A Memorable Talk with Charles Correa

In 2008 when the late master architect Charles Correa had visited Chandigarh, architect Rajnish Wattas had the rare opportunity to converse with him. The Master’s thoughts are cherished as much today as they were then. An extract from the interview follows-.

For the generation of architects born in the ‘50s – as students – one heard of Charles Correa, Balkrishna Doshi and the late A P Kanvinde as the stuff legends are made of. One aspired to see their buildings; and perchance meet them, as ‘guru darshan’. Even though busy in work; they were known to be very generous in their time (still are) to students and met them in their studios, lectured them, wrote on issues or passionately showed their projects to visiting groups.

In short, in spite of their work, they were equally committed to the task of shaping the nascent post-Independence Indian architecture with their work, mentoring, providing professional leadership and firing inspirations.

Charles Correa is a very tall icon of Indian architecture, with his signature top towering stature. His presence inspires the young architects-in-making and the entire architectural fraternity of the nation. The fascination of Correa’s work is his incisive Naipaul-like understanding of the core issues of a project and then with his Rushdie-like imagination re-interpret, create a brave new world, at once, growing from the issues of the site, its heritage, and cultural context.

Rajnish Wattas: How does it feel to visit Chandigarh after nearly 10 years? And what are the changes that impact you the most?

Charles Correa: It is always marvellous to be back in Chandigarh — a city which has been of such importance to all of us, especially in our formative years. What change impacts one most? I would say the lack of any change. In fact, you people seem to have lash frozen Chandigarh. It’s a kind of time warp — quite the opposite of what Corbusier believed architecture was about! Didn’t he say, “Truth is a river, which is always changing…lowing sometimes here and sometimes there?” As you know, there is an old saying: “If we repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” But I sometimes think that in art, the exact opposite holds good: “If you repeat the truth often enough, it becomes a lie.” Because in art, truth is dynamic – like Corbusier’s river.

RW: Chandigarh is in a state of transition– from a sleepy administrative town to a city of more than 1.2 million population; with the highest per capita income and highest per person vehicular ratio – where do you see it heading?

CC: I think the Tri-City area is going to be very successful. Over the next two decades, it may well emerge, along with Delhi, as the best urban conglomeration of North India. It as got everything going for it – a clean environment, energetic people and an attractive lifestyle.

RW: And to top it, you have Panchkula, Mohali and many other urban developments on its periphery – so how can it cope with such pressures?

CC: You have to take a holistic view and try to deal with all of them as one urban system. There is no way you can plan for Chandigarh in isolation.

RW: Do you think Corbusier’s master plan and architectural vision can be held on to under such pressures? What would you advice particularly for the city’s transport chaos?

CC: Trains and buses are the linear systems by definition. To run them efficiently, you need a corridor of demand – like the one in Mumbai, which runs from the southern end of the island out to the northern suburbs. That’s what makes the Mumbai’s buses and trains so efficient. Chandigarh, on the other hand, is a grid of sectors. So it is almost impossible to run an efficient public transport system. To make buses work in this city, you must first identify a corridor of demand, and then service it, in the belief that in a fast-growing city, demand will follow supply, and so more and more people will start living along this route so that it gradually becomes economical to run. Otherwise, you are going to end up in an ever-increasing number of cars and traffic jams.

RW: There is also a big change visible in the new architecture of ‘glass box’ for the commercial buildings and the appearance of eclectic Swiss Chalets and French Chateaux, vibrant new colours, replacing the austere brick and concrete façade. Your comments?

CC: Well I guess people are fed up of all that brick and concrete – it’s like wearing a hair shirt. Instead of just blindly sticking to the old rules, we should find ways to extend the vocabulary people are allowed to use. You don’t want to ruin the place – but you do need to respond to their legitimate aspirations. This would, of course, call for some creativity and inventiveness from the government planners and architects. And it’s so much easier to just stick to the old rules.

RW: There is a huge wave of steel and glass box architecture being replicated in all IT parks, shopping malls, even in small cities of the country. Are we in danger of losing our cultural identity?

CC: Churchill once said, “We build our buildings and then our buildings build us.” That’s a sobering thought, isn’t it?

RW: How are energy-efficient and ‘green buildings’ actually functioning on ground? Can we sustain new architecture, expensive technology and materials?

CC: Energy-efficient buildings are very important. And the best ones are found in traditional architecture where the shape of the building itself has to deal with the climate. Unfortunately, the mechanical engineers changed all that. So today, we can fool around and design in an arbitrary and wilful manner and the engineers find a way of making it all work.

RW: Where do you see contemporary Indian architecture heading?

CC: There are many different ways of being an architect. And all of them are useful to the society. Of course, some architects do a great deal of commercial work, and that’s what the market needs. But there are also lot of Indian architects who are engaged in doing real architecture. I am really impressed with the work of some of the young architects I have seen.

Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, Lisbon, Portugal

RW: In the recent past, with the big builders taking control of the market, there has been a great erosion of architect’s esteem in leading the building industry. Who is to blame for this?

CC: I think we architects ourselves are to blame. No one forces us to undertake a commission.

RW: There has also been a major influx of foreign architects and urban planners active in the Indian scene. Do you see it as a good happening or bad for the Indian architecture?

CC: I think it will probably be good for Indian architects. Some of these foreign architects will raise the general standards, both with regard to design, as well as in terms of project management and construction technology. So we’ll learn in the process, and of course, there’s nothing like competition for keeping you on your toes!

RW: Do you think it’s high time that besides the metropolitan cities, the two tier Indian cities like Bhubaneswar, Indore, Pune or others also should have Urban Arts Commission? And would it achieve any tangible results?

CC: I think all our major cities should have an Urban Arts Commission. There are so many different agencies taking decisions, you must have a body to take a holistic overview. Of course to be effective, this commission should have the full backing of the government, and must be free of interference from politicians and bureaucrats. Unfortunately, right now our cities, especially the larger ones, are being used to enrich political parties. This is how our political system is financed – by urban real estate. And our cities are getting ruined in the process. It’s a national tragedy of the highest order.

RW: Do you see the architects’ presence in the rural/small town India?

CC: We architects should stick to cities and towns. Rural India has many problems, but not knowing how to build is certainly not one of them. We architects have already ruined our cities – why do you want to start ruining our villages as well?

RW: You are considered one of the icons of Indian architecture and a symbol of reinterpretation of the Indian ethos in the language of modern architecture. Do you notice a disconnect now with the younger generation, which perhaps is dazzled more by flashy stuff?

CC: Doshi, Raje and I were at the Rajkot School of Architecture. I did not perceive any ‘disconnect’ with the younger generation there. But, perhaps Gujarat is different from Punjab…

RW: You have had a very long distinguished career with projects ranging from Gandhi Ashram to Navi Mumbai, tourism resorts, churches, parliament houses, Institute for Astro Physics – which has been your most satisfying project?

CC: I do not think one can signal out any particular project as being the most satisfying. Apart from the ones you have mentioned, I might add the Kanchanjunga Apartments in Mumbai, the Jawahar Kala Kendra in Jaipur, the 1961 Hindustan Lever Pavilion in Delhi, the Brain Research Centre at MIT, and a couple of others. Right now we are working on a building in Lisbon which seems very promising.

RW: How do you describe the ‘good, bad and the ugly’ of architecture?

CC: As my friend Pravina used to say, ‘Every architect.

RW: Who has been your personal inspiration in the growing up/formative years?

CC: Both at Michigan and at MIT, Buckminister Fuller was a professor of mine. I learned a lot from him. As I did learn from Gyory Kepes, who ran a wonderful seminar class on painting, music and the other arts – and the relationship to our architecture.

RW: Are you impressed by any particular second generation architect or architects on the contemporary scene?

CC: Yes, as I mentioned earlier, there are several young architects around who are doing excellent work. Also in my office, there are some young graduates who I think are going to be quite outstanding. It all depends on their ability to grow and learn from whatever work they are doing.

RW: Currently you visited many schools of architecture in India and abroad. Any particular advice for the schools of architecture in India?

CC: As I have often said, you cannot teach architecture, but you can learn it. It is like creative writing. Sitting in a café might be the best preparation for your next novel. You never know at what moment this will happen. The schools of architecture should be exciting environments that create many such moments so their students feel really stimulated. That’s when they’ll start teaching themselves.

RW: The Council of Architecture has lately become a point of much controversy and conflicts with the government of India. What’s your advice to resolve such a stand off?

CC: I think we should have a board of design education, representing schools of architecture, product design, interiors, etc. The members of this board could have about 25 members, of which at least 20 are elected from the schools; the remaining five would represent the profession (both those in private practice as well as those in the government service). Though this board could be attached to either the Council of Architecture or the AITCE, it would be quite autonomous, and its decisions would be inviolable. This way, the issues of architectural education would be addressed by the schools themselves. This is the best way to get better education.

RW: Are you actively pursuing some new projects or is there a slow down?

CC: I am not undertaking any new projects. I am just trying to complete the ones already in hand. These include a large new Design Centre for Mahendra’s in Chennai, a Jamatkhana for the Aga Khan in Toronto, and the Champalimaud Centre in Lisbon. As you know, a building takes a long time, so it will be about two years before all of them get completed.

RW: What’s a day in the life of Charles Correa?

CC: Hectic. Our office starts at about 10 in the morning and we work right up to 7 or 8 in the night. But I love designing – so it isn’t really work, it’s just something you enjoy.

 RW: You have a wide range of interests — writing, photography, music — tell us about some of your indulgences other than these?

CC: That’s a very big question. I like films very much. I find film-making is very close to architecture. That’s why so many of the greatest filmmakers, like Antonioni for instance, first studied architecture. Both disciplines require a perceptive eye and the ability to analyse what you see.

 RW: Your advice to the young architects.

CC: As I mentioned before, I would like them to always get nourishment from whatever work they are doing. This is the only way you can grow. If you are a very talented designer, you can design a project quickly, and off the top of your head. This is the surest way to kill your own talent. This is why so many prolific young architects dry up after a few years – while others continue to grow. And don’t ever give up. If you build what you truly feel is right, someone will see it and commission you to do something new. That’s what’s so wonderful about architecture.

Rajnish Wattas is the Former principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture.