Charles Correa hadn’t been on my radar. In the frenetic world of WAN’s newsroom, it’s more likely to be KPF’s latest tower in New York or a new Zaha creation that has my focus on a Monday morning.
But this is a Saturday, a rare sunny Saturday in London. I’m here on a mission, drawn by the intriguing title of the RIBA’s latest exhibit, Charles Correa: India’s Greatest Architect. It was a gripping title and it had my interest.
Portland Place is quiet, a welcome respite from the retail mayhem of Oxford Street just a few hundred yards away. Once inside, the venerable organisation’s HQ has the air of a cathedral. The silence is only broken by the bright screaming of the banners confirming that I was in the right place at the right time to view the work of India’s Greatest Architect.
In the gallery, where peace is now almost tangible, pervading a sense of reverence in this inner sanctum, a handful of architects and students amble around studying the displays of Correa’s work.
A quick scan of the drawings and photographs on display reveal a subdued architecture, understated buildings muted by organic colours. Correa’s work wasn’t screaming ‘Great’ but it drew you in, the forms, the colour, looked so natural, so understated. I checked the date on a drawing of a timeless, magnificent apartment block. 1983.
As an architect, you will know that to achieve simplicity in a building, like most other designs, is actually extremely hard to achieve. It is often the result of a combination of a natural understanding of space and form, underpinned by rigorous research. For me, the notations alongside the designs were the most intriguing, providing a real insight into the workings of Correa’s mind, his approach, his humanity.
Born out of a background of architecture schooling in the US, Anne Arbor and MIT in the 1950s, his body of work is almost reactionary. From the same roots came the glass and steel structures that dominate our cities today.
Correa’s understanding of a building’s relationship with climate was religiously embodied in his designs and his use of passive environmental control at odds with the advent and almost universal adoption of mechanical AC by his architect peers in the last quarter of the twentieth century.
In a recent interview, Correa confirmed: "We have all come too far away from the fundamentals. We have surrendered more and more to engineers, who manage to prop up any design and manage to heat and cool any kind of shape. Ultimately we are the losers: everything has left architecture, except whimsy and fashion."
Correa’s range of work over the decades is immense. From a masterplan for Navi Mumbai in the sixties right down to a design for a single dwelling, all are backed up with his carefully considered rationale.
One of the displays portrays his moving vision for embracing Mumbai’s crowded streets as a 24/7 living part of the city. Allowing the pavements to become living zones, adapting to the city’s rhythms from morning commuters, through street traders in the day, to food vendors in the evening to finally providing a safer haven for the poor souls for whom the pavement was their sleeping place for the night. His idea was delivered as a simple notated cross section, utilizing a raised bund that would serve different functions at different times of the day, allowing the citizens of Mumbai to coexist in a natural way.
It was this example that finally made Correa Great for me, the quiet understanding of how things are, gently intervening to make them better, delivering a harmony through design.
It’s ironic and sad that in our modern world of forced sustainability, carbon footprints and gross to net ratios that such forward thinking architecture as Correa’s has been largely bypassed by the commercial world for so long.
Maybe he was just in the right place at the wrong time.
Editor in Chief at WAN
Charles Correa: India's Greatest Architect is at the RIBA, London W1, open now until 4 September.
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