Making dreams real

Like he himself was in life, Charles Correa’s body of works is captivating and stands tall. Amongst the first moderns of Indian Architecture, Correa (1930 – 2015) was a visionary mind constantly occupied by efforts to find sensitive answers to questions about the built environment. He was concerned about the urban crisis, use of space and built form to tame climate and creating imagery.

Correa charted a discourse that valued the mythical, open space and problems of a developing nation in equal terms as the real, firmly defined or framing needs of his architecture. He drew with ease from music, fiction, history, collective memories and known environments to churn out dreams. These were anchored in narratives that involved myths and by an earnestness to solve problems of a living environment. This was his way of making a dream real.

Correa (extreme right) with his mother at the University of Michigan’s International Center. — Photo: The Hindu Archives

Correa, who studied architecture at the University of Michigan and MIT, had the ability to read the most complex contexts and produce answers that were clear, simple, humane and grounded. He was a modernist whose repertoire incorporated the vernacular, art and imagery as well as geometrical playfulness. Correa’s work utilises ‘model paradigms’ pinned by realities. His design approaches provide strategies to create a rich quality of architecture. By reflecting expressions beyond reductive rationality, he like some of his modernist contemporaries succeeded in extending the immediate purpose of his works.

Beyond the apparent visual imagery of the “order systems’ developed in his architecture, Correa provided for scaled forms and rhythms. His architectural vocabulary includes cubic volumes, built forms sensitive to the climate and humane gestures. The shared focal space in his projects defined the architecture he created. Correa often employed abstracted vernacular and transformed ‘images’ to create a narrative that provided the focus for much his work. The architect used colour and even paintings as a tactic to make his metaphoric images forceful.

Charles Correa traced the development of his architectural interest to his childhood days of assembling the ‘Hornby Tinplak’ tack with a few locomotives and engines he had in his toy box. He would draw new possibilities of ‘journeys’ utilising the limited resources at hand on graph paper. His efforts lay in overcoming the banal and meaningless. He also perhaps derived from this ideas about flexibility and utilisation of finite resources that later structured many of his projects.

Charles Correa’s distinguished professional practice spanned from the later part of 1950’s till recently was first set in Ahmedabad and later in Bombay. It produced a vast array of architecture and planning commissions. It encompassed a variety of scales, typologies and of contexts in India and overseas. At the age of 28, Correa designed the Gandhi Ashram Museum. Soon after, he created the Hindustan Lever Pavilion in Delhi, a maze traversing folded volumes finding delight in canons of light. Prominent works by Charles Correa include the Tube House, Ram Krishna House and Parikh House, Ahmadabad where the built form articulated volumes for ventilation and climatic control. Later he experimented with ‘climate as temperature regulator’ in the Previ Experimental Housing project in Lima, Cable Nagar Township in Kota and Tara Apartments in Delhi. Here his focus lay on shaping staggering forms along a public spine and reducing the quantum of building services. He searched for climatic responses to in the design of Administrative Building in Anand as well as offices for MRF headquarters, ECIL in Hyderabad and LIC in Mauritius.

Correa also skirted many controversies in his bold attempt to provide ‘reflections of surroundings’ in LIC Jeevan Bharati tower in Delhi and in his designs for Rajendra Place District Center in Delhi. For the dramatic Kanchenjunga Housing Tower in Mumbai, Correa planned rotating terrace verandahs. Correa in creating the CIDCO incremental Housing in Navi Mumbai put forth lessons from his reading of urban processes. Working at another scale, he created sensitive designs for Salvaco church in Mumbai and at Parumala in Kerala.

His sensibilities were simultaneously occupied by efforts to create ‘non buildings’ like the Handloom Pavilion, National Crafts Village museum and Bharat Bhawan. Correa designed the Kovalam and Bay Island, Port Blair resorts. In the design of Cidade de Goa he introduced imagery as a key component of the design character. He made Art and Imagery an integral part of his designs for the British Council Building in Delhi, Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune. Correa employs a strategy is to articulate the architectural plot with frames of knock out set pieces. He allowed shadows in creation to provide a mystical dimension to the works other artists. In Vidhan Bhawan he articulated an array of forms and spaces linked by spines and held by a narrative. He clearly aimed to create the knockout episodic in larger belief held in the narration of forms and spaces.

For MIT’s Brain and Cognitive Sciences Complex, Correa created a rich spatially layered atrium. The play of geometry and colour of its forms holds the building together. More recently for Champalimaud Centre in Lisbon and Ismaili Centre in Toronto, Correa embraced technology, refined materiality and geometrical playfulness to connect with the context. Art appears subdued in comparison to the quest for abstraction and imagination in this generative reinvention of his works. He builds on the strength of strong conceptual ideas that are holistic. They invite and indulge variations in perception within the rigour, disciple and control of the scheme he builds. ‘Truth is reborn in the narration’, Correa claimed.

Correa was a brilliant speaker, writer, teacher defining urban strategist and architect. He held the power to communicate. As the Chief Architect for ‘New Bombay’, along with Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel, he was bold to outline how ‘Bombay’ region could develop. He was also the great director who could put up an exhibition like the Vistara or bring together in his capacity as the Chairman of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, architects to produce ideas about the city. As the Chairman of Rajiv Gandhi’s National Commission of Urbanisation, he was able to examine the potential of creating new cities distant from the existing metropolis’. This unrealized vision has the roots of a hope for developing India for the masses. His writings and lectures had the capacity to ignite young minds to react to the short comings of our cities. He did not suffer trends or was shy to offer advice: “Markets destroy cities and not make them”. He was perturbed by the obsession and focus on architectural trends like the obsession with dishonest mannerist building skin treatment at the cost of humane forms and spaces. He pointed that each of these were like components of a machine that individually or in isolation didn’t make sense. “The machine can’t work on the basis of a single part”. He also cautioned many setting out to start an architectural practice: “It’s like standing out on platform with trains passing by. Be careful and watch for the train you want to get on”.

More recently, Charles Correa had been amongst other things working on structuring his foundation to promote architecture. He was concerned about the need to preserve modern Indian architectural icons. He also publicly reacted to how the mill land areas in Mumbai were being threatened by the greedy short-sighted. He easily offered explanations to suggest corrupt bureaucratic and political outlooks plague Indian cities.

In the present times threatened by mindless building activity architects are being pushed to the fringes. In a milieu captured by control through mediocre processes and patronage, Correa is more relevant than ever. Embedded in his writings, and architecture, is a treasure of deep ideas that have the capacity to offer relationships between life and architecture. He has shown how to derive from across time and ideologies. Correa’s architecture offers possibilities to ‘rearrange the scenery’ that provides a relationship of physical form to culture and society. Charles Correa has demonstrated how architecture has the capacity to be the ‘agent of change’.

(Arun Rewal is an architect, urban designer and planner)

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Printable version | Apr 29, 2021 1:17:07 PM |

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