Charles Correa: The inclusive line

The architect's were lines that included the city, the passer by, the sea and the sky, never isolated them.

 |  3-minute read |   17-06-2015
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Charles Correa is off to that low-rise shared-spaces housing in the sky. I last met him at Toronto International Airport in September when he waved gaily as he and wife Monica were being wheeled to their gate. He had that broad infectious smile, typical of a favourite uncle with a joke to share, and always a nugget-you-would-never-forget, to share. We had hung out at the inauguration of the Aga Khan Museum just a few days prior, and he had explained to me, and the small host of foreign architecture journalists who hung on the every word of this giant of a man in more ways than one, the function of the sacred in architecture in some detail.

The Axis Mundi, he said, drew from the centre of the home, or the living space, as much as it drew from the centric principles of religion. His Ismaili Centre, a magnificent structure of interplaying glass, a reconstructed and reimagined Mughal dome fortified in such a way as to withhold snow load as well as not obstruct the unpillared passage of light, pointed to the polar North - the shortest route to Mecca. To Correa, apart from the fact that it was a project commissioned by His Highness the Aga Khan, especially in these troubled times, it was an architectural interpretation of Islam itself. His work always was deeply spiritual, he explained. He was a rationalist, but even if he wasn't one, he saw no dissonance between the sense of the sacred and religion or a lack of it.

"Great architecture was once entirely composed of functional spaces - universities, libraries, museums, churches, temples, mosques," he explained "it is only now that we construct beauty apart from the people." This essential philosophy was why he created. This inclusiveness, his broad curved lines, walls that danced to the essence of a city. From the MRF Headquarters in Chennai which mimicked the road as if to grow out of it, to Jawahar Ghar in Jaipur which mirrored the city itself, or IUCAA - one of his most extraordinary projects - which reflected earth as much as sky, Correa's work reflected his immediate environment of construction and its people.

His opposition to the city of high rises Mumbai was now becoming, he explained was because of this. It was a long-standing peeve and his work in low-cost housing spanning decades across Ahmedabad and Kota and Jodhpur and Navi Mumbai or his experiments in Dharavi, pushed the idea that it was not necessary to go higher, in a structure that essentially isolated man from man. "The man on the top floor has no contact with the street, and this causes disconnect" he explained, adding "and this essentially ruins the fabric of what Bombay is stitched from." It is his idea of Bombay that stalwarts like Rahul Mehrotra, also his son-in-law, and peers like Kamu Iyer envisioned and carried forward together.

In return, India did not even hold on to his works. In 2011, after repeatedly asking Indian archival institutes if they would keep his architectural drawings and models, Correa gave up. He spent two years annotating and archiving and finally sent it to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) which was so overjoyed, they held an exhibit in 2013. "All we needed was some air conditioning and space" he had said to me then, more than a little hurt. Urban Design Research Institute (UDRI) has worked on a digitised version, housed in Goa.

More than his architectural prowess, Correa was a giant of a human being for this reason: His connectedness to earth, sky, man, and neighbour. His parting words to me were of MF Husain, lying on his back on scaffolding at the Portuguese Church painting his mural "like some Michaelangelo, he was ours you know," he chuckled. "He was no Muslim, nor I Christian. None of us were. The Axis Mundi supercedes all of that with this core of sacredness. We all created because we believed in this idea of Bombay, of India, as this inclusive space."

The Master Architect, Correa only always erected walls that never kept any one out.


Gayatri Jayaraman Gayatri Jayaraman @gayatri__j

Mumbai-based writer, reporter, editor. Currently writing two books.

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