Charles Correa – RIP

esque]: Is that a noun? Or an adjective? I’m not quite sure. But it’s certainly been used to describe architecture meeting the standards of the architect Charles Correa. Okay, may be you’re not going to find this in a dictionary. Yet. But the term was recently used by an Indian jury, in its commendation to describe the work of a young award-winning architect. And of course the architect was delighted by the comparison. But what does it take for one’s name to become a common noun, an adjective or even a verb? Like Xerox, for example? Evidently, a lot. India has had a rather novel history. We are the products of a sustained encounter, first between the East and the Mughals and then with the West - the latter an ongoing one. These encounters have produced a culture and architecture which is unique. Says philosopher Paul Ricoeur, in his essay ‘Universal Civilization and National Cultures’: ‘Every culture cannot sustain and absorb the shock of modern civilisation. There is the paradox: how to become modern and to return to sources; how to revive an old, dormant civilisation and take part in universal civilisation.’ Correa’s Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur, is an arts centre built in 1992, dedicated to India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. It is a contemporary building based on the archaic notion of the cosmos – the navgraha (nine planets) mandal, with the ninth square tipped off. Indian colours – pinks, oranges and ochres – define its palette. He also rebuilt Mumbai’s centuries-old Portuguese Church in a flamboyant new design that used a spectacular mural by the famed artist MF Hussain, to imbue the place of worship with light. More recently, in the Ismaili Centre in Toronto, Correa’s vision was for the building to respond to the traditions of Islamic architecture using contemporary forms and modern materials. It won an Ontario Association of Architects Design Excellence Award. With Kanchenjunga, the residential tower in Mumbai, ‘Correa may have simply thought of it as several homes, stacked one on top of the other,’ says Samira Rathod. The building is a 32-storey reinforced concrete structure with 6.3 mt cantilevered open terraces. The central core is composed of lifts and provides the main structural element for resisting lateral loads. In designing the cross-ventilated apartments Correa pushed his capacity for ingenious cellular planning to the limit, as is evident from the interlock of four different apartment typologies. At the same time, he effectively shielded these high rise units from the effects of both the sun and monsoon rains. This was largely achieved by providing the tower with relatively deep garden verandas, suspended in the air.  So if many architects have been content to gaze languidly towards the past, Correa’s work is a powerful example of how to mine historical memory without stifling the creative imagination. Correa understood that to create meaningful architecture is not to parody history, but to reinterpret it. And this, in a culture where buildings must be reducible to arresting images that can be sold to clients and resold to the end-users. That way stardom lies. Another indication of the worth of the body of work of an architect would surely be the opinion of peers. Correa comes out shining here too. Witness the many accolades, from living legends and respected award-winning architects, all the way to young interns: BV Doshi: ‘Correa’s work has many messages. It tells a story about place, context, time, past and present. The way spaces unfold, the undulation of his landscape, the way visitors move and see, was Correa’s special talent. His Kanchenjunga in Mumbai heralded a new typology in the urban context, which holds good even today. His response to urban density combined the concept of an open-to-sky verandah, similar to living on the ground. David Adjaye, OBE: ‘He has that rare capacity to give physical form to something as intangible as ‘culture’ or ‘society.’ Adjaye also describes Correa’s work as ‘Modernism from the East,’ and adds, ‘Great architecture should always make you feel great about yourself…like wearing great clothes would. It elevates you, without feeling forced. Correa thought very specifically about the problems and presented a solution which transcended the ordinary, the functional and the efficient. It became a work of art.’ Former RIBA librarian Dr Irena Murray: ‘Correa is brilliantly inventive in his deployment of certain timeless themes in Indian culture and philosophy – journey, passage, void and the representation of the cosmos. He uses them as a means to creating ambitious new spaces and structures.’ Samira Rathod: ‘Correa was the first to combine Indian history with the contemporary. Usually, what happens is mere copying. But Correa imbibed the spirit of the past, integrating it with the local and the contemporary. His Indian Contemporary was not borrowed, nor did it emulate or obliterate history. Sikha Datta: ‘I’m an architect. And I’ve lived in Salt Lake City long before Correa’s City Centre Mall came up. The difference it has made to the area is remarkable – a difference that I would attribute to Correa’s architecture, which fuses an Indian bazaar with a mall. It has changed the way people shop, eat out and spend time. The mall has an inclusive character, promising something for every kind of visitor. What was once a dark, lonely place after sunset is now teeming with energy and life. The central “Kund” area is especially popular, a meeting ground for people of all ages to just sit on the various levels of its steps and talk.’ Shimul Javeri Kadri: ‘When I was in college in the 80s, we were looking for answers to questions like “What is an Indian identity?” We wanted to get out of the Kahn-Corbusier obsession, so we went into villages to study Laurie Baker and vernacular architecture. For us, Correa was a powerful voice, embracing modernity with pride in the past. His use of scale and context was exceptional, together with the way his buildings draw visitors in, from one vista to another. ‘The recent international buildings are a wonderful way to complete his career – the genre itself, together with the incorporation of technology, is so different from building in India. And of course his writing, coming from a practicing architect, was especially powerful, because he walked the talk.’ Correa was honoured with the Padma Shri in 1972 and Padma Vibhushan in 2006. Articulate, eloquent and with an elegant turn of phrase, he could have been a writer, if he wasn’t an architect. An advocate of the middle path, he was no extremist. In one of his essays, Correa says: ‘We must understand that almost all development involves a certain exploitation of resources, just as conservation implies the reverse. Obviously, what we need to do is not just maximise one extreme or the other, but find the point of balance between the two, i.e. that point of trade-off where both objectives are optimised.’ Extending the notion of ‘architecture’ beyond a mere building, he wrote: Those of us who live and work in South Bombay do not have the foggiest notion of what it means to commute up and down twice a day, jammed in overcrowded trains or stuck in never-ending traffic jams. Yet we oppose vehemently (the knee-jerk reaction!) any attempt to ease these journeys. Now that the population of Bombay has crossed ten million, can we honestly believe that we do not need at least one major new north-south artery? Certainly its alignment might involve some reclamation (that word again), but what’s wrong with that - as long as the strip of land so gained is used for public purposes - like schools, hospitals, maidans, and all the other amenities this city so desperately needs. And in order to ensure that it is used in an equitable manner, this expressway should be reserved exclusively for public buses during the rush hours (say 9 to 10 every morning and 5.30 to 6.30 every evening). During the rest of the day, there should be reserved bus lanes, free of private cars and taxis.’ Correa was a fierce critic of modern urban planning and was concerned about living conditions of the poor. Of the way modern cities were designed, he once said: ‘Market forces do not make cities, they destroy them.’ He was clear that architecture must first be about human dignity. The modernism of Walter Gropius, Le Corbusier and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, was vociferous in its rejection of history and tradition, with a messianic obsession to redesign objects of everyday use, as if no such thing had ever been done before. They used the modern house as a battering ram in their onslaught on conventional ideas, if not necessarily on how domestic life should be lived, then at least on how it should look. But Correa’s work was distinguished by its humane touch. As Bijal Parikh, an intern in the office of SJK Architects says, ‘Correa’s buildings enrich the lives of the people using them, leaving a legacy for many generations. His was truly the architecture of humanity.’ Said Correa, ‘Working in India has a lot of frustrations, but the chance to address larger and more fundamental issues is one of its greatest opportunities.’ His work often seemed like the perfect solution to a particular problem. And if it is true, as Philip Johnson said, that all architects want to live beyond their deaths, then surely Charles Correa continues to live. Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur.   Correa was at the forefront of an intense debate over the shape and form that Mumbai should take. Kanchenjunga, Mumbai. British Council, Delhi.   Permanent Mission of India at the UN, NY. In 1990, Correa became the third recipient of the Gold Medal from the International Union of Architects, while his many other accolades include the Aga Khan Award for Architecture and Japan’s Praemium Imperiale. Brain Center MIT, Boston Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Lisbon. LIC building, New Delhi. ‘It is wonderful how climate can generate architectural form. This is true of the igloo, it’s true of the Pacific islands. It’s true everywhere. You have to respect climate. You have to look at local materials, local technology, and then you can come up with elegant, surprising architecture.’ IUCAA, Pune – Foucault’s Pendulum in the faculty offices. Cidade De Goa – the guest rooms  and balconies overlooking the beach. Ismaili Centre, Toronto (Prayer hall). A faceted glass dome peaks above the prayer hall of Toronto’s new Charles Correa-designed Ismaili Centre, which shares a patch of parkland with Fumihiko Maki’s Aga Khan Museum. The panes of translucent glass diffuse the bright sunlight during the day, but allow the dome to glow like a beacon at night when the space is illuminated from within. Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal. Portuguese Church, Mumbai. National Crafts Museum, Delhi.  - See more at:


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