We have much to learn from Charles Correa, subject of a major exhibition at the RIBA, says Hugh Pearman

Charles Correa: India and the world owes much to him.
Charles Correa: India and the world owes much to him. · Credit: Cristbal manuel | el pais

Charles Correa is an architect who has seen India grow up: born in 1930 as Lutyens’ and Baker’s New Delhi was finally completing, he was 16 and already studying architecture at the time of Independence. He set up his practice in Bombay in 1958, when Le Corbusier with Fry and Drew was building the Punjabi capital of Chandigarh, the first planned city of the new state. Le Corbusier was to prove an enduring influence, but Correa’s take on modernity has always been highly personal and contextual. At first internationalist in outlook – after early studies in Bombay he trained at the University of Michigan and MIT, learning from Minoru Yamasaki and Buckminster Fuller among others – he quickly found his own voice, a manner of architecture fitting for the new nation.

Now Correa – winner of the RIBA’s Royal Gold Medal in 1984, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1988, and the Praemium Imperiale in 1994 – has generously given his archive of more than 6,000 drawings to the RIBA Library. To celebrate this, the RIBA is mounting a major exhibition of his work with associated events, opening at 66 Portland Place on 14 May and running until 4 September. Correa himself will lecture on May 15. He may not be regarded as a globe-trotting ‘starchitect’ like some, but he quietly operates internationally as well as in India. Exhibits will include one of his earliest projects, the Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad of 1958-63; the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Museum; the MIT Brain and Cognitive Science Centre in the USA; the InterUniversity Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics in Pune, India; and the Champilaud Centre for the Study of the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal. But as important as these high-profile schemes are his pieces of understated city-making, such as his early 1980s Belapur low-income housing in New Bombay. 

Dr Irena Murray, Banister Fletcher Librarian and curator of the exhibition, says: ‘Correa is brilliantly inventive in his deployment of certain timeless themes in Indian culture and philosophy – journey, passage, void and the representation of the cosmos. He uses them as a means to creating ambitious new spaces and structures. His deep understanding of the implications of climate, demographics, transport and community life has a universal quality and has helped structure the thematic arrangement of the exhibition.’

For the exhibition designer David Adjaye, who has visited Correa’s most significant Indian projects and interviewed him for Radio 3 in 2006, his work ‘is the physical manifestation of the idea of Indian nationhood, modernity and progress...he has that rare capacity to give physical form to something as intangible as “culture” or “society”, and his work is therefore critical aesthetically, sociologically and culturally.’

Correa is an elegant and learned writer as well as an architect. Much as he loved Corbusier, he could find fault – in the appalling ventilation of the Chandigarh buildings and the gloomy unworkability of the Assembly chamber, for instance. Small wonder that he wrote of Chandigarh in 1964 that many were hostile to Le Corbusier. ‘Yet, in spite of these antagonisms and misunderstandings, there is no doubt that Corb’s work has been of considerable benefit to India. It has stimulated a whole generation of architects. And it has given them a sense of their past, because in some inexplicable way Corb is tuned to this country. It is alleged that Edward Stone’s embassy in Delhi is ‘Indian’. If it is, then it is the fake India of the Taj Mahal and Hollywood. Corb has evoked a much deeper image. His is a more real India, an India of the bazaars, sprawling, cruel, raucous in colour, with a grandeur all its own. His aesthetic evokes our history, and Chandigarh finds echoes in Fatehpur Sikri, in Jaiselmer, in Mandu. Surely this is why a building of Corb’s sits so well in Indian soil, whereas at Harvard, it seems an affectation. Perhaps Chandigarh is the last great work of Corb.’

No need now, however, for him to invoke the masters, flawed or otherwise. Correa learned from Corb but his own more humane approach, deriving from the living patterns of the communities he works in, is very different. Not for him the imposition of the ‘genius’ object, while his fusion of modernity and tradition is natural rather than rhetorical. Correa makes complete places which have a sense of spirituality. We should be learning from him. 


 

CHARLES CORREA: INDIA’S GREATEST ARCHITECT
14 May - 29 September 2013
RIBA, 66 Portland Place, 
London SE1 8XX