Architect Charles Mark Correa


Architect, India
In 1958 Charles Mark Correa was awarded two commissions that would showcase his
approach to architecture: the Pavilion for the All India Handloom Board in New Delhi
(1958) and the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, a museum and archive at Mahatma
Gandhi’s ashram on the banks of the Sabarmati River in Ahmedabad (1963). Designed
and built in six months, the temporary Handloom Pavilion consisted of a series of stepped
earth-filled platforms contained within a square enclosure of sun-dried bricks and shaded
by freestanding wood and handloom-fabric parasols. The exhibition unfolded as the visitors
in the first sequence ascended the platforms and then, in the second sequence,
descended in a spiral manner. The subtle interplay of enclosed and semienclosed spaces
brought about by a shifting axis, later to become a leitmotif of Correa’s work, also
formed the central device in the Gandhi Sangrahalaya.
The existing buildings in Gandhi’s ashram were whitewashed one-story masonry
structures with tiled roofs, some of which had a linear arrangement, while others, such as
Gandhi’s own residence, were wrapped around a small courtyard. Correa’s addition
addressed this typology in an assemblage of pavilions arranged around a central water
court, only four of which, containing archival material, were enclosed. The tiled-roof
structures were supported on a modular system of masonry columns and reinforcedconcrete
beams that also served as rainwater conduits. The result was a serene
atmosphere: alternating open and covered spaces, the dapple of light and shade, a few
carefully chosen trees in the courtyards, the reflection of the water, and the breeze from
the river. The profoundly antimonumental gesture of the Gandhi Sangrahalaya, in fact,
monumentalized the “village” idea central to Gandhi’s philosophy. It augmented a
decisive departure in 20th-century architecture from accepted canons of monumentality
and the memorialization of national heroes. These two early projects also challenged the
heroic modernism then unfolding in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad in the works of Le
Corbusier.
In over 140 projects that have followed, Correa has used a minimal set of
formal devices—the stepped platform reminiscent of wells and river ghats,
the open-to-sky space in the form of terraces and courts, the freestanding
parasol roof, the split-level space to minimize full-height walls, the
shifting axis of pedestrian movement, the square module, and the framed
view—to create a complex spatial repertoire. Although the importance of
open-to-sky space takes the form of generous terrace gardens and courts
sculpted from the sloping site and enhanced by judicious framing of the
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lake view at Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal (1981), the same principle is used to
carve out double-height garden terraces and provide an environmental
buffer of verandas and service spaces in the high-rise Kanchenjungha
Apartments in Bombay (1983). In both cases it is the subtle manipulation
of the building section belying the apparently simple plan arrangements
that enabled him to attenuate the microclimate and at the same time make
sculptural statements. In the Permanent Mission of India to the United
Nations in New York City (1992) and the Alameda Park Project in Mexico
City (1994–), these spatial voids/framed views became giant “urban
windows”—his signature—that address the urban scale while offering the outsider a hint of the layered spaces inside. His formal principles apply as well for a
luxury condominium as they do for low-cost housing. As he noted in a postcolonial
manifesto—The New Landscape (1985)—both rich and poor, grand monuments and vernacular buildings,
share the same landscape.
His writings presented alternate possibilities for building practice and urban planning.
In an unusual move for an architect, he argued that the solution to the problem of socalled
Third World housing resided not in more innovative technology or new materials
or even better architectural design, but in socio-spatial equity and a great deal of common
sense. He himself, however, designed several low-cost housing schemes (e.g., Belapur,
1986) in response to what he labeled the “belligerently anti-visual” approach to low-cost
housing among architects. His “housing bill of rights” included concepts such as
incrementality, pluralism, identity, income generation, disaggregation, and the “equity
plot”—in urban areas each family should be allotted a plot between 50 and 75 square
meters. Many of his ideas seemed to ignore the complexity of urban problems, and yet he
was fully cognizant of the deep sociopolitical implication of his suggestions. In urging an
integral look at the landscape that would overcome barriers between different institutions
and experts, Correa was essentially questioning the fundamentals of eco nomic and
physical planning theory and the design process that had failed to answer housing needs
around the world—whether in India, the United States, or the former Soviet Union. Many
of his concepts have been successfully used at an architectural scale, but implementation
at an urban level remains unfulfilled. His writing displays a rare clairvoyance and
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profound belief in the possibilities of a socialist democracy and the “third option”—the
term “Third World,” he reminded his readers, was coined not to facilitate an ordinal
ranking of nations but to generate the possibility of an alternative, “one different from
Joseph Stalin’s USSR and John Foster Dulles’ USA.”
Since the 1970s, like many architects around the world, Correa has included more
features of popular culture, color, and allusion to enrich his primary architectural
vocabulary, which had already been formulated by the first decade of his practice. The
brilliant color scheme of the tourist resort of Cidade de Goa in Dona Paula (1982) that
exceeded the modernist primary palette was accentuated with trompe l’oeil to create a
“city” that was part imagined, part illusory, and part real. He has successfully used
paintings and sculptures (often in collaboration with well-known artists) to enhance the
spatial architectonics (for example, in the Kala Academy in Panaji, Goa, 1984; the British
Council in New Delhi, 1992; and the Inter-University Center of Astronomy and
Astrophysics in Pune, 1992), and in doing so has been instrumental in resituating painting
as a legitimate accompaniment to contemporary architecture. This interest in popular
sources has also been increasingly accompanied by a vocabulary that attempts to root his
architecture not just in the vernacular but in what he calls the mythic values of Indian
tradition. Not surprisingly, some of this early experimentation in vocabulary (the kudil,
“individual suite”; otla, “raised platform”; and chattai, “rush mats”) took place in resort hotels that
paid homage to ethnic chic and government patronage of India’s craft tradition. The now
ubiquitous kunds (rectangular pools) and mandalas (cosmic diagrams) appearing in Correa’s
recent projects were most flamboyantly used in the Jawahar Kala Kendra Museum in
Jaipur (1992) with its nine-square mandala plan, stone inlaid symbols of planets, and
brilliantly painted, overscaled murals. When read against the architect’s explanatory
texts, they indicate a complex negotiation between the ascribed position of a Third World
architect, who is expected to express his regional identity (as opposed to a “Western”
architect, who is not), and the desire to supersede such binding propositions.
By aligning the aesthetic inspiration from a local tradition with a universal language of
science and metaphysics, he attempts to reverse the route and the terms through which
universal principles were supposed to enter the world of modern architecture. In a
practice that has spanned four continents and a vast range of government institutions,
corporate offices, museums, hotels, and residential designs, Correa has employed an
architectural syntax that fluidly travels between contexts and serves as one of the most
convincing critiques of the principles of a universalized modernism and its Euro-
American bias.
Apart from his own ruminations on architecture, there are three monographs on Correa
and scores of articles that comment on individual projects, a complete list of which is
available in the 1996 monograph.

Inter-University Center for Astronomy
and Astrophysics, Pune, view of
courtyard facade (1992) Photo by
Charles Correa

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