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The contemporary legacy of Charles Correa

Disegno Daily Mumbai

Charles Correa (1930 – 2015) was a visionary architect and urban planner. He was hailed by the Royal Institute of British Architects as India’s greatest architect and motivated by genuine concerns of democracy and better living, yet contemporary architecture pays little heed to his ideas.

India is urbanising at unprecedented rates. Narendra Modi, the country’s Prime Minister, has plans to build a hundred new smart cities to accommodate the millions migrating from rural to urban areas each year. Built from scratch, their fabric will reflect the desire for India to define itself as “modern” through their architecture and their high-tech amenities. If recent top-down planning projects in India are anything to go by, these cities will be based on a globalised architectural style that Correa criticised.

Correa’s legacy is the way he reinterpreted modernism as a vehicle for a unique aesthetic, reflective of India’s climate and local modes of living. The Gandhi Museum in Ahmedabad, an early work completed in 1963, comprises a series of square modules that are arranged to alternative between those that are open to the sky and those that are closed. Works like this are sensitive to how people relate to their environment, make use of low-cost local materials and take advantage of natural ventilation.

He cared about the appropriateness of architecture and urban planning to India’s social and physical context. In the city of Navi Mumbai, he designed the Artists’ Village, a set of low cost single-storey villas with pitched roofs and communal areas, many of which still exist in a small enclave among the incongruous high rises. It reflects Correa’s desire to inculcate a vernacular form of architecture for modern India, a style that is revered but was never genuinely taken up.

Those pioneering architecture in India now have a different idea of modernity, that of the international style which seems to be prevalent in generic new builds across Asia. Contrary to Correa’s ideals, this kind of architecture creates social polarisation and excludes India’s poor. The gated communities are a prime example. They are beautified self-contained worlds designed (and priced) for the middle classes. Fortified enclaves surrounded by walls, they are privately owned and have their own leisure facilities and utilities, so they end up disconnected from the rest of the city. Space on the inside is consciously planned and carved into a leisure zone – nothing like the malleable streets of India’s traditional cities and hence bearing little regard for local ways of living, which Correa considered paramount.

In an interview with the Guardian in 2013, Correa reflected on contemporary Indian architecture. Disillusioned by the way in which his home city had developed, he called the high rises that dominate the Mumbai skyline “idiot buildings”. “We have become too mundane about what we build; we can make things that are whimsical, but not profound,” he said. When I met him at his serene Malabar Hill home in South Mumbai later that year, he spoke of his frustrations over the overcrowding he witnessed in the city beyond and the failure of urban planners to deal with it except by building generic skyscrapers.

Back in the 1960s, Correa co-authored a plan to create Navi Mumbai, a new city across the creek from Mumbai that would help curb overpopulation and the lack of affordable housing in the existing city. He went to on to become chief architect of Navi Mumbai, a city that he intended, according to early reports, to be a place for the “common man”. Yet due to a lack of political will and the bureaucracy of the planning authority, this never entirely happened. Instead it ended up more like a satellite city for middle-class commuters. In the 1980s journalist Shiva Naipaul described Navi Mumbai as a down-at-heel shopping precinct, a block of flats, a cluster of capital-intensive factories” with “the forlorn air of make-believe”. Although it has grown considerably since then (proving right Correa’s insistence on the need for new urban hubs) Correa’s socialist vision for the city is far from a reality.

Projects like Correa’s Gandhi Museum and the Artists’ Village – and indeed his body of work – are admired, but they are not the blueprint for large-scale urban expansion. The most commercially successful architect working in India now is Hafeez Contractor. He has made his name as Bollywood’s starchitect building generic residential skyscrapers and technology campuses all over India. His international architectural style, without a unique signature, is the antithesis of the social and aesthetic values that Correa so ardently tried to promote.

Speaking to me about his work, Contractor once said that notions of low-rise living have no place in India’s new cities like Navi Mumbai, as they are not practical. People prefer segregated units in high-rise towers, he explained, rather than the communal living of traditional housing in India. Not far from Correa’s utopian Artists’ Village in Navi Mumbai stands Seawoods Estate, a gated community of high rise buildings by Contractor that has proven very commercially successful. The visual contrast between the two speaks of the gulf between the ideas Correa will be remembered for and the realities of the new India.

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