Pioneer architect and urbanist Charles Correa practiced in Bombay from 1958 to 2015. While drawing freely from diverse sources in style and ideology, he remained independent in crafting an oeuvre that remains both monumental and accessible. His architecture evokes vibrant impressions of the sun and shadows, of color and theater, within projects simultaneously reflective and aspirational. The memorial to Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad (1958–1963), at once intimate and boundless; the Champalimaud Cancer Centre in Lisbon (2007–2010), a heroic call to arms for an engagement with new horizons yet to be explored. In between are projects diverse in scale and significance, but always probing interdependencies between places and people.
An appraisal of Correa’s work demands a sensibility for “sun cultures,” as he and the post-independence Indian architects that dominated our attention, often referred to building in warm climates. Here, as he often said, “space is a resource, and man, its measure.” Charles’s articulation of beauty was one built around endurance and rootedness. This didn’t mean immobility, or resistance to adaptation. Rather the opposite; within a bounded space, meaning was ascribed through movement: a nomadic occupation of a building, a public space, or a mythical landscape that responded to the climate and culture.
For every iconic project—a high-rise in Mumbai (Kanchenjunga), a state capitol building (Madhya Pradesh’s Vidhan Bhavan), or a headquarters for the British Council in New Delhi—there were numerous housing and urban propositions designed within more modest means. Elements of architecture became the means to overcome limitations of budgets, resources, and technology. They became the “connective tissue” between the deeply embedded traditions and the changes occurring in the aspirations of an emerging nation. Courtyards and verandahs were active agents, swelling towards and retreating from the sun during seasonal cycles. Colors, murals, visual motifs, and diagrams became tools to extend the perceptions of space to fold in deeper structures of the cultural psyche. His application of these actively resisted the modernist urge towards abstraction. And yet, they were carefully calibrated and composed with the eye of an auteur.
Charles was part of the heroic generation of architects in India, negotiating traditions and modernity in a recently independent nation. But he maintained an ambiguous relationship with institutions, unlike many of his contemporaries who were more intensely involved with students at schools of architecture across India and abroad. Instead, Charles wrote about his concerns, curated architectural exhibitions in collaboration with national cultural councils, and was an urban activist, seeking a wider audience beyond the architectural community. There was clarity and courage in tackling the complexities of sub-continental identity, urbanity, and social justice, coupled with levity and exuberance though humor and wit. His manner was immediately positioned through the prism of everyday middle class concerns.
Charles’ studio was small for the scale and significance of the projects that came out of it. This compactness encouraged a collegial environment. Hard labor was expected, as it often is when working in a master studio, but so was an egalitarian attitude toward learning. In the context of the hierarchical social milieu around us, this was remarkable—being encouraged to speak up, debate the work we were engaged in, regardless of one’s pecking order in an office structure. For Charles, the teacher was to be trusted, and through our trust in him, we taught ourselves.
He often asked me who my, and by extension, my generation’s heroes were, probably wondering if we even had heroes in the midst of contemporary skepticism. He was mine.