Tribute: Charles Correa

From earth to sky

Print edition : July 24, 2015

Charles Correa, a 2011 photograph. Photo: K. Gopinathan

Kanchanjunga in Mumbai, the 85-metre-high building Correa designed in the 1970s. The flats with a sense of light and space, natural ventilation and sky gardens in the heart of the city were a luxury, and the building soon became a much vaunted address. Photo: Vivek Bendre

Charles Correa (1930-2015) always managed to find the right balance between demand and creativity and his architectural response invariably emerged just right.

In the death of Charles Correa, the world of architecture, especially Indian architecture, has lost a man whose natural elegance and ease was mirrored in his work. His craft encompassed a love of design, construction, materials, people and nature. He was not just building physical forms but curating effortless spaces in which people lived with easy efficiency and buildings that fitted in with their environment. With his varied interests and his constantly evolving ideas, Correa was prolific in design and construction.

Among his many buildings, the first to attract international attention was Ahmedabad’s Gandhi Ashram. Built between 1958 and 1963, it used natural materials and indigenous architectural details and in these subconscious ways drew attention to Gandhiji. Natural ventilation, unplastered brick, stone flooring, pitched roofs, covered and open areas all came together and drew the world’s attention to an original thinker from the Indian architectural world. In Correa’s own words, the memorial to the Mahatma was “housed in a disaggregated plan connected by covered and open areas—a pattern which not only allows for more flexible growth but also gives to the users areas of visual quiet where the eye can rest and the mind meditate”.

It was also the beginning of a theme that became Correa’s very own. Courtyards are not new to architecture and certainly not new to the subcontinent. What Correa did was to incorporate them not just to use their aesthetic values but to use them in a modern context to replace air conditioning with natural ventilation and to reconnect people with nature. Thus was born his leitmotif of rooms “open to sky”. Indeed, just this removal of a roof introduced the average man to the architectural term “open-to-sky”. It further entrenched Correa as a man of vision and gave him his reputation as someone who understood the evolutionary nature of architectural values and did not just spew out Western imports with indigenous twists.

His actual open-to-sky structure was Sonmarg, residential flats in Mumbai, where Correa and his family initially lived. He himself had said that Sonmarg was one of his earliest attempts to deal with climate and buildings—another aspect that he was very conscious of. He wrote: “In order to create two lines of defence against the rain and sun, a belt of auxiliary spaces (verandahs, studies, dressing rooms, etc.) is arranged to form a zone of protection around the main living areas. The apartment is on two levels with a difference of 75 cm between the living room and the main bedrooms. Since there are only two apartments per floor, each unit is open on three sides, creating through-ventilation and a subtle ambience of cross-light… apartments [have to] deal with many different changes in the ages and the space requirements of users—and this is where the cordon of auxiliary spaces along the western and eastern faces have proved extraordinarily responsive and flexible, combining with the main rooms to deal with a large number of spillover activities in an easy and economical manner.”

A decade later, the principles born here were further honed when he built Kanchanjunga. Eighty-five metres high—big even for Mumbai’s 1970s standards—the residential building had interlocking levels painted in bold colours. The essence was the same—courtyards and open-to-sky but in a high-rise. Used to sedate blocks of flats painted in quiet colours, Mumbaikars were initially offended by the unevenly stacked boxes of Kanchanjunga, each painted in violently bright colours. For the owners, of course, it was a different story—flats with a sense of light and space, natural ventilation and sky gardens in the heart of the city were a luxury—and the building soon became a much vaunted address.

Equally at ease with quirky design, heart-stopping boldness and structures that played with form, Correa had a certain joy in everything he did right from the Cidade de Goa hotel with its earthy tones and shadowy silhouettes and murals painted on the walls to evoke a “ghosts from the past” Portuguese feel to the soaring stacked-crates effect of Kanchanjunga. From low-cost housing to monumental monoliths, he designed each structure with originality. His Vidhan Bhavan in Bhopal is notable for the exciting juxtaposition of a cruciform internal layout within the circular form of the building. His British Council in New Delhi is a masterpiece of relating architecture with other arts. The large square cut-outs on the street facade encase a Howard Hodgkin mural executed in black-and-white marble by Delhi craftsmen and also serve, from the inside, as “urban windows” framing views of the street.

Open-to-sky ideas

Much of his energies were devoted to the man in the urban environment, and for this he had the best possible blueprint before him. For five years from 1970 to 1975, he was Mumbai’s chief architect and in 1984 he co-founded the Urban Design Research Institute. He was also responsible for the creation of Navi Mumbai, an urban hub to the north of Mumbai, which was meant to take the burden off the old city. In Belapur in Navi Mumbai, Correa gave life to his open-to-sky ideas. Despite the homes, schools and playgrounds packed together and a high density of 500 people a hectare, Correa managed to see that each house unit was separate so that “it could grow, quite independently of its neighbours”.

He fretted about urban development, saying: “There is an appalling mismatch between the way our cities have been built and the way we use them today.” Pluralism, people’s participation and equity were ideas and words that he brought into the world of public architecture long before they became populist ideas. Devoted to housing for the poor, he wrote: “…low-rise housing can be reasonably dense (particularly in Third World cities where occupancy per room is extremely high), the overall land needed by the city does not increase very much. In any case, since only about one-third of a city’s land is devoted to housing, even doubling this area necessitates only a marginal increase in the overall size of the city but it can make a decisive difference to the lives of the people, particularly of the poorest.” Although many of his urban redevelopment ideas remained on paper, his thoughts live on in the Urban Design Research Institute.

Although not born in Mumbai (he was born in Secunderabad), he was in every sense a man of this city. In his preoccupation with urban, affordable, aesthetic housing, he imposed a further rigour on himself and insisted that his own craft deliver one more aspect that he saw as essential—people must have access to nature. In an evocative essay entitled “The Blessings of the Sky”, he wrote: “In India, the sky has profoundly affected our relationship to built form, and to open space. For in a warm climate, the best place to be in the late evenings and in the early mornings is outdoors, under the open sky. Such spaces have an infinite number of variations: one steps out of a room… into a verandah… and thence on to a terrace from which one proceeds to an open courtyard, perhaps shaded by a tree… or by a large pergola overhead. At each moment, subtle changes in the quality of light and ambient air generate feelings within us, feelings which are central to our beings.”

In his quest to keep open spaces in urban areas, he was often foiled, but he never gave up. He himself said: “Open-to-sky is also of vital importance in housing where it can make a decisive difference between liveable habitat and claustrophobia —particularly so for the lowest income groups. Even in reasonably dense housing, individual terraces and/or gardens for each family can be provided….” One of Correa’s successful but less-talked-about projects is Jeevan Bima Nagar in the northern Mumbai suburb of Borivali. Affordable housing with access to nature was a big thing with Correa and here the two melded.

The houses had cascading terraces and split windows. Arranged on the lines of the Radburn design for public housing (originally used in the American town of Radburn, New Jersey), the houses were constructed in clusters. Typically, the “backs” of homes face the street and the fronts face each other across a common courtyard. In Jeevan Bima Nagar’s case, the common courtyard is a shady garden. Trees were in abundance here and most of the house clusters were nestled among mango groves. But over the years, the idyllic nature of the place and the architecture changed.

Urban change

Jeevan Bima Nagar is symptomatic of urban change in India. Are people interested in what someone like Correa offered? Is it inevitable that his work will be “adapted” by those who live there? Is there a right and a wrong when open spaces, natural ventilation and greenery are on offer and people choose to enclose the spaces, install air conditioners and cut the trees? Viewing the degeneration around him, he wrote: “Today our architecture is banal—partly because contemporary existence is so, but also perhaps because we do not seek to express anything profound (or deeply felt) about ourselves, or the society in which we live.”

The purity of his craft was that though it was often inspired and backed by esoteric reflection, it would evolve into completely applicable built forms on ground. And unlike that other genius architect Nari Gandhi, who treated each project as an experiment and had his small band of ardent (and super wealthy) admirers who indulged him, Correa was far more practical. He always managed to find the right balance between demand and creativity and his architectural response invariably emerged just right.

His art was inspired not just by his scholarly and academic knowledge but by wider influences. Above all, he was a philosopher, a man with metaphysical leanings, a soul who comprehended the cosmos and eternity with a gentle and penetrating understanding. In trying to express his own core yearning for open-to-sky forms, he wrote: “Perhaps the reason is not so hard to fathom. The sky, all said and done, is the source of light—which is the most primordial of stimuli acting on our senses. And across its face, every day, passes the sun—the origin of Life itself!... Small wonder then that man has always perceived the sky above to be the abode of the gods, and that down all these many millennia, it has exerted such extraordinary power on us and on the architecture we build.”

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