December 01, 2020
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Charles Correa, India's Best Known Architect

He strongly believed that apart from improving the living conditions, open-to-sky spaces could have considerable economic value in an advanced economy like India.

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Charles Correa, India's Best Known Architect
Charles Correa, India's Best Known Architect

Charles Correa, the visionary modernist Indian architect who designed many landmark buildings across the world, breathed his last at Breach Candy Hospital in Mumbai on June 16. He was 84.

As an architect, Correa was admired as much for his passion for aesthetic beauty and perfection as for his love for tradition and modernity. He designed cultural and civic monuments, luxury condominiums and modest housing developments keeping in mind the needs of the urban poor. He delighted in using traditional materials and methods; his influence and style spread far beyond South Asia.

Correa's rich oeuvre include the museum and research center at Mohandas K. Gandhi's memorial on the banks of Sabarmati in Ahmedabad and the stunningly beautiful multi-arts centre Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur. Also notable are the British Council headquarters and National Crafts Museum in Delhi, Kala Academy in Goa, Permanent Mission of India at the UN, New York, Ismaili Centre in Toronto, Brain and Cognitive Sciences Center at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Cambridge, Boston, and Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon.

Charles Correa was born in Secunderabad on September 1, 1930. An alumnus of St. Xavier's College, Mumbai, he studied architecture at the University of Michigan as well as the MIT.

"I think I became an architect because of toy trains. As a child, I had a Hornby tinplate track and a couple of locomotives and wagons. Nothing very ambitious, really just enough to run the trains around your room, and the following day, perhaps change the layout so that they could run into the next room, under a table and back again. That was the marvelous thing about those old tinplate rails. They had flexibility. Every time one finished playing, back they went into their wooden box — to be reincarnated the next day in a totally new formation," he wrote in A Place in the Shade: The New Landscape & Other Essays.

"Ah, to have more rails — and more trains! But since World War II was on, there was no way my layout could possibly have been augmented. All I did have was catalogues (the legendary Hornby Book of Trains, Basset-Lowke's Model Railways and so forth), which I would pore over. I drew out on graph paper the most elaborate layouts: straight rails, curved ones, sidings, crossovers, the works. Trains moved through tunnels, stations, over-bridges in one direction and then, through cunningly placed figure eights, came right back through the same stations and tunnels — but now in the other direction, setting up a brand new sequence! That's how I spent many of my classroom hours: drawing up these hypothetical layouts in exercise books. Years later, at the age of fifteen or so, coming across an architectural journal for the first time, I felt I could read the various plans and sections — and what they were trying to do. That much I owe to Hornby.”"

Correa could have settled down in the United States or some other First World country. But he chose to return to India. "To work in India is the great advantage of life in the Third World," he wrote in his book, Housing and Urbanization. "The issues are so much bigger than you are; they give you a chance to grow."

The Gandhi museum, which Correa began working on in 1958, was his first major project. He also designed the Handloom Pavilion in Delhi around the same time.

In the 1950s, architecture in many parts of India was under the influence of Le Corbusier, who created monuments in Ahmedabad and designed the modern Chandigarh. Correa, who was greatly impressed and influenced by Corbusier's use of striking concrete forms, moved on from the Swiss-French architect's creations and went on to define modern architecture in India, with his own imagination and vision, for more than half-a-century.

Having travelled the world and studied a wide range of architectures, Correa had grown critical of the way cities were being planned. "Market forces do not make cities. They destroy them," he said.

He was keenly interested in the way Indian cities work and also in ways to improve them. "Our cities are among the greatest things that we have; they are part of the wealth of India. They are places of hope. The skills we need are urban skills — we never have to ask the World Bank to send us an expert because our cities already provide them," he told the Guardian.

Correa was in favour of unobstructed spaces in his buildings and often cited the Gamble House, that arts and crafts marvel of Los Angeles, as his inspiration. He strongly believed that apart from improving the living conditions, open-to-sky spaces could have considerable economic value in an advanced economy like India. Correa's tastefully created luxury Kanchanjunga apartments in Mumbai, built over more than a decade and 84 meters high, splendidly incorporated the concept of open-to-sky spaces.

Correa also worked on townships and public housing projects in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and other cities in India. His brilliant, mega project for Navi Mumbai, a satellite township spread across an area of nearly 140 square miles and an urban growth center of several million people, was planned to take the pressure off the already crowded Mumbai. He also designed an affordable housing project at Belapur, a suburb of Navi Mumbai.

Correa taught in many Indian and foreign universities, including Harvard University, the University of California at Berkeley and Tongji University in Shanghai. He had been the Banister Fletcher professor at the University of London, the Albert Bemis professor at the MIT and the Jawaharlal Nehru professor at the University of Cambridge.

In 1984, he founded Urban Design Research Institute in Mumbai. In 1985, the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi appointed him the chairman of National Commission on Urbanism. He was also the chairman of Delhi Urban Arts Commission.

Correa was a cultured, refined man with interesting tastes in life. He was fond of movie and music. He was an eloquent speaker and an excellent writer.

He was honoured with the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1998, Praemium Imperiale for Architecture (Japan) in 1994, Gold Medal of the International Union of Architects (UIA) in 1990 and the Royal Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1984.

In 2013, when the RIBA mounted an exhibition on him, he was acclaimed as "India's greatest architect". (He donated over 6,000 of his drawings to the RIBA.)

In 2006, he was conferred with India's second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan.

He is survived by his son Nakul and daughter Nondita.

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