For the greater good

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For the greater good

Amidst the chaos and cacophony in the middle of the highly congested and busy Dadar, a central suburb in Mumbai, is a serene, airy and verdant space with the striking central skylight decorated by the legendary artist M F Hussain. It’s one of the oldest churches in India, dating back to 1596 — the Salvacao Church, known locally as the Portuguese Church.

In the 1970s, celebrated architect Charles Correa was assigned to redesign it. And it was at this church that the legend was bid a fitting last adieu by everyone who loved nature.
He would have loved it, because Charles Correa, who lived in the highly congested Mumbai, loved space, openness of the sky and free flow of air. And the present Portuguese Church has all this and much more. It’s the picture of calmness and tranquility.

All his life he had strived to give people these basic amenities in space-crunched places like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru, Kerala, Boston, Lisbon, Toronto and many others. Each of his creation was known in the architectural term as ‘hypaetheral’, which means ‘roofless central space’. Every building he designed gave the occupant his or her piece of sky to gaze upon, gave their share of unblocked sunlight and joy of the natural breeze, even in a concrete jungle like Mumbai.

Wherever he got freedom, he created a dream world. Take the case of the luxurious residential building Kanchanjunga that houses 32  condominiums. Located in the posh locality of Mumbai’s Cumballa Hill, Kanchanjunga, built in the early 80s, came in for lot of criticism. But today, with its east-west orientation to catch the sea breeze and offering a view of both the Arabian Sea on one side and the harbour on the other, it is a perfect testimonial of an ideally planned high-rise — a square, 85m-high tower in which interlocking levels allow effective ventilation, while courtyards and interior gardens create a spacious environment.

Social spirit

In one of his rare interviews, the silver-haired architect had said, “Experience architecture not as an object one looks at, but as an energy field one moves through.”

Correa followed this belief throughout his life. His first well-known and award-winning designed place was the low-cost tube-housing of Ahmedabad in the 1960s. Though the place has been dismantled now by the landsharks, it was made to give the residents a spacious place in a small area. The highlight was no doors inside and different floor levels, giving occupants the desired privacy.

That was the highpoint to Correa. He was an excellent manipulator of spaces. He could visualise innumerable spaces within the given space. He was a master of interlocking cubes, and even in the most congested spaces, he created courtyard-like spaces. This is what made his construction come alive with a feeling of abundant freedom. Correa was an ultimate modernist who drew from Indian aesthetics and mythology and never lost the Indian thread and identity in his work.

If one has ever visited the Crafts Museum in New Delhi or the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya constructed in Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, Gujarat, one will understand the intricate designing of the places. The Crafts Museum is arranged in a way that the central pathway goes from village to temple to a palace, the way it used to be in the olden days, and is still prevalent in a majority of our villages. In the Sangrahalaya, Correa has used the same materials that were used in the Ashram when the Mahatma lived there — tiled roofs, brick walls, stone floors and wooden doors. No glass windows are used anywhere in the building. The ambience created there echoes the humbleness of Gandhiji.

He was known as much for his vast output of private and public constructions all over the country and the world as he was for his passionate and outspoken views on the future of cities. It is said that he didn’t suffer fools gladly. For his views and designing, many called him radical.

“Charles Correa was the van Gogh of India. A radical in his time, but a most important reference point for post-Independent Indian architects,” comments Shimul Kadri, a Mumbai-based architect known for her eco-friendly constructions. Kadri, who often interacted with the legendary architect from her student days, like all other architects, feels that if Correa had got the freedom to create his dreams, the façade of Mumbai would have been so different. In fact, the maddening metropolis was summed up by Correa in these words: “Mumbai is a wonderful city, but a terrible place to live in.”

The Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan awardee, in his childhood, was infused with his inclination for architecture from his love for model trains, their toy rails and the changes that he could incorporate in the surroundings of these trains. In the book titled A Place in the Shade: The New Landscape & Other Essays, Correa wrote, “That was the marvelous thing about those old tinplate rails. They had flexibility. Every time one finished playing, back they went into their wooden box — to be reincarnated the next day in a totally new formation.”

Born to prosperous Goan parents from Secunderabad, Telanagana, he graduated from the famous St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai. To study architecture, he headed to the University of Michigan, where the world-famous American architect, author of 30 books and designer Buckminster Fuller was teaching. In 1955, he got a Master’s degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And 50 years later, he designed one of his most accomplished works — the Institute for Brain and Cognitive Science at this institute. Returning to Mumbai, Correa started practising architecture from 1958.

As a role model

In times when urban architecture meant the use of glass facade, Correa was different. Recalls Bengaluru-based architect Meghal Karekar of Karekar & Associates, “Correa, a contemporary of my father, abhorred using glass panes in any building, for he considered them an anathema in a tropical country like ours. My father always used to talk about Correa’s sustainable architecture and how his works will live beyond his life. Even I feel his buildings will never be outdated. He was a guru to most of the present-day architects. Many a time we follow his architectural principles and read his books for reference.’’

The outspoken designer was worried about the future of Indian cities and the “air-conditioned nightmare” of cookie-cutter high-rises blighting the urban landscape. Correa will be remembered for Mumbai’s twin city, Navi Mumbai, one of the largest cities in the world, for which he was appointed the chief architect in the 1970s. Planned as an alternate haven for the multitudes that throng the metropolis from all over the country, it failed in its objectives as the government of the day failed to relocate its seat of governance from South Mumbai. Navi Mumbai was planned to have an urban environment where middle and low-cost housing existed harmoniously, laying down the outlines for future growth.

In the death of Charles Correa, we may have lost a legendary and visionary architect, but the Metropolis of Mumbai lost a dream.

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