Charles Correa’s Assembly complex is an amalgam of elements from history intricately woven together without kitsch
First published in AR August 1997, this piece was republished online in June 2015
Charles Correa’s work combines a modern sensibility with themes and devices derived from traditional architecture in a harmonious way that seems very difficult to achieve in the West. His new parliament building for Bhopal, the capital of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, in the middle of the country some 400 miles south of Delhi, quite consciously takes the form of its biggest assembly chamber (the Vidhan Sabha) from the great uddhist stupa at Sanchi, some 30 miles north-east of the city, the nearest thing ever made (at least from the outside) to Boullee’s Cenotaph to Newton. Other components from tradition include references to the Navgraha Mandala, the Hindu pattern of nine squares within a square which describe the universe and nine planets (some of them mythic); the most clear expression of the figure in Correa’s work is in the Jawahar Kala Kendra, the cultural museum at Jaipur.
At Bhopal, the nine squares are there, but set in a circle, within which the round chamber exerts its presence by nudging the perimeter wall. One of the key elements of the design is Correa’s understanding of the immemorial nature of building in the heat of India, in which the parts of a large organisation are related to each other under the open sky. ‘In a warm climate’, he says, ‘people develop a very different relationship to built form [from those who live in colder places]. One needs only minimal protection … during the day. In the early morning and at night, the best place to be is outdoors, under the open sky. Ineffable indeed are the variations of light and ambient air, as we step from a closed room into a verandah … and thence perhaps into a courtyard … which itself may be shadowed by a pergola covered with plants.’
At Bhopal, the open-to-the-sky matrix in which the formal events are set is more figurative than usual: the public courts that lock together the main functional spaces are covered in one way or another, but each is open to the sky in different ways, and the power of the heavens is modulated to try to achieve Correa’s ideal within what is necessarily a most complex building. The physical security of the legislators and the imperative of public observation of their decision-making activities are the most obvious of numerous conflicting programmatic elements.
There is an understanding of complexity here that may be of great importance to the rest of us. Correa talks of the huge capacity of India to accept and ingest almost anything: Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, the British introduction of ‘Science and Rationality’- and now the fact that, for all its problems, it is the biggest democracy in the world. The spirit of the vast, fecund, diverse country must of course be sometimes expressed in buildings, and Correa’s formal statement of the importance of democratic values, regional identity and the relationship of elected governors to governed electors is in its way as powerful as Lutyens’ emblemisation of the Raj in the Viceroy’s House. It has taken many years to build and even now is not totally finished.
It sits on a hill in the middle of the city: an austere and clear circular citadel, monumental, but approachable in different ways. There are three main entrances: for citizens to the south-west; legislators to the north-west; and VI Ps to the south-east. Correa talks about the importance of the ancient notion of ‘ritualistic pathway’ in which the pilgrim searches for the centre of existence through a maze-like plan in which the centre, the kund, is a revelation, yet at the same time a no-thing-a sacred space open to the sky.
There have been compromises with this ideal: the spaces between contained events are not entirely open to the sky; quite rightly, in a public building, the plan is not a labyrinth but very firmly and clearly organised on two axes. The ninesquare mandala in its circle is formed by making square courts which receive the different visitors, and then lead to a central court, the ceremonial heart of the place, from which the functional parts of the complex can be approached.
The public entrance is a delight: the formal portico leads to a court luminated by a huge central octagon open to the sky. The floor is an evocation of the geometry of the ghat, offering many places in which people can sit and chat, ponder the day away, wait for access to inner mysteries. The walls of the is place are covered with enchanting paintings by local artist Jangan Singh: tigers, crocodiles, fowl, birds-becoming aeroplanes. It is a cheerful, kindly part of the public realm, perhaps a place to hesitate, from which you move forward through the security checks to the central hall.
Here, the atmosphere is much more formal: a covered abstraction of the kund. The roof, supported by four columns, has a central opening over a figure in the polished marble floor which is intended to evoke a spiral nebula. Light washes down the walls from Soane-like slits between ceiling and perimeter. This is plainly the centre of the whole place, at the crossing of the two major axes. Straight ahead are the steps down to the sunshine of the cabinet court, with the bow of the cabinet room itself dominating the vista; here, light is modulated by a louvered brise-soleil which opens in the middle to allow the central tank to reflect the sky. To the left of the central hall is the stair up to the much less grand and more open court surrounded by offices for the ministers and officials.
To the right, a flight leads down to the Legislator’s Foyer, the grandest space in the complex, from which the Vidhan Sabha (Lower House) and the Vidhan Parishad (Senate) are reached. The double-height volume is again articu lated by four columns, with rather gaudy brass capitals. The entrance to the great domed Vidhan Sabha is magnificent, a flaming portal made by Yogesh Raval with layers of kite-paper, pasted one over another, giving a feeling of transparency and depth to an essentially two-dimensional structure. The entrance to the upper house is now, I am told, signalled by an equally magnificent art work by Gulam Sheikh, put up since I visited the building.
In a sense, Raval’s portal is a metaphor for the building. lt is both formal and hieratic, and yet at the same time friendly and welcoming. lt is a product of layers of culture and history laid over each other, sometimes opaque, sometime.s almost transparent. As Correa says, ‘We live in countries of great cultural heritage, which wear their past as easily as a woman drapes her sari’.
Bhopal is mostly known outside India as the place of the great Union Carbide pesticide disaster in 1984 when over 2500 people died and many more were injured for life. In contrast, Correa’s great collage speaks of new optimism and brilliantly captures elements of the nation’s tradition as diverse as Buddhism, Hinduism and British democracy; it has made of them a statement about the nature of India today and its hopes for the future.
State Assembly, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, India
Architect: Charles Correa
Structural engineer: Mahendra Raj
Services engineer: S. K. Murthy
Acoustics: Suri &Suri
Interiors: Satish Madhiwalia
Landscape: Kishore Pradhan
Artists: Yogesh Raval, Jangan Singh. Tushar Dinghe, Gulam Sheikh,
Photographs: Rohinton I rani, Rahul Mebrotra, Charles Correa