Architecture as an Agent of Change: Remembering Charles Correa, "India's Greatest Architect"

Architecture as an Agent of Change: Remembering Charles Correa, "India's Greatest Architect"

A year ago today, on June 16th 2015, the architectural community lost Charles Correa (b.1930) – a man often referred to as “India’s Greatest Architect” and a person whose impact on the built environment extended far beyond his own native country. Rooted in India, Correa’s work blended Modernity and traditional vernacular styles to form architecture with a universal appeal. Over the course of his career, this work earned him—among many others—awards including the 1984 RIBA Royal Gold Medal (UK), the 1994 Praemium Imperiale (Japan), and the 2006 Padma Vibhushan (India’s second highest civilian honor).

Through his buildings we, as both architects and people who experience space, have learnt about the lyrical qualities of light and shade, the beauty that can be found in humble materials, the power of color, and the joy of woven narratives in space. Perhaps more than anything else, however, it was his belief in the notion that architecture can shape society which ensures the continued relevance of his work. “At it’s most vital, architecture is an agent of change,” Correa once wrote. “To invent tomorrow – that is its finest function.”

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Correa following the RIBA Royal Gold Medal ceremony with Prince Charles (1984). Image Courtesy of Charles Correa Archives

Throughout his over five decade-long career, Correa’s work and writings strove to prove just that. In a large, disparate country undergoing enormous change post-independence, his buildings did not just meet the pragmatic requirements of their client’s briefs – they established what it meant to be “Indian.” At the same time, his interests stretched far beyond the art of architecture and ventured into the looser and more uncontrollable aspects of India’s rapidly expanding urban centers.

This wide-ranging scope of thinking can be dsicerned even at the very beginning of his practice. When Correa returned to India in the late 1950s, after having finished his studies at the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the United States, he observed an old civilization eager to establish itself as a new country – and one with enormous potential. Under the leadership of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, architecture became one of the instruments with which the state sought to create and promote a national identity. By inviting Le Corbusier to design Chandigarh, it was clear that the principles of Modernism seemed to fit with Nehru’s vision for a modern progressive India. Brimming with optimism, and fired up with Socialist ideals, it was in this context in which Correa and his contemporaries (B. V. Doshi, Raj Rewal, Achyut Kanvinde, et al.) found the patronage to nurture their talent. Nevertheless, this first generation of Modern Indian architects did not only look toward the West for inspiration. Like Nehru, who had himself authored a seminal account of India’s history in his 1946 book The Discovery of India, Modernity and tradition were not seen to be opposing ideologies. There was a healthy appreciation for both India’s past, as well as her boundless aspirations for the future.

The Gandhi Ashram / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Pranal Patel. Courtesy Charles Correa Associates
The Gandhi Ashram / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Charles Correa Associates

This duality can be seen in one of Correa’s earliest and perhaps best-known projects: the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya in Ahmedabad. Built between 1958 and 1963 as a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi the building is designed to embody Gandhi’s ideas and principles. It also displays Correa’s lateral thinking as a designer.

By combining contemporary materials with those used in Gandhi’s own house, Correa was able to look to the past and and to the future in the same expressive gesture. The entire structure, modest in scale and proportions, recalls Louis Kahn’s Trenton Bath House and consists of interconnected modular square huts that form a meandering pathway, sometimes through closed spaces and sometimes open to the sky; a feature that recurred throughout his career.

In an era dominated by the “starchitects” and their iconic structures, architecture, Correa claimed, cannot be mere “adjectives and exclamation marks.” Cities need grammar.

Most likely inspired in part by the ideas of Structuralism, the building is in many ways reminiscent of the sorts of casual movement one encounters in a typical Indian village. In a profession where practitioners generally blossom late in their careers, Correa’s monument to Gandhi—designed when he was only 28 years old—stands out as the work of a child prodigy. Its use of multiple pathways and open-to-sky space would go on to inform many of his later projects, such as the unbuilt proposal for the India Pavilion (1969) in Osaka, Japan, and Bharat Bhavan (1975-81) and Vidhan Bhavan (1980-86), both in Bhopal.

Tube House / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Charles Correa Associates
Tube House / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Charles Correa Associates

During the 1960s it was Ahmedabad, not Mumbai, that continued to prove to be fertile ground for architectural experimentation. In 1961 another seminal project arrived in the form of an open national competition to design low-cost housing. Inspired by the wind-catcher houses that can be found in Sind in Pakistan, Correa developed a low-rise high-density arrangement of long and narrow parallel units that, through their very shape, set up a convection of natural ventilation. The Tube House, as it came to be known, spoke of sustainability long before the term became fashionable. An early example of his belief that “form follows climate,” the principles of the Tube House found their application in several other projects over the following years – most notably in the Ramkrishna House (1962-64) also in Ahmedabad, the PREVI experimental low-cost housing competition (1969) in Lima, Peru, and the iconic Kanchanjunga Apartments (1969-83) in Mumbai.

During these early formative years, while Correa was refining his architectural principles, he was also becoming deeply concerned with the haphazard growth of Indian cities. Mumbai, where he lived and worked, was growing at a rate in which demand far exceeded supply for housing. As a result, squatter colonies had started to take shape all over the city.

Navi Mumbai Masterplan. Image © Charles Correa Associates

Understanding that housing can never be conceived in a vacuum, Correa and his colleagues Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel set out to reconfigure Mumbai’s future growth. In 1964 the trio, all in their thirties, published an alternative plan that suggested, first and foremost, the building of a new city across the harbour. Their vision, which was accepted by the government in 1970, came to be known as Navi Mumbai (New Bombay). With Correa as its Chief Architect, Navi Mumbai was designed to accommodate two million people with the hope that it would change the pattern of growth in Mumbai’s metropolitan region from a monocentric north-south structure to a more polycentric urban system around the bay.

Correa sought to develop a vocabulary for Indian architecture that was more inspired by the deep mythic and cosmological beliefs of the country itself.

While Navi Mumbai remains one of the key large-scale urban planning projects of the last century, it is also the location for another important experiment on a much smaller scale: Correa’s famous Belapur incremental housing project of 1983. Similar to his earlier schemes for affordable housing, there is a focus on the malleability of individual dwellings and user participation. But instead of long and narrow row housing, the scheme in Belapur contains a range of different sized individual units which can grow, centered around the use of open courtyards. More akin to the layout of an Indian village, the six-hectare site showcases Correa’s skills as a site-planner and manufacturer of urban patterns, with clusters of various scales repeated to form a neighbourhood with a clear hierarchy of private and community spaces.

It was around this period in which it’s possible to notice a marked shift in Correa’s thinking. Gradually moving away from Western influences, like Corbusier and Team X, Correa sought to develop a vocabulary for Indian architecture that was more inspired by the deep mythic and cosmological beliefs of the country itself.

National Crafts Museum / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Rahul Mehrotra. Courtesy Charles Correa Associates

This was partly due to his involvement as the curator of Vistara – a travelling exhibition of Indian architecture organized as a part of the Festival of India in 1986. The exhibition not only traced the trajectory of Indian architecture from its ancient origins to the present day but also showed, at each step, the beliefs and mythic imageries that determine what we build. In Correa’s work that followed, seen in both the National Crafts Museum built in New Delhi (1975-90), and the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur (1986-92), there was a conscious attempt to break away from any obvious Western influences. Instead, like the incredible temples of South India, a movement through open-to-sky pathways determines the layout of both museums. But it was the overlay of cultural motifs, use of traditional materials, and references to ancient symbols that made these projects stand out as examples of what Indian architecture could be. Whether one agrees with this second period in Correa’s work is, of course, debatable. That said, Correa’s deep understanding of both the past, and how it could inform the present, undoubtedly pushed forward the discourse on national Indian identity.

Champalimaud Center / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Aga Khan Foundation

By the time India moved from Socialism to liberalization, Correa had already established himself as the torchbearer of Indian architecture. With fame and recognition also came the chance to build abroad. His last three notable projects, all built overseas, appear to break away from some of his earlier preoccupations and embody a third and important phase in his work. The Brain and Cognitive Sciences Center at MIT (2000-05), the Ismaili Centre in Toronto (2000-14), and the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon (2007-10), are all more abstract explorations but still firmly rooted in their respective contexts, climates, and cultures. They are fresh reinterpretations of some of the central concepts that had consumed his thinking and work throughout his life.

Perhaps the real genius of Charles Correa lay in his ability to foresee, rather prophetically at times, many of the problems that we face today.

Correa’s passing leaves us with a body of work and a collection of writings that stand as testament to architecture’s potential to shape society. But they are also proof of the difficulties of realizing visions. His heroic Navi Mumbai plan never garnered the full political will that was necessary to see such grand ideas through to the end. And, in spite of his life-long activism, much of what we are seeing built indiscriminately across India—and, for that matter, any major city in the developing world—is devoid of any sensitivity towards context, local materiality, and climate.

Belapur / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Charles Correa Associates

In an era dominated by the “starchitects” and their iconic structures, architecture, Correa claimed, cannot be mere “adjectives and exclamation marks.” Cities need grammar. In today’s media-savvy world, Correa stayed away from imagery and chose instead to focus on intelligent organization and use of space. His plans were not just compositions but attempts to create community. Like Frank Lloyd Wright in the USA, Alvar Aalto in Finland, and Glenn Murcutt in Australia, Correa invented ways in which Indians could live.

Belapur / Charles Correa Associates. Image © Charles Correa Associates

But perhaps the real genius of Charles Correa lay in his ability to foresee, rather prophetically at times, many of the problems that we face today. He also was able to provide solutions that were ahead of their time, yet deceptively simple. Robert Ivy, a former Editor of the Architectural Review, once remarked that he was “a man of uncommon common sense.” With the world’s urban population expected to double between now and 2050 we can only hope that common sense, like Correa’s, prevails.

Rohan Varma is a practicing architect living and working in Mumbai, India, and Delft, The Netherlands. Between 2008 and 2010, he worked in the office of Charles Correa, and also assisted him on his last book A Place in the Shade: The New Landscape & Other Essays.

About this author
Cite: Rohan Varma. "Architecture as an Agent of Change: Remembering Charles Correa, "India's Greatest Architect"" 16 Jun 2016. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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