Though Charles Correa was my father’s cousin, this relationship was not the only reason I admired him. I first met him when I was sixteen; he was already well-known then, but not yet famous, and still years from acquiring the legendary halo that later came to surround him.
The passion and conviction with which he spoke about form and design awakened in my impressionable mind a sensibility towards architecture as a living thing that has remained with me ever since.
In those days he often visited his – and my – alma mater, St Xavier’s College in Mumbai, and mingled with interested groups of students there, giving freely of his time and wisdom.
Though Charles Correa is credited with over a hundred major projects, I mention here only those which I had the pleasure to visit myself.
One of his earliest buildings in Mumbai was the Dadar church; after he’d done with it, nobody had ever seen a church that quite looked like this one!
Not all the reactions were complimentary; many found it looking like a tandoor. Curiously, along with the Kala Akademi which he built in his native Goa, it was the forerunner of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, one of his most acclaimed buildings – or non-building, as he liked to term it.
Unobtrusive, it is meant not to stand out but melt into the hillside. He said he dared not compete with the beauty of the Upper Lake; and a niggling regret of his was that the outdoor stage, which he’d designed to have the lake and the old city as its backdrop, was not used enough for public performances.
If the Sabarmati Ashram showcased his minimalist style – reflecting the essence of Gandhiji – the Cidade de Goa hotel is perhaps the boldest example in India of the use of trompe l’oeil, or visual illusion in architecture.
He pioneered the use of the metal pergola to link buildings and to simultaneously keep them open-to-sky, seen in the Paryavas Bhavan in Bhopal and LIC headquarters in Delhi – a style later imitated by many. For him it epitomized the traditional Indian penchant for semi-open spaces for living and working.
Also in Connaught Place is the iconic British Council building, combining traditional Hindu and Islamic elements so integrally and effortlessly in what is a thoroughly modern building.
There is a story told about how almost eccentrically particular Charles Correa was in getting the specific shade of blue right for the tiles he used on the Madhya Pradesh Vidhan Sabha exterior, a building which earned him the Aga Khan Award.
I recall watching with great puzzlement and wonder the coming up of the Kanchanjunga residential tower in Mumbai during my college days. First the core, which housed the lifts, was built like a tube piercing the sky, and then the rest of the building was constructed around it.
Charles Correa had a distinct signature, and though no two of his buildings are alike, they are all easily recognizable as his work. I remember visiting Mauritius once, and whilst driving into Port Louis remarking that a building looked like “it was a Charles Correa” – indeed it was! The LIC Office! The Permanent Mission of India in New York is a delight to work and live in.
The scintillating constellation of buildings that Charles Correa is credited with tends to make one forget that he was an equally great town-planner who put the poor and economically weaker classes at the centre of his urban planning.
He is the only Indian architect to have been commissioned to design major public buildings in four continents.
A grateful nation honoured him with the Padma Shri and then the Padma Vibhushan, and he was showered with accolades and awards by several countries; the Guardian of Britain called him India’s greatest architect, but at heart he remained a simple man, rooted in the culture of his country, which he strove to express through a non-western yet modern idiom.