A retrospective look at the history of Indian architecture is like a dreamy waltz through the most exquisite, bold and most diverse exhibition of human innovation and style. It is possibly the purest and most informative prism through which to view the many monumental changes that have impacted its fortunes, societies and cultures.
From the implausible size of ancient Tamil Nadu temples, the majesty of Mogul Palaces, to the comically British colonial bungalows, every era of Indian history is defined by something unique in its built environment. This, without even mentioning the Taj Mahal, barely scratches the surface of India's architectural history, but what of modern Indian architecture?
Look no further than Charles Correa, recently hailed as “India's greatest architect” by the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) which is displaying his life's works in London all summer.
Recognised internationally as one of the best architects of his generation, the 82-year-old is the defining figure of post-independence modern Indian architecture. His works, since the 1960s, have been ahead of their time and his ability to bridge traditional Indian materials and design with every component of modernity is unrivalled.
Born in 1930 and raised in Bombay before attending university in the US — where he became heavily influenced by modernist great Le Corbusier — Correa is driven by a philosophical mantra to improve what exists already. “Discovery. This is the essence of architecture and in that sense, invention,” he says in an interview in London.
“Even when we use the same materials, it's in a contemporary voice. That to me is very important. We misuse the past when we imitate it and it becomes kitsch. Modernity belongs to everyone; it's not just a prerogative of one part of the world. We must not demean the past by making a cartoon version of it,” he explains.
Awards — including the Aga Khan Award for Architecture — abound for Correa who has designed some of the most valuable cultural and civic monuments, schools and housing developments in India and overseas. All his designs work within its existing environment, leveraging on and showcasing the natural light, materials, culture and people of the area.
Even to the untrained eye, the buildings are spectacular, such as the multiple-walled Hindustan Lever Pavilion built in 1961, or the brand new Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, a medical research facility in Lisbon, Portugal.
“A place must speak to me. The essential relationship for a building is with the site in which it sits because a building has to speak about that site. It can relate to the soil, the materials and the culture,” he says.
He is keen to go into intricate detail about any number of his buildings, rationalising and describing them in very human terms. The Bharat Bhavan, a multi-arts complex and museum that opened in Bhopal in 1982, for instance, “doesn't intimidate anyone. It's for the whole family, more natural than swanky”, while the low-rise but high-density Belapur Housing project in Navi Mumbai “allows families with varying incomes to live in urban housing while carefully preserving human scale and comfort”.
At a time when the gap between the rich and poor in India widens, architecture will play an even greater role in the next chapter of the country's history. This challenge to meet the needs of a huge population with good quality housing is also one that has been addressed over the years by Correa, who has sought to improve social harmony while challenging the status quo of modern design and technique.
The built works mentioned earlier all form the portfolio of but one man. So is there a new generation of architects trying to emulate his achievements and do for India as Correa has done? The next question to him is clearly something he has given thought to — what do the current and next-generation architects have to be careful of in this epoch of transformation?
“We are feeding the very poor with images of urban might such as skyscrapers, but it is something they will never have. The central problem in development is how do you decide for other people? The issues should be articulated, but decisions are a conflict of aspirations,” he replies.
The needs of the working class are being ignored in the face of building for the wealthy and without incorporating coexistence as the fundamental component of a designer's ethos, there is the risk of patronising people. He adds: “You have to respect their aspirations; they are a mirror of yours.”
These are the challenges that India attempts to reconcile with the growth of the middle class and the rapid increase in the nation's Gross National Product. There are a number of established and important voices that have taken on the mantle of Correa. It is symptomatic of the scope of his achievements that will need to be carried by a number of protagonists to adequately pursue his vision of incorporating social harmony into modernist architectural design.
Figures such as Professor Darshini Mahadevia from the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology and the Aga Khan Award for Architecture-winning Himanshu Parikh are both leading proponents in the quest for increasing a modern, inclusive and sustainable vision into architectural planning and design.
Rahul Mehrotra, a fellow Mumbai native, is another following in Correa's footsteps. He is the founder of RMA Associates, a Mumbai and Boston-based architecture practice, and is the chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University in the US. Mehrotra has said that India's growth and the impact of globalisation are “projected to make India appear more efficient and competent”. This representation makes Indian architecture look similar to the manifestations of globalisation elsewhere in the world.
By trying to replicate a perceived global style of architecture in airports or at centres of the information technology industry, “these buildings are divorced from their community…this is quite deadly and something that needs to be really challenged,” he continues. This is an image that is perpetuated by the government and media to the rest of the world.
However, in a much more optimistic fashion, Mehrotra has said that regional architectural practices are adhering to modernism while simultaneously respecting local building traditions — the essence of how Correa works. In a sense, competing with the architectural practices dominated by corporations, at the regional level, architects, designers and planners are “producing alternative modernities within the overarching narrative of globalisation,” he elaborates.
As a city, Ahmedabad in Gujarat State is a fantastic example of regional vibrancy. Both the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology and the National Institute of Design are leading the way in response to the critical urban design, planning and architectural issues of today (see side bar for the Ahmedabad Connection).
So while some outside of India and outside of the architectural profession may be fed a certain image of India — the slums and the new skyscrapers — there is another side to the story, a story that Charles Correa was the pioneer of and one that has a bright future.
Like many figures lauded for their art, an aspect of Correa's professionalism is his modesty and reticence to commit to brash statements. When asked about his own legacy in India, he replies, saying: “No one could have a lasting influence — it is too big!'
The Ahmedabad Connection
Home of the Gandhi Museum — Charles Correa's first major piece of work — the Centre for Environmental Planning and Technology (CEPT) and the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad in Gujarat State is today acknowledged as a hotbed for Indian architecture. Here are three of its leading lights
MA in Urban Design from Ahmedabad School of Architecture, founder of RMA Associates and Chair of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard University
On Charles Correa: “He crafted and articulated a rich narrative that inspired an entire generation of architects to embrace modernism on Indian terms.”
Dean of Faculty Planning at CEPT and founder of the Centre for Urban Equity
“Cities have become, more than anything else, real estate projects and you have to get out of that mindset and understand that cities are habitats for the people.”
Former CEPT professor and winner of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for Slum Networking of Indore City, 1998
“Slum Networking is a community-driven approach which sees slums not as resource-draining liabilities, but as opportunities of sustainable change for the city as a whole.”