Charles Correa, famous for his ‘open-to-sky’ design, died on Tuesday night at the age of 84. Having designed the Gandhi memorial in Gujarat at the age of 28, Correa was a prodigious talent, often considered India’s greatest contemporary architect. He was one of India’s first architects to take his talent beyond national boundaries.
Over two years ago, The Royal Institute of British Architects had mounted a retrospective show featuring the designs and drawings of India’s most well-known architect.
RaahabAllana, the curator of the Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, in Delhi, often laments that, as a people, Indians are poor archivists. Charles Correa concurred with Allana’s view, and that is one reason why he had chosen to bequeath over 6,000 of his drawings and photographs to the Royal Institute of British Architects Library (RIBA), London.
RIBA, a professional body of architects with members from across the world, has, over the past 73 years, created a mammoth archive of photographs, models and drawings, housed at its centre and its decade-old outpost, the Architectural Gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The two spaces together house over one million drawings, several models, photographs, 150,000 books, and papers and diaries of some of the most famous architects from various periods, right from the Renaissance era to now. Correa, is the first Indian architect to find place in this hallowed institution.
RIBA has mounted an elaborate retrospective show, Charles Correa: India’s greatest architect, at its imposing Art Deco Portland Place building. The exhibition, which will run till September 4, attempts to decode the maverick architect’s work and is part of the Out of India season, a series of talks, debates and films on architecture in contemporary India. Post the retrospective, the drawings and photographs will find a permanent place in the RIBA library.
Curated by Dr Irena Murray, director of research at RIBA, the exhibition features Correa’s designs for housing and cities. On display are designs that look closely at affordable housing and the effect of climate change on housing; his projects to improve cityscapes; his master plan for Navi Mumbai; and his international portfolio: the MIT Brain and Cognitive Science Centre, in the US, and the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, in Lisbon. Over the past 50 years, Correa, now 82, has designed a slew of cultural and civic monuments, science institutes, schools, housing development projects and new cities. His work has fetched him numerous awards, including the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (1984), the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (1988) and Japan’s PraemiumImperiale (1994).
Born in India but educated as an architect in the United States, Correa has designed buildings and spaces in many different cities, and his designs are often inspired by the native architectural traditions of the place he is working in. His influences have ranged from quaint railway models, which he obsessively collected in his childhood, to street-hawkers’ use of pavements in Mumbai.
The RIBA exhibition highlights Correa’s ideas to protect homes against the elements. One concept he came up with was to orient a building in a way that it gets minimum amount of sun but enough light by using masonry that absorbs heat and encouraging people to use a house in a nomadic way. “That means, using different parts of the home at different times of the day — in the day, you stay in the part that is shaded; and in the evening, move to the one that offers the best view,” says Correa.
Also on display in the exhibition are drawings, photographs and models of some of Correa’s best-known projects: the ‘tube house’ in Ahmedabad, a low-income housing prototype that was shaped such that cool air was naturally drawn through it; the British Council in Delhi; and his ode to high-rise living, the 84-metre Kanchanjunga apartments in Mumbai, which has breezy stacked verandahs and suspended courtyards.
Many of the drawings and photographs carefully sequence Correa’s open-to-sky spaces, such as the National Crafts Museum, New Delhi, which is laid out as a mat of interconnected spaces linked by courtyards, and the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, which has a labyrinth of single-storey buildings arranged around shaded meandering walkways. The ashram was inspired, says Correa, by sacred sites across the world: “the walkways that encircle the Buddhist stupa, the Garbhagriha (sanctum sanctorum) of Hindu temples, the processional route around the Kaaba, in Mecca, and the ambulatories of Europe’s great cathedrals”. Correa also designed the Jawahar Kala Kendra, in Jaipur, using the concept of the Navagraha, the nine main cosmic influencers, which is fundamental to Hindu astrology. The sketch and the wooden model detail the grid of nine squares that house galleries, theatres, museums and auditoriums.
Correa says he is inspired by both Indian conditions and architectural expression around the world. “In India, you need to be aware how a building works in our climate. It can’t be stuffy. It needs to react and respond to the environment, which is also true for architecture across the world.”
The architect’s design for Navi Mumbai, the largest planned city in the world, is known for its community spaces that reference the village chaupal or the public square. “I am interested in the way that Indian cities work,” he says. “They may seem to be in a state of crisis, but they have their inherent strengths. We have the skills to turn them around; we just need to look inwards.”