His brilliant career

November 21, 1997

CHARLES CORREA. Charles Correa with an essay by Kenneth Frampton. Thames and Hudson 1pp, Pounds 40.00. ISBN 0 500 09268 0.

One of the less well-known aspects of Prince Charles's famous "carbuncle" speech of 1986 is that it eclipsed the momentous event at which he gave it: the bestowing of the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture for the first time upon a Third World architect. The architect was Charles Correa who, in the West, is easily the best known of the small number of those who have been the pathfinders of modern India architecture. A substantial monograph about Correa was published ten years ago; his book, The New Landscape, followed; the Architectural Association held an exhibition on his work last year and there was simultaneous publication of a fine portfolio. Correa has even built a tower in New York.

This book is the first to document his oeuvre comprehensively, which it does superbly. The large number of clear drawings, essential for a specialist, does not compromise the sumptuous quality of the photographs. With the exception of Kenneth Frampton's opening essay, this is Correa presenting himself. The book's strengths therefore, are those of recording rather than of analysis or criticism. Modern Indian architecture has the tantalising feel of an artistic phenomenon promising to materialise, but not quite doing so. All the ingredients seem to be in place: an astonishingly rich history of architectural invention, a high and fast-growing number of trained architects, an enormous volume of building, exposure to international work, and all the attendant trappings of an architectural culture in books, exhibitions and magazines. At independence,three architectural schools and a couple of hundred practising architects represented the whole of India's fledgling architectural culture. Now there are nearly 100 schools and some 30,000 architects. Of course, this culture touched a barely measurable fraction of total building activity.

Aside from vernacular building, which still constitutes the vast bulk of building production, there still survived in 1947 oral traditions of architecture which have from time to time over the centuries been set down in the form of an ancient treatise - which, as it happens, is a major reference point for Correa. At independence there was a debate as to the appropriate architectural forms for the new nation, a debate generally characterised as one between the "traditionalists" and the "modernists"; "traditionalists" in this context meaning those who believed in the hybrid architectural language of the Raj. The "modernists" prevailed, Le Corbusier and Louis Khan came to India, and a generation of Indian architects came of age uncritically in their shadow. Although there was a steady undercurrent of dissent, not until the 1970s was there widespread agreement that modern architecture as practised in India had been too imitative of western forms. The importance of Correa's contribution is that as early as 1958 - and working within the disciplines of modernism - he offered a glimpse, in his Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya (Memorial Museum) in Ahmedabad, of an authentic Indian architecture. Alongside increasing numbers of other architects, this is a path he has continued to explore energetically.

The book clearly illustrates the various avenues Correa has been pursuing to find the well-rooted alternative to imported architecture: namely, to understand the climate, social structures, the urban condition, the landscape, and later in his career, the historic forms including the mandalas of the ancient treatise.

The history of Indian architecture, in comparison with that of the West, is scantily recorded. It is almost impossible to be sure of the material, social or ritual functions that gave rise to a historic form. Correa's work is least convincing when it is full of references, whether literal (ie representing actual historic forms) or abstract, re-employing geometries set down in ancient treatises. The Jawahar Kala Kendra Arts complex in Jaipur, for example, is initially arresting for its figurative quality but is too much like a stage set to be counted with his best work.

Indian architects can rely, however, on a relatively sound, and evolving knowledge base when engaging with climate and social conditions. Correa's innovations in these areas, combined with his sensitivity to place and formal imagination, produce some of the most satisfying work illustrated in this book. The Kovalam Beach Resort, the many "parasol" buildings, and the Kanchanjunga Apartments in Bombay are all inspiring essays in a new architectural synthesis.

Correa is at his best when he addresses issues from first principles and on a large scale. The bravura simplicity of his arguments recalls those of Le Corbusier, though his solutions are far more sophisticated. As early as 1964 Correa and colleagues, having anticipated the dire future that lay in store for Bombay, were proposing an imaginative new future for the city with new developments across the bay and rapid transit links to make it work better. The concept ranged seamlessly from urban to neighbourhood scale and the level of the dwelling. Unfortunately, though Correa has remained continuously involved in this project, there has not been the political will to get much done.

The short explanations of the projects, as well as his introductory essay,show what a good communicator Correa is, easily combining the plainest of English with poetic eloquence. He is also unafraid to try out new things, as the prolific diversity of the work in this book testifies. Above all, his has been a career of continual exploration. Let us hope this is only the first volume.

Sunand Prasad is an architect practising in London.

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