Charles Correa: The great modernist

Charles Correa’s case for regionalism must be renewed, and made inclusive enough to embrace our messy urbanity


Correa’s ideas were mined from observations and reflections over how traditional Indian architecture was shaped by local specificities of climate, and cultural and social practices of people all over the sub-continent. Photo: Neha Nath/India Today Group/Getty Images
Correa’s ideas were mined from observations and reflections over how traditional Indian architecture was shaped by local specificities of climate, and cultural and social practices of people all over the sub-continent. Photo: Neha Nath/India Today Group/Getty Images

I met Charles Correa last in 2013 at Mumbai’s JJ College of Architecture where I had been invited as a juror by architect Rahul Mehrotra to award that year’s Charles Correa Gold Medal for the best student thesis nationwide. I was enamoured by Correa’s wit, sharpness and youthful energy. He was 82 then, but was still practising, thinking and writing about architecture and the city. Throughout his illustrious career, spanning more than half a century, his ideas about architecture and urban design as tools for social change and cultural expression, have remained vital and resilient.

Correa’s world view emerged in a newly independent socialist India, a Nehruvian society dedicated to modernity and nation-building. As part of an architectural generation that included B.V. Doshi and Raj Rewal, he was invested in establishing a new architectural vocabulary for a modern India that could free itself from colonial ideas.

In the same spirit as modern masters like Le Corbusier and Loius Kahn who came to India, he sought an architecture that though intensely modern, would create a renewed identity and sense of place within the Indian context, different from the homogenizing architecture practised by the West.

Correa’s ideas were mined from observations and reflections over how traditional Indian architecture was shaped by local specificities of climate, and cultural and social practices of people all over the subcontinent. His search was for a set of archetypal ideas that could be extracted from a pre-colonial history, but renewed and reinterpreted for a new present. In the traditional courtyard houses, the stepped wells of Gujarat, the pavilions of Fatehpur Sikri, the old living forts of Rajasthan and Indian temples, to name a few, he found structures for a new vocabulary where the confluence of cultural memory, societal aspirations and modern technology could meet.

His open-to-sky spaces celebrated the pleasures of living under a tropical sun. The courtyard configurations of his housing and institutional projects not only encouraged our cultural sociality, but also attempted to secularize the esoteric and the sacred. The plan for the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur looks like an ancient mandala with an open kund at its centre, as does the Vidhan Bhawan in Bhopal with stupa-like forms and circumambulatory pathways around civic functions.

Correa’s ideas for city planning were surprisingly pragmatic. As one of the planners who envisioned New Bombay, his writings offered planning, governance and urban management models for the emerging problems of rapid urbanization which plague our cities today. His proposal ranged from sustainable growth models for Goa, new urban transportation systems to decongest Mumbai, alternative methods to house the urban poor to ideas for the urban regeneration of Mumbai’s mills. He decried the bureaucracy for its apathy, developers for their greed and the degeneration of the Indian City into what he called “Great City, Terrible Place”.

Most of Correa’s urban visions were never fully realized, or they were born contorted and ill-formed like New Bombay. In retrospect, Correa’s ideas seem utopian, unable to accommodate the messy realities of the post-modern city—realities of the impossibility of comprehensive change, that cities will stubbornly grow incrementally and irrationally, through the conflict between the public and the private to gain control over the political and economic capital of the city.

The role of the architect today has been reducibly altered; he is no longer an agent of change with the autonomy to deploy his expertise to enable social equity. The architect is more an agent, a broker, a cog in wheels of the market economy—a realization that broke the heart of this great man.

Correa’s regionalist approach was overwhelmed by a generic global architecture model that swept India in the 1990s, when city skylines were defined by glossy commercial typologies of malls, office parks and luxury residential towers. Ironically, little of this real estate remains memorable. Ask anyone in Mumbai to name a great residential building in Mumbai, and most people would still name Correa’s Kanchenjunga on Pedder Road. It remains the most elegant of residential towers in the city with its sculptural voids cut out at the corners to create magnificent double-height verandahs.

An accomplished academic who taught at MIT as well as the University of Michigan, both his alma maters for several years, Correa set up the Urban Design Research Institute in Mumbai in 1984, the only significant non-profit dedicated to urban research, conservation and political activism on urban issues in the city. He also remains the most richly awarded Indian architect for his contribution to the discipline and profession of architecture.

Charles Correa has left us a legacy rich in ideas and experiments. His case for regionalism must be renewed, albeit through a new contextual framework, inclusive enough to embrace our messy urbanity.

Kapil Gupta is the co-founder of Serie Architects and principal of Serie Mumbai.

More From Livemint