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Updated: May 4, 2011 16:19 IST

Architect of glory

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EAST IS EAST Charles Correa. Photo: K. Gopinathan
EAST IS EAST Charles Correa. Photo: K. Gopinathan

Shortly after the release of “A Place in the Shade', Charles Correa deconstructs the shifting arc of architecture with Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

The '50s in India were utter buoyant. A nascent nation gliding on in its hard-earned freedom, formulating policies and dreaming of soaring the skies one day. Individually too, many felt the need to contribute to this construction of modern India, some literally so. A young Charles Correa, fresh from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, too, began his architectural practice in Mumbai in 1958 with the hope of integrating local vernacular with modern vocabulary.

Correa is 71 now, and has to his credit landmark buildings across Indian and foreign cities, marrying global with the local. From planning urbanscapes like Navi Mumbai to crafting the distinctive design of Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad and Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, from giving Delhi one of its first buildings with a modern look, the Jeevan Bharti building in Connaught Place, and also one steeped in Indianness complete with a mud arch, the Crafts Museum, among other notable public edifices, Correa has tried finding an urban Indian architectural idiom, as the first chairman of the National Urban Commission and otherwise.

Building blocks

A thinking man that he is, Correa has also been putting pen to paper on issues that he has encountered during his long architectural journey. Recently, Penguin India has sewed up a collection of essays, spanning 50 years, into a book, “A Place in the Shade”. From Moghul architecture to that of Corbusier's and Lutyens', from binding the Parthenon with the Sanchi stupa in a common cord to finding the presence of the invisible in traditional models of design, to mulling over modern-day problems, Correa, a Padma Bhushan, has spared his thoughts on all. Here, the Mumbai-based veteran takes some questions on the book and architecture today. Edited excerpts from the e-mail interview:

Your essays span the times when Modern India got a shape. In the Introduction, you have mentioned a “certain amount of redundancy of thought”. What has become redundant?

Thoughts are like building blocks, so some of them recur in different essays, each time you are constructing a part of the bridge to reach another place. There is also the re-surfacing of issues that have been with us for the last many decades, like the deterioration of our cities caused by mismanagement and lack of political accountability, issues which have got worse.

Urban India is undergoing a construction boom; our leaders talk about copying world cities. How do you see this sudden shift?

It's truly sad that our leaders keep saying that. They want to make Mumbai a Singapore. Don't they realise that Mumbai is a completely different city with different issues to handle? And is not the quality of political leadership their parties have bequeathed to our city the essence of the problem? Most of the “architecture” you see today isn't architecture; it is construction. The role of the planner has been taken over by the ever-growing nexus between builder and politician.

What should be the thumb rule of architecture?

A building is rooted to the soil on which it stands. So architecture must grow out of that context: the climate, the materials, the technology, the culture and the aspirations of the people for whom it is built. To give expression to those forces is what architecture is all about.

Your piece in 1972 on planning tourism in Goa was ahead of the times. But Goa is today all about rampant construction that pedals only its seafood and options for carefree hedonism.

I had talked about the immediate need to prepare a regional plan for Goa, which would outline a series of growth options so that various activities — tourism, industry, commerce, etc. — could develop without conflicting with each other. An important aspect of this would be to preserve Goa's decentralised multi-nodal pattern. I said that Panaji is charming not only because it is picturesquely set but also because it is a human-scaled pedestrian-oriented town with a small population. If you let it grow too much, it would be a different kettle of fish; density is a very important aspect of the visual landscape. I called for identifying zones of conservation where new development will be carefully scrutinised.

However, for sometime now, I've been working on the task force for making a new regional plan for Goa.

Your latest public project?

It is a cutting-edge scientific research building, the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, recently inaugurated in Lisbon. It's on the riverfront where The Tagus joins the ocean and from where Vasco da Gama and other navigators set forth on their journeys of discovery.


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