I get the impression that Charles Correa may not have been entirely comfortable with the title of the new exhibition devoted to his work at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London, India’s Greatest Architect. The man who describes the body of work he has left behind him as “like the trail that a snail leaves in its wake as it inches forward” presents a modest and charmingly self-deprecating image. Far too modest in fact.
Correa, who is 82, has developed an oeuvre that has prefigured all the important questions of contemporary architecture. From sustainable building and natural ventilation to the problems of housing the poor, from addressing the lack of meaning and the placelessness in contemporary construction to the planning of cities to accommodate explosive population growth, Correa got there first.
I went to see him in an anonymous apartment off London’s Piccadilly. Tall, with a full head of white hair and wearing the dark, round-framed glasses popularised among architects by Le Corbusier, Correa wraps me in a mesmerising whirl of conversation and references, covering everything from the meaning of the spiritual symbol, the mandala, to the problems of urban planning in 1970s India.
I wanted to start at the beginning with his education at the University of Michigan and then at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1950s, and asked why he didn’t end up joining the ranks of corporate modernists then emerging from those schools?
“We learnt principles there,” he tells me. “We went back to Louis Sullivan, ‘Form follows function’ and so on, but the excitement of being modern meant being able to use those principles in creating new forms. There is a difference between principles and fashion.” But surely, I ask, fashion is always there?
“Architecture is like a mountain,” he responds enigmatically. “It can’t move.” He pauses. “Film is very close to architecture,” he changes tack a little and shifts in his seat. “Both are dealing with the way light falls on an object and defines it but the difference is time. A director can create huge shifts in emotion with a jump-cut or an edit but architecture cannot move, so an architect can’t produce those sudden shifts. On the other hand, that stillness is also a magnificent property. Like a mountain, it gives gravitas.”
Correa made his name with an architecture that appeared characteristic of India, a modernism rooted paradoxically in tradition and, with a few major exceptions (including two medical research facilities at MIT and in Lisbon) he has largely eschewed the allure of the global starchitect. Why, I wonder, is that? Is good architecture as fixed to place as that mountain?
“What would be the point of building all over the world?” he says, turning the question back at me. “Look at Mies [van der Rohe]. His early work had a sinister quality, a darkness and a depth and when he moved to the US he became global and got lost in the banality of a US downtown.
“All art used to be site-specific. It was in a temple or paintings made for altars. Then at some point in the Renaissance, the painters picked up their paintings and left the building. They gained a lot but they also lost a lot. We need to get nourishment from what we do.”
Does that nourishment come from a sense of place or a use? “It doesn’t always come from where we imagine. It might come from the way the building touches the ground. I met Le Corbusier when he was in Chandigarh [where he built the monumental modernist government complex]. We were all afraid of him but I asked him, ‘How do you design?’ and he said, ‘The thing is to see the building against the sky.’ I thought that was very evocative, it is not about looking at culture in a narrow way.”
Unlike most major architects of the modern era, Correa is keen to talk like this, in poetic terms, embracing meaning. In the Jawahar Kala Kendra, a cultural centre in Rajasthan, he based the building’s exquisite and complex plan on a mandala. He sketches a typical mandala plan for me, divided into nine squares, each representing a planet with each of these standing for a human characteristic or attribute.
“At the middle is an empty centre,” he explains. “This is Brahman, the all-pervading emptiness at the heart of the universe. Not paradise or Nirvana but Brahman. The courtyard is a bit like this, it’s a contemporary version of the mandala. Now, if we hear about the idea of a black hole, it doesn’t change our lives. But, for the Hindus, the cosmos affected everything, daily life, art, even jewellery was influenced by the mandala.”
Does he regret the lack of meaning in our world? “Today we don’t have any ideogram to represent. But maybe that is not a bad thing. Rulers used architecture as a message, to reinforce their power. In a way it is good we have moved on but what are we representing now? Today’s buildings reveal a view but it is banal.”
One surprising exhibit at the RIBA is a model of a pavilion built for Lever in 1961. Foreshadowing the angled planes of deconstructivist architecture that would become fashionable in the 1980s, it seems to represent an alternative reality, a path not taken.
“It was about disorientation,” he says. “Architecture needs four walls because we see a front, a back and two sides but if you make five or seven you get lost, you don’t know where you are. It worked, but how many times can you do this? The more you change things, the more they stay the same. If you keep repeating it, it becomes whimsical.”
Also unlike many of his contemporaries, Correa has consistently been interested in an architecture for the poor and his housing at Belapur, in Navi Mumbai, presented a model of humane development with bungalows distributed around a complex network of public and semi-private spaces.
“If you cluster houses in a pattern, you allow the residents to change them and to expand. They’ve completely changed since we built them and I don’t mind that. Through change, society discovers a vocabulary of building. It’s not just housing, it’s habitat.”
Is he depressed by the informal settlements that still blight the lives of the poor in the Indian cities?
“Yes, but people don’t move to cities for the housing,” he says, “they move because of jobs. The issue is land use. But there is the city and there is the city, or the quality which is called ‘the city’ ... Despite their problems, these people stay in the cities because once you’ve experienced that density of life, you can’t move back to the country. Actually, most of us live in very ugly cities yet are very happy. A hundred years ago Gandhi said the villages were important – and he was right. But today it is the cities which have become places of hope where people are much freer. The cities are India’s greatest wealth.”
As I’m getting up to leave, he says he met Jaime Lerner, former mayor of Curitiba in Brazil, recently. “He said, ‘Cities aren’t the problem, they’re the solution.’ Isn’t that good?” Yes, I agree, it is.
‘Charles Correa: India’s Greatest Architect’, RIBA, London, to September 4 www.architecture.com