Remembering Charles Correa
On the 90th birth anniversary of Charles Correa, Bijoy Ramachandran, Founder, HundredHands writes about the influence that the works of this architect whom RIBA declared as “India’s greatest architect” had on his life and practice.
Growing up in boarding school in the 80s, I remember vividly my summer vacations with my grandparents in Trivandrum and our drives down to Kovalam to visit the beach. These trips almost always included fried fish at the Ashok and a dip in that amazing pool from where one saw the beaches below and the vast horizon beyond. This building was my introduction to Charles Correa and modern Indian Architecture. Unlike anything I had seen before and yet familiar, obvious and in some sense inevitable – a series of terraces on a hill from where to survey the oceans. Moving from the intimate, nestled interior embedded in the rock, a place of refuge; out to the brazen, sun drenched terrace, a place of prospect. What a beautiful idea!
As a student of architecture, Correa’s projects and his essays helped me navigate this new world which at once seemed both tangible, real and indescribable and ephemeral. Correa’s essays were accessible – making connections between architecture and art, music, and literature on the one hand and climate, society, and aspirations on the other. They helped me understand the fundamental concerns of this practicing professional and how he saw his place in the world. They illustrated basic ideas informing architectural strategies and maneuvers (the open to sky space, the ritualistic pathway, the tube house/summer/winter sections, etc.) but also located these within larger narratives of mythology, metaphysics and deep structure, a term he often used.
These larger ideas continue to require reflection and Correa’s ability to summon this ‘deep structure’, the quality of stillness and humility in Ahmedabad, a sense of the ephemeral and the great beyond in Lisbon, or the comfort of a quiet refuge in Bangalore continue to inspire our own ambitions and challenge us to consider more fundamentally what our work is about. With his companion texts and simple, clear illustrations and diagrams the underpinnings of his buildings were revealed. Buildings as ideas or rather ideas as buildings.
To me as a practitioner now, Correa’s work and practice offer one other rather revolutionary idea. And this has to do with the nature of his practice and the way he chose to engage with the world. Practice as idea or idea as practice.
In many ways he predated by many decades what is now called the ‘radical’ architect, based on Justin McGuirk’s recent book, ‘Radical Cities’- the activist/architect or pragmatist who isn’t waiting for the public authorities to initiate public works (housing, infrastructure, planning etc.) but is finding new ways to define and implement projects, like this year’s Pritzker awardee, Alejandro Aravena.
Charles Mark Correa
Correa was involved in this sort of proactive architecture and master planning throughout his career. His work on the proposals for New Bombay, the mill lands, the vast portfolio of public housing projects and town plans are inspirational. This active concern for the public realm, housing, infrastructure, and the image of the city is a real lesson for me as a practitioner. Correa did not wait for the commission, the invitation – he was out there writing, drawing, making presentations with an urgency that seems just incredible now.
Correa wrote, “Architecture is an agent of change…which is why a leader like Mahatma Gandhi is called the architect of the nation. Neither the engineer, nor the dentist, nor the historian. But the architect, the generalist who speculates on how the pieces could fit together in more advantageous ways. One who is concerned with what might be.”
In November 2014, Monika and Correa visited us in Bangalore. We organised a conversation with Dr. Jyotindra Jain at the Indian Institute of Science. As a result of this, I had the great good fortune of spending 5 days with them, ferrying them all over the city, Bangalore’s infamous traffic jams now working in my favor offering me more time for conversation! It was a magical five days. Though down with a rather severe throat infection, Correa constantly discussed the city, our role as architects, the nature of this new foundation we had set up, its focus…every discussion was detailed, thought-provoking, and intense. It was incredible to be in the company of someone so engaged, curious, and genuinely interested in the world. Correa’s buildings, the seminal ideas they represent and his relentless engagement with the betterment of the world around him inspires me to be a better architect and a more sensitive human being.
(Sourced from Celebrating Charles Correa / State of Architecture Exhibition, Mumbai January 2016)
Last two images: Courtesy Bijoy Ramachandran.