Only Connect: An encounter with Charles Correa and the power of the empty centre

CORREAPUNE

(Jun 17th 2015) I was saddened to hear the news of Charles Correa’s death. An international name who declared he was proudly an Indian architect first, I was fortunate to interview him for Radio 3’s Night Waves in May 2013. You can listen to the interview online here. This is the piece I wrote then about meeting him:

I interviewed Charles Correa, India’s Greatest living architect at RIBA yesterday, which is holding a retrospective of his remarkable career till September 4th. He’s just given them his archive of papers and his story is a fascinating one. He trained at the University of Michigan and MIT in the mid 50s as modernism was starting to bloom. And despite some landmark projects in Boston, Lisbon and Lima, he told journalists at the press preview that he regards himself as an Indian, not an international architect.

CORREAPORTRAIT

We discussed the challenge of slums, city corruption, what he called the “slave ships” of 24 hour call centres to service Western financial services, India’s ambivalent attitude to its own architectural heritage, with its disrepair one of its great shames, and the aspirations and impact of the returning non-resident Indians from the West, as well as of the poor. Part of his legacy is his work in the early 1970s in planning the expansion of Bombay (Navi Mumbai) and building affordable low rise housing that incorporated traditional patterns of communal courtyard living.

The range of cultural reference in his thinking and his work is huge: Hindu, Islamic and ancient Greek philosophy in the “empty centre” concept are at the heart of many of his great designs such as the magnificent Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics University in Pune (top), referencing black holes, and the Big Bang theory in patterns laid out in polished black granite and white marble. He smiled as he remembered shocking some Cambridge dons with his observation that the quadrangles of Oxbridge had been inspired by the Islamic courtyards of places like the Alhambra in southern Spain.

In our conversation he compared his architectural choices to the literary ones of a favourite writer — EM Forster — as a professional pursuing excellence, rather than the equivalent of an airport blockbuster career.

CORREAtubehouse

His Tube House from Ahmedabad in 1961 (above) is breathtaking for its simplicity — using pure design not mechanical engineering as so many supposedly “green” buildings do today — to build a natural cooling airflow through the house. Sadly the original has been pulled down and it is sobering to see how many great ideas developed so long ago did not get taken up more widely.

Modest, charming and well worth a listen. We packed in as much as we could of our conversation into Night Waves last night:

Listen again here

This post was originally written in May 2013

All photos courtesy of RIBA/BBC

Further reading

Seoul: India’s Dream City

 

 

 

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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