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Charles Correa (1930-2015)

Charles Correa was India’s foremost Modernist. However, he did not simply adapt Western practices to a subcontinental milieu: he transformed Modernism at the same time

Charles Correa Full

Charles Correa Full

Illustration by Bene Rohlmann

As the second of Nehru’s ambitious ‘five-year plans’ got under way, Charles Correa completed his architectural studies at MIT after previously studying at the University of Michigan. He had left India for the States just a couple of years after India’s independence in 1949, but felt compelled to return to establish an architectural practice that would contribute to the new nation’s development. Correa was born in 1930 in the former colonial town of Secunderabad, but in the wake of Kahn and Le Corbusier, and among other Indian practices such as Vastu Shilpa (BV Doshi’s practice), he and many other attuned like minds flocked to Ahmedabad. It was a creatively fertile city with wealthy patrons eager to develop a new architecture.

Correa’s early houses utilised bare and cheap, but carefully laid bricks sat between in exposed concrete frames. He also designed, among other projects, hotels, educational facilities, a plutonium plant and rifle range. There was a fervour of building activity and stacks of discarded béton brut timber shuttering littered the building sites. While experimenting with innovative concrete shells, Correa excelled in schemes imbued with narrative; spaces and processional routes had an associated story or ambitiously referenced a ‘communal memory’. Climatic features were also addressed and Correa would protest against ‘glass jar’ architecture in India and the constant ‘fiddling with the thermostat’ – but this meteorological sensitivity, while contributing to the overall qualities of his architecture (and deliberately rejecting the air-conditioned euphoria of the US), cannot be solely responsible for its success.

‘While experimenting with innovative concrete shells, Correa excelled in schemes imbued with narrative; spaces and processional routes had an associated story or ambitiously referenced a “communal memory”’

Indeed it is the creation of layered spaces, open courtyards, frames and axis, coupled with rich materials, subtle landscaping and infused storytelling that make Correa’s work so enjoyable to spend time in, and to walk through. His work is most gripping when a strong programmatic content is combined with emotive themes and an almost ceremonial procession; form, in the sense of creating an artefact to behold, is not the aim, rather the form sets the boundaries and tempers the flow from outside to inside.

In the early days of independence he sought an architecture that would reflect a new ‘Indian-ness’ and help to create a national identity, as found in the Gandhi Memorial Museum (Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, 1958-63) in Ahmedabad, and the Jawahar Kala Kendra, an arts centre in Jaipur dedicated to Nehru. Nothing could be richer or more resonant with the population than the two heroic figures of modern India encapsulated, somewhat nationalistically, in built-form. Gandhi Memorial is a contemplative series of pavilions arranged about a grid, whereas at Jawahar Kala Kendra explicit reference is made to a nine square mandala, as well as the pre-colonial city planning of Jaipur. By using these references Correa established a lexicon to derive his architecture and its spaces, as well as generating a politicised and romantic, even nostalgic edge to his work (what the secular and progressive Nehru would have made of these historical, spiritual nods is besides the point).

‘His work is most gripping when a strong programmatic content is combined with emotive themes and an almost ceremonial procession; form, in the sense of creating an artefact to behold, is not the aim, rather the form sets the boundaries and tempers the flow from outside to inside’

After a period working as chief architect for the ambitious planning and housing programme of New Bombay in the early 1970s, Correa returned to private practice designing the National Crafts Museum (1975-90) in Delhi. It is a building that shies away from the street, perhaps in deference to the ancient fort Purana Qila which stands opposite. There are no pilasters or formal attention grabbing moves – it is almost the anti-museum, invisible, and without a civic role. Instead a portal is revealed only to those who are searching for it, rather like the objects that are contained within. The dark interiors (think Pitt Rivers meets Lausanne’s Musée de l’art brut) are archaeological, peering into the unknown and the unfamiliar. There is extreme drama and trepidation as the power of the congregation of talismanic objects becomes almost tangible. A reprieve is given through the outside spaces that create an informal street – a definitive Correa manoeuvre.

All his buildings create better external spaces than interior volumes and he nurtures a tension inside that draws one out of the building, to then gaze upwards through the open concrete frames. Here, larger exhibits merge with the built fabric; a haveli is installed alongside gateways, timber doors, a chariot. In classic ethnographic tradition, the final courtyard displays craftspeople and dance troops, springing into action as the sunlight dazzles the emerging visitors’ eyes. The museumification not only of traditions but the very people themselves, if highly problematic, makes for a more interesting exit than the usual gift shop. It is a wonderful experience and a highly sophisticated piece of choreographed architectural encounters.

‘All his buildings create better external spaces than interior volumes and he nurtures a tension inside that draws one out of the building, to then gaze upwards through the open concrete frames’

In many ways the early work of Correa satisfies the impression the ‘West’ frequently has of India. Correa’s work on slums (in Mumbai) or cosmic references to spiritual design-guides seem to fit the bill of what an Indian architect should be creating – an architecture that is somehow Indian – in a very narrow and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel clichéd sense of the word. Correa sought to reposition the Euro-American dominance of modern architecture alongside India’s emergence from colonialism and an appreciation of site sensitivity. And therefore his desire to use some of his Indian centred themes was certainly valid, even radical – but it would be myopic to think that’s all there is to it. Correa did not, rather it is the scholarship and presentation of his work that did.

In 1985 Correa was appointed Chairman of the National Commission on Urbanism as well as founding the Urban Design Institute, both appointments gave him the opportunity to steer the architectural debates in India towards site sensitivity and pursuit of significance. It was a decade that also brought awards and global recognition, as well as further reassessment of identity and belonging. The British Council building in Delhi consists of a layered, almost burlesque reveal of spaces and volumes set about a central axis that terminates with a sculpture of Shiva. It gives the visitor a potted chronicle of India, while also forming a spatial cartography of Delhi: Buddhist references, a Charbhar, and finally a space dedicated, apparently, to the ‘age of reason’ – surely a cheeky and ironic reference to the Raj?  

‘Correa sought to reposition the Euro-American dominance of modern architecture alongside India’s emergence from colonialism and an appreciation of site sensitivity’

Correa was not limited to working in India; the Permanent Mission to the UN in New York was to be representative of ‘home’ as well as to that great diaspora of non-resident Indians. A slither of a building, it is clad in Indian granite and Rajasthani timber doors that distinguishes it from the surrounding glass and brushed stainless steel. He returned to MIT in 2000 to design a neuroscience centre, again creating a large interior space that works more as a public space than an enclosed volume. Gehry’s Stata Center opposite seems brash and flippant in comparison; and as Correa states, architecture cannot be all ‘adjectives and exclamation marks’, it needs content, a language or idiolect of form, and that is what Correa has been forging. His work sets out to create successful, almost magnetic public spaces that give far more than the buildings remove. Correa’s delicate but bold methods offer something of a solution to India’s rapidly expanding urbanism and the real danger of culture and heritage being carelessly swept away in the process. Correa has repeatedly demonstrated that new and meaningful architecture can be woven into historical and growing urban sites. He rejects the languid and obvious reproduction of Shanghai or Singapore in India and looks to weave a narrative that immediately resonates with the site and its history.

Illustration 

Illustration by Bene Rohlmann

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