Charles Correa: Dirty Work but Someone’s Got to Do It

It was a moment of interesting cultural awkwardness. Charles Correa, talking at the RIBA’s Florence Hall, opening the ‘Out of India’ exhibition commemorating his gift of 6,000 drawings to the Drawings Collection had spent the last hour taking us through a potted history of his oeuvre and was now answering questions from the floor. The first two weren’t questions at all, but statements.

One had waxed lyrical about the spiritual component of his work and concluded by saying that he didn’t think Correa was ‘the greatest architect in India, but the greatest in the world.’ Robert Maxwell took the mic to add the flourish of ‘Hail Correa!’ Both comments elicited polite applause, which Correa, either through embarrassment or self-effacement, seemed to respond to by squirming slightly in his seat.

Were they right? There is no doubting that when he’s good, he’s very good - Correa’s 1963 Gandhi Ashram in Ahmedabad and the 1982 Bharat Bhavan arts complex in Bhopal show him as a consummate Modernist fully in control of his art, expressing his humanism through raw materials and elemental geometries. But I’d take issue with his 1992 Astronomy & Astrophysics Centre in Pune and 1993 British Council in Delhi, whose cultural/cosmological aspects seemed a representational appliqué rather than intrinsically bound-in to the architecture. His 2011 Lisbon Champalimaud Neuroscience Centre is Modern in aesthetic but post-modern in thinking, its empty amphitheatres more necropolis than neuropolis.

But he fell to earth for me when, in answer to one post-lecture question, he said architects should not become politicised - that their remit was purely in the control of the visual realm. Coming from the greatest living architect of a country grappling with the most fundamental issues of human health, housing and infrastructure, the comment struck me not only as irresponsible but untrue.

Correa has, by his own admission, advised the Mumbai regional government on infrastructure development to facilitate the eastern expansion into the mainland to relieve congestion in the Mumbai City’s peninsula, which is going ahead. He also suggested to them a city road section strategy that created a 7’ wide raised stone plinth between pavement and road that could be used by street traders during the day, hosed down by night and used as a sleeping place for the homeless; sensitive design that understood the mercantile nature of the city and offered a modicum of dignity to those with none. Mumbai never implemented it, Correa calling it ‘naive’ - I’d have called it visionary. But both are architecture and both highly political acts. What is naïve is assuming that design can be divorced from political intent. John Hejduk once rhetorically asked how many architects’ heads had rolled throughout history. Architects support the status quo - it’s their paymaster. In that exchange they become by default  politicised.

At the beginning of the lecture Correa told the audience that Mumbai was two cities - of the rich and poor; and in one affecting image he showed three slab towers ‘not ten feet apart from each other’, saying unscrupulous development and profiteering was responsible for this new typology that decants slum dwellers into towers to free up the land they occupy for redevelopment. He clicked to the next slide, but my mind remained lodged in the dark, dingy slits between the slabs. It is not enough to draw attention to the problem. Correa, whose status is almost mythological in India, needs to address it. There is no-one in the realm of sub-continent architecture better positioned in terms of respect and influence, to question the corruption and lack of planning regulation that allows this to occur. Correa’s done the Kanchanjunga Apartments - a lovely spacious, naturally ventilated modern tower that brings joy to its privileged residents, but it’s how he can affect  the lives of the millions who spread out in the tattered carpet of humanity at its base that concerns me more.

Perhaps I’m being too hard on him. Correa is 82 and you can’t blame the man for wanting to sit on his laurels and take it easy; but the poor need a champion and no-one else of his stature is waiting in the wings. Watching him shuffle uneasily in the light of all that adulation this week, I’d like to think it was his inner self telling him his greatest part of his legacy might be yet to come. ‘Hail Correa?’ In your later years you’ll need to draw on your superhuman strength because in this period of your Motherland’s transition into a world economic force; Architecture, Mumbai, India - has never had greater need of your skills.