Mumbai is a tough city to love. What with all its ugly sprawl, incessant construction, and smoke choked skies it is hard to find beauty that goes beyond its hackneyed Bollywood glamorization. Yet, despite these abhorrent flaws Mumbai remained the perennial muse of one India’s most renowned architect and urbanist Charles Correa. Correa was certainly qualified enough to settle down anywhere in the world after graduating from prestigious institutions like St. Xaviers College in Mumbai, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but chose to return to Mumbai, or Bombay as he would have known it, to set up his own practice in 1958. Ever since Correa has indulged in a love-hate relationship with the city, dubbing it as both “a great city and a terrible place.” But instead of grumbling about it, Correa devoted his vast expertise to improve the ground level urban conditions of the city. Therefore, despite the unrelenting pace of the city, Mumbai paused on June 16 to mourn the sudden loss of Charles Correa. Correa’s death came to me in the form of a casual blip on my Facebook newsfeed, a nonchalant series of sentences that truncated his entire life and death into a trending topic. But the oeuvre of Charles Correa is anything but temporary; his work spans from iconic memorials like the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad, to low income housing projects in Peru, and academic buildings like the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. The common thread knitting these diverse projects together is Correa’s trademark clarity in design that is born from a deep connection to the site. In an interview for NDTV’s The Unstoppable Indians in 2008 Correa explained that “architecture is rooted in the place in which it stands” and responds to both human and natural agents like climate, culture and lifestyle, making an intimate understanding of the site crucial to Correa’s design philosophy. Correa’s famous Kanchanjunga Apartments in Mumbai exemplify the architect’s commitment to tailor make each project to thrive in its environs. Kanchanjuga is a unique high-rise in a sea of soulless glass towers that form the Mumbai skyline. It’s a building I grew up next to, completely enthralled by its odd Jenga tower-esque form, but despite all my juvenile interpretations the building is a true success in marrying the modern skyscraper with the old world charm of Indian bungalows. The building is situated on a small hill and the elevated location allows each apartment to break free from the overbearing lattice of the city, moreover Kanchanjunga is deliberately turned at an angle that protects each apartment from the harsh Indian sun while still allowing enough light to percolate through every room. Correa’s trademark ‘spaces open to the skies’ manifest themselves as enormous two-storey high balconies in each apartment that capitalize the building’s proximity to the sea and the much needed cool sea breeze that ventilates the apartments. The high-ceiling balconies are reminiscent of the verandahs found in traditional Indian homes, creating a large space for congregation in a city apartment bereft of the usual claustrophobia. Where Correa could have easily constructed another glass building, perfectly temperature controlled by the various engineers, he exercised his imagination, innovated, and designed functional homes that continue to exist symbiotically with their surroundings. In an age where Ayn Rand popularized the notion of the arrogant, excessively intellectual and ‘misunderstood’ genius architect, Charles Correa endured as a rejection of these stereotypes. Correa’s restrained eloquence and refreshing humility shine through every interview the late architect gave, and also reflect the genuine vision of modernity Correa had for the country. His designs were never tacky facsimiles of Western modernity, nor exaggerated Indian motifs from antiquity, they were rooted into and motivated by the India he wished to design. Correa’s extensive plans for planning Navi Mumbai and the mid to low income houses there, unfortunately most of which remain un-built, remain a testimony of how the architect was in constant pursuit of bettering India. Now, Correa’s legacy lives on in the form of the Urban Design Institute in Mumbai and the myriad of his memorable projects all across the world.
When I return to Mumbai I will inevitably gaze into its skyline. And amongst the sights of all the monstrous towers mushrooming and the cynical thoughts of the city’s unsustainable growth I will finally find the Kanchanjunga and smile- in a forest full of glass buildings Correa’s innovative design still triumphs. Young aspiring architects like myself can turn to Correa’s projects, his living legacy, for inspiration and carry on where the beloved Charles Correa left off. Yet, it is undeniable, the city and the world are forever worse without him.
-Guest Post by Gauri Bahuguna