Building in the Vernacular: Charles Correa and the idea of India

The Sunday Guardian

What would eminent architect Charles Correa make of new Indian cities like Gurgaon? A new exhibition at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London paying homage to Correa’s work suggests he wouldn’t think much at all.

Charles Correa’s retrospective comes at a crucial moment. India is urbanising at unprecedented rates, due to an immense increase in population and migration from its villages to its cities. As this happens, new architectural and urban solutions are being shaped. Some cities are expanding and others are being built afresh. Correa’s work melds modernism with traditional, or vernacular, forms of design fitting with their context. The references to vernacular design represent a desire to celebrate the local and reflects the egalitarianism that underpins Correa’s work. The glass high-rises of recent developments in Gurgaon and the Bandra Kurla District in Mumbai (to name just two) stand in stark contrast to Correa’s work. They are characteristic of the super-modernist aspirations of the architects who are determining the nature of India’s burgeoning cities today. This retrospective is an important reminder of the strong principles that are central to Correa’s design aesthetic at a time when India’s urban landscape is changing fast.

The exhibition features examples of Correa’s most salient works through a series of mounts which combine photographs, architectural models, drawings, plans and text to form an exposé of particular projects. The second floor gallery presents the most significant architectural projects while the third floor concentrates on urban design. This is the first major show in the UK of Correa’s work and marks the bequest of over 6,000 objects from his archive, including drawings and articles, to RIBA in physical and (at Correa’s insistence) digitised form. Entitled “India’s Greatest Architect”, the exhibition is a clear acknowledgement of the esteem with which Correa’s work is held and his importance as a designer beyond India’s shores as well as at home. His numerous and international accolades include the RIBA Royal Gold Medal (1988), the Aga Khan Award for Architecture (1988) and Japan’s Praemium Imperials (1994). David Adjaye, architect and designer of the exhibition, described him as “a highly significant architect, globally and for India” whose work “is the physical manifestation of the idea of Indian nationhood, modernity and progress”. These words demonstrate that to a global audience Correa’s work is tantamount to the very idea of India.

The glass high-rises of recent developments in Gurgaon and the Bandra Kurla District in Mumbai stand in stark contrast to Correa’s work.

A number of projects exhibited tease out the seamless and imaginative unity Correa’s work forms between modernist and traditional forms of design. The British Council building in Delhi, for instance, combines a modernist box with a black and white mural by Howard Hodgkin inspired by nature and surrounding floor designs based around ideas central to Hinduism, Islam and Christianity. Correa’s more recent Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon seems to give less emphasis to traditional tropes, but nevertheless incorporates a large ‘open-to-sky’ space – a feature that is central to his design philosophy – and pays heed to the local history of the site through its design. The materials used often take into account local construction methods. Images of the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad, built in 1963, show us the brick walls, stone floors and internal water-court that substitute glass, steel or concrete as the main materials. The accompanying text points out that the architecture here is influenced by the “simplicity of village buildings” and hence draws on “the idea of the village” which “played a central role in Mahatma Gandhi’s thinking and philosophy”.

(L-R)Champalimaud Centre for the Study of the Unknown, Lisbon; awahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur; Gandhi Ashram, Ahmedabad

The relationship between Correa’s architecture and its local context, in terms of climate, culture and materiality, is emphasised in the show. It conveys the fact that this is what Correa is celebrated for; and it is central to him being hailed as India’s Greatest Architect. Yet despite Correa’s critical acclaim, these facets of his work find few comparisons among architects working in India now. In Indian architecture today, we mainly see enclosed, gated communities and skyscrapers that produce self-contained environments. We also see a movement towards a globalised, far from locally determined aesthetic. These hallmarks of urban architecture in contemporary India are the antithesis of the work displayed in Correa’s retrospective. They are entirely remote from his philosophy for urban design and architecture Correa propagated in his collection of writings The New Landscape(1985). In a chapter of this text notably entitled Equity, Correa described how the physical environment an reinforce social problems or act as a force for social change. He wrote that he disapproves of high-rise buildings because they restrict activity to a handful of developers, engineers and designers who would have the capacity to manage a large project, and the few banks who financial might and would reap the profits. This perhaps utopian philosophy is clearly alive in his work, but seems to bare little relevance to contemporary India. This is perhaps surprising given the respect with which Correa’s work is regarded.

Charles Correa

It is a similar story when it comes to Correa’s urban design projects. These are featured on the third floor area of the RIBA show. Correa has been a major figure in defining urbanism in post-colonial India. He and his colleagues Pravina Mehtha and Shirish Patel, for instance, conceived the vision behind Navi Mumbai in order to alleviate the population pressures on Mumbai. But his solutions to urbanism and the principles of equity at their heart have not always been favoured by the planning authority, the City and Industrial Planning Corporation (CIDCO). He refers to their disregard for his ideas is articulated in The New Landscape. This is just one example of the huge gulf between Correa’s ideas and urban design in India now. The broader context of one particular development exhibited here highlights the disconnect between Correa’s vision for India’s new cities and their reality today. The Artists’ Village, a colony he designed for the area CBD Belapur in Navi Mumbai, was an experiment on Correa’s manifesto in The New Landscape. In his writings Correa refers to, “the construction of units being simple enough to be undertaken by local masons and mistresses, with the active participation of the people themselves”. He also explains that the single storey sets of villas were designed for inhabitants to tailor them by adding: “their own overlays of colours – and symbols – colonising it with their lifestyles”. Today, some of the original low-rise houses with pitched roofs and the communal areas remain in the Artists’ Village. Some have been expanded upwards and painted in gregarious colours. In this sense, Correa’s wishes for the Artists’ Village have been fulfilled. At the same time, this development is the exception rather than the rule. In fact, these buildings contrast starkly with their surroundings. Around them are uninspiring, uniform, high-rise buildings that could be anywhere from Sao Paolo to Beijing. This is partly because of political issues that stopped Navi Mumbai from coming to fruition to the degree expected but also because of an apparent lack of creativity.

The British Council building in Connaught Place, Delhi

Today, there is a class of architects that has the capital to realise more ambitious projects. Instead of inspiring a new architectural language for India, though, these architects often continue to mass produce globalised buildings. Correa distinguished this kind of design from the modernist architecture that influenced him. Recently he told UK architecture magazine Building Design, “If India is going to be globalised I’d rather it was one through Le Corbusier than through McDonalds, by which I mean mindless cookie-cutting”. The work of ‘India’s Greatest Architect’ is an important and timely reminder that as India urbanises, a solid set of underlying principles will be essential. The clock is already ticking and those principles need to be aligned with architecture.

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