerned about the current state of affairs do not help by focusing only on Correa’s successes, idealizing him, and even constructing a hagiography. Correa was a master of surfaces and spaces, but when he strayed away from his convictions, he produced uninspiring buildings. He also knew how to change course and shared his educative experience with others. His failures were as instructive as his successes. As he himself used to say, architecture needs a critical outlook and healthy debate.

Correa started his career in the 1950s at a time, as he described it, when ambitious ventures were possible. He was only 28 when he designed the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, which is still considered by many as his best work.

Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad Photo: Charles Correa Associates

Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad
Photo: Charles Correa Associates

Correa was not a one-project wonder. He did not believe that only large-scale projects built successful careers. He learnt from Le Corbusier, the French designer of Chandigarh whom he was otherwise happy to be distanced from, that project relevance and quality matter. He was prolific till the late 1990s, producing some of the most inspiring buildings. He also took in his stride the fact that many of his projects remained unbuilt. When he summed up his career as ‘a trail by a snail,’ it was not only out of modesty. He was stating a fact – architecture is a struggle, that architects have to prepare for the long haul, and that there were no quick ways to fame.

Even for the experienced and reflective Correa, the tapering down of commissions from the late 1990s – a period which coincided with the building boom in India – must have been perplexing. He did not discuss his last years of practice in India much but in a 2013 interview to Building Design magazine, Correa broadly hinted that there were demands from clients for commercial architecture. He did not elaborate but remarked that he was happy not to design ‘airport best-seller buildings.’ Correa did not have problems working for private clients or institutions, but he resented projects that compromised on design values.

IT companies and large real estate projects, which have been driving construction since economic liberalization, have not been great patrons of architecture. Barring Tata Consultancy Services, which tried to commission a few foreign architects for their offices across the country, not many invested in design. The Infosys campus in Mysore, financial centers in Gurgaon, the twin towers of GIFT City in Gujarat, TIDEL Park in Chennai are a shame. Not that the government, which is always the biggest builder, produced noteworthy structures. Jawahar Bhavan, the new Ministry of Foreign Affairs building in Delhi, constructed at a cost of more than Rs 220 crore, with its ugly blue glass and kitschy form, is an example of a detestable sarkari building. In recent years, institutions, which pride themselves on providing enriching environments have fashioned their buildings either as medieval tombs or modern fortresses.

Climate as building block

In an interview with me in 2007 that was never published (why is another story), Correa sharply remarked that he could see only meaningless constructions around. The mushrooming of banal buildings bothered him. Correa was scathing in his Building Design interview. He called globalisation ‘a joke’ and lamented ‘the culture of carpet-bagging architects’ who fly to China and India and ‘design a building every time they get off a plane.’ Design, it appeared to him, had reached the bottom of value chain. It is not surprising that his last three significant buildings were abroad.

Correa was one of the earliest architects to centre-stage climate concerns in architecture. Long before energy and sustainability became trending issues in design, he emphasised the idea that buildings must respond to climatic conditions, save energy, and take advantage of the bright open sky. He demonstrated this through projects such as housing in Belapur, tube house experiments in Ahmedabad, an art center in Bhopal and village houses in Goa.

Through his 1980 Pidgeon Digital lecture, he made the dictum `form follows climate’ popular. To him, architecture in India was essentially making a place in the sun, a phrase he later tweaked, following suggestions, to making a place in the shade.

His approach differed refreshingly from those who persistently measured architecture through the lens of identity. To many critics and architects, buildings were worthy and preferable only if they were ‘adequately Indian.’ It did not bother them that such approaches often led to comic responses. Temple towers were abstracted as conical forms and placed over entrances, a simple, convenient grid layout was projected as a mandala or a liturgical diagram, open courtyards that received the sun were called bindu and compared with black holes of energy and cosmic centres, and rangoli or traditional decorations were randomly inscribed to make buildings culturally acceptable.

Putting ‘identity’ in its place

Correa was skeptical about identity arguments. He explained in his essay ‘Quest for identity’ that Identity is not a found object but a process. Architecture develops its identity by tackling real problems and understanding the environment. He pointed out that climate even shaped deeper patterns of culture and rituals. Such explanations, though at one level deterministic, tried to free architects and architecture from the burdens of self-conscious design.

Of course, Correa shocked many in 1986 when he just did the opposite. He designed Jawahar Kala Kendra, a museum in Jaipur, by choosing yantras, mandalas and Vedic concepts of architecture. He took the plan of Jaipur and mashed it with ambiguous ideas of the cosmos.

Jawahar Kala Kenra, Jaipur. CC 2.0.

Jawahar Kala Kenra, Jaipur. Photo: DraconianRain CC 2.0.

Writing in Museum International in 1989, Correa explained how he allocated each one of the library functions corresponding to the `mythic qualities’ of nine planets. For instance, he positioned the library in the square of the planet Mercury, which he claimed represented knowledge, and theatres in the house of Venus, which represented the arts. This produced inconsequential theatrics, and the design failed to engage empathetically with the functions of the buildings and users. The result was a least memorable building. The Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, which he designed and described as a ‘companion piece’ to Jaipur Museum, was also not among his best.

Back to first principles

Correa, the reflective practitioner that he was, was also capable of correcting his course. He realised that he did not need the crutch of symbols and went to back first principles. He did what he always did best: produced unique expressions by responding to living patterns, energy issues, and the nature of changes in society. Correa announced his shift loud and clear. Speaking at the conference organised to celebrate the 50th year of Chandigarh, he told his large audience that all well-designed buildings are regional (read local), and require no self-conscious effort.

Correa believed in architecture and urged architects and clients also to do so. He suggested young architects ‘stiffen their spine’ so that they can ‘block out any danger of selling out’ to commercial interests. At the same time, he reminded clients to take architecture seriously since it affected the people who inhabited them, impacted cities, and influenced the environment.

A. Srivathsan is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed are personal.