Charles Correa’s ‘architecture of relevance’ & the urban blueprint

Charles Correa’s ‘architecture of relevance’ & the urban blueprint

By VINEET GILL | | 27 June, 2015
The Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal. | Photo: Carlos Luis M C da Cruz
Following the death of Charles Correa at age 84 earlier this month, Vineet Gill writes a paean to our country’s foremost architectural visionary, detailing the importance of art and relevance and his progressive approach to architecture.

The 15th century artist Albrecht Dürer stamped every woodcut illustration of his with a characteristic "AD", and the Russian musician Shostakovich used in his pieces a musical motif that corresponded exactly to the initials of his name. Imagine if architects were allowed to leave their signature on their creations in this manner. It would be considered a scandalous breach, a waste of available space, a subversion of the very fundamentals of good design. But at least it would be a suitable reminder for us that a building is nothing if not a work of art (trashy or sublime, we can argue all day), and that an architect is most of all — more than an engineering genius or a design guru — an artist.

Charles Correa, our foremost architectural visionary, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 84, brought an informed and highly mature aesthetic sensibility to bear on his craft. He is considered among the greatest of modern architects the world over. Yet most of us are scarcely aware of the extent of his contribution in the making of our cities. The structures he helped create — like the LIC Building in Delhi's Connaught Place or the Kanchanjunga Apartments in Mumbai — have become defining icons of the places they inhabit; they seem to fill up the hollow spots in a city's character map, they seem to complete a city.

The city, both as an entity and an idea, was important to Correa. He had studied this urban phenomenon — the phenomenon of widespread urbanisation — very closely. It was a sort of poetic insight when in one of his essays Correa identified Bombay at once as a "great city" and a "terrible place", with the word "great" signifying more than the scale. But Correa, writing in 1989, was not proffering his personal opinion on urban decay so much as formulating a theory of urban life.

It begins with a somewhat morbid metaphor. Correa asks what happens "if you drop a frog into a saucepan of very hot water?" The frog here is the doomed denizen of Bombay, cast inside this boiling, urban stew, and facing the prospect of an impending heat death. However, Correa goes on, the water — symbolising the rate of urban decay — is not very hot, but tepid instead, allowing the poor little frog to "swim around happily, adjusting to the increasingly dangerous conditions...[until] just before the end...a state of euphoria sets in (as in hot-tub baths)".

This is indeed an excellent theory of modernism, an insight that shows us how the modern spirit (its euphoria) can be a manifestation of an urban death twitch; a theory that is equally application to the Bombay of the '70s as to the Berlin of the '20s. The critic's job usually ends here. But for Correa, this is only a beginning, a theoretical point of departure for an architect seeking to retain the greatness of a city while trying to help diminish most of its terrible aspects.

Architecture, Correa once wrote, "belongs at the intersection of culture, technology and human aspiration". This definition, in my opinion, is an improvement upon Le Corbusier's claim that a "house is a machine for living". A machine suggests an impersonal space, the bare aesthetics of geometry — of spheres and cubes and acute angles. The writer JG Ballard was fond of this "clearer-headed" approach to post-war architecture. "The Gothic," Ballard wrote, "expressed our guilt, pointing to a heaven we could never reach. The Baroque was a defensive fantasy, architecture as aristocratic playpen...So modernism was a breath of fresh air and possibility."

But the modernists were notorious for their disregard for, and dislike of, the average citizen; they were anything but champions of the people. And such a state of affairs, to say the least, is not ideal for good architecture. Correa understood this, devoting his professional life to the cause of what he called the "architecture of relevance". He was in fact greatly inspired by Le Corbusier's Chandigarh. "Throughout his life," Correa wrote, "Corb has sought to create an architecture of passion. His buildings — both in concept and visual language, have always been presented at a certain decibel level. No sotto-voce, no politeness, but like Wagnerthunder in the concert hall."

With his phrase “architecture of relevance”, Correa was drawing attention to the context as well as the functions of building. His point was that good architecture is always contextually and functionally relevant.  

Still, Correa was aware of Le Corbusier's failures, seeing his "idiosyncrasies and mistakes" as part of his character. The buildings in a city had to correspond with its history, with its mythic symbols, and Chandigarh — built from scratch as an administrative town — was, as Correa saw it, a place born without an umbilical cord.

With his phrase "architecture of relevance", Correa was drawing attention to the context as well as the functions of building. His point was that good architecture is always contextually and functionally relevant. So when building styles are transposed from one culture to another, or from the past to the present, architecture becomes little more than a cheap conjuring trick and has zero contemporary value.

Look at the multiplying eyesores in Delhi, for instance. Here, we have those sprawling, squat shopping malls — built in the American style, complete with glass facades and a flat roof — sitting in the middle of the city and surrounded by apartment blocks and office complexes. (Which itself is so unlike American malls that are usually situated at the very outskirts of urban settlement.) Look at our buildings, fusing the worst of modern architecture and Brutalism. Our box-shaped apartments are designed with scant regard to the movements of the sun or the wind. In my own flat, the balconies all provide the view of other balconies in other buildings, and the only window with a remotely scenic view is my TV screen.

Open spaces, according to Correa, are the sine qua non of modern Indian architecture. Balconies, verandas, terraces and courtyards are elements that a building here can't do without, for cultural as well as ergonomic reasons. In an article entitled The Blessings of the Sky, Correa wrote: "Open-to-sky space is also of vital importance in housing where it can make a decisive difference between liveable habitat and claustrophobia — particularly so for the lowest income groups."

He would have resented the idea of "gated colonies" — another American import — that has so caught on with our economic elite. And its flip side: the ghettoisation of the urban poor. Correa, who worked on a number of housing projects meant for the underprivileged, had always envisioned a vibrant city as a representation of the whole cross section of society, a model of multiplicity and inclusiveness.

Correa doubtless was one of the last great proponents of architecture as high art, believing as he did that great buildings evoke in us an "awareness of the nonmanifest", of the "invisibilia that lie beneath". Just go through the images of the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal — Correa's undisputed masterpiece — and you'll see how the structure itself highlights the "invisibilia" that surrounds it. It has everything that Correa cherished in built form: courtyards, open-to-sky spaces, reflective surfaces and space-age visual metaphors a la "Corb". The only thing missing from this work of art is the artist's signature. May be it can do with a "CC" etched somewhere along the bottom right.

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