Charles Correa Now: What happens after architects leave?
December 14, 2021
I have always been curious about what happens after architects leave. For users, the journey of their relationship with the buildings starts after the architects have left. Just like a living being, the building is born, lives its life, transforms, witnesses many events and eventually dies. They undergo changes that the architect may or may not have thought about while designing them.
The curiosity to understand and visualise stories about how these buildings are transformed led me to photograph the work of one of India’s greatest architects, Charles Correa. While he is undoubtedly the most famous architect from the Indian subcontinent, significantly less work has been done on how his buildings have aged and/or transformed over the years.
For this story (an abstract of a full project; see author’s note), I have developed a series of experiential photo essays on selected Correa buildings and the life around them in contemporary times. Done in a documentary-style visual narrative, I tried to portray them in a raw and honest manner—different from the typical air-brushed architecture photos we see today. Moreover, I tried to photograph what was inside those buildings, rather than just photographing the elevations. I tried to observe, understand and reflect on how his architecture has served people and how those structures have transformed. I tried to observe, understand and reflect on how his architecture has served people and how those structures have transformed. The process involved visually and qualitatively excavating for traces, objects, motifs, testimonies and anecdotes around the lives of these prominent buildings.
Most of his buildings have had a lasting impact on the lives of many long-term occupants. In Bhopal Vidhan Bhavan (the state parliament building), many people I talked to, including security guards, parliament marshals and engineers, still remember their interactions with Correa during the construction process. His answers had an enduring impression on them.
Kanchanjunga Apartments has been a landmark in Mumbai’s skyline for many years, even till today. Built in 1983, the housing complex was a symbol of the posh upper-class housing in the city while keeping to tradition. Correa’s response to Mumbai, a city with a hot and humid climate virtually around the year, was inspired by the traditional bungalows and the way they dealt with climate. In his own words, “The principle of the traditional bungalow is extremely simple and effective. The main living spaces are surrounded by a ring of verandas, which can provide an extra layer of protection against the sun and the rain. The idea is to make this veranda into a double-height terrace garden where we can use the rain and the sun for the plants to grow.”
Kanchanjunga now stands in front of Antilia—the “most outrageously expensive property in the world”, according to Forbes in 2019—the private residence of Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani. Over time, residents and tenants of Kanchanjunga chose to change the layout of the apartments according to their wishes, after taking permission from the owners. Some of them removed the wall of the kitchen to make the room larger; others added new furniture to suit their styles and needs; and most residents chose to install higher railings in the apartments’ open staggered spaces.
VIDHAN BHAVAN, BHOPAL
Vidhan Bhavan is a state assembly building situated on a hilltop of Arera Hills. It is a massive building covering more than 32,000 square metres of built-up area with programme comprising mainly four parts: the Vidhan Sabha or Lower House; the Vidhan Parishad or Upper House; the Combined Hall; and the Library. The plan is made up of a series of courtyards and gardens—a “complex interlock of pathways, built form and open-to-sky spaces”. It is a widely acclaimed work and was the recipient of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1998.
The local red stone, reflective of the building traditions of Madhya Pradesh, has been replaced with granite in some areas, especially in the administrative courtyard. It was done because of high maintenance, as someone in the building told me that often, workers dropped tea on the rough and absorbent sandstone, leaving behind marks that were hard to remove. Hence, finished granite was used. Tea is almost synonymous with administration and bureaucracy in India.
Bharat Bhavan is a cultural centre situated in Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh. It remains one of Correa’s most important works. It translates his inquisitive conceptualisation of a truly Indian architecture—inspired by the caves of Ajanta, not by the Pantheon—into a physical manifestation. The often-used term by him “non-building” comes from the design of Bharat Bhavan and its ‘non-existent’ elevation, making it invisible from the access road.
The life of the building depends very much also on the people who use them and believe in the idea that the architect had conceived. “It takes a lot of effort to keep these stone walls exposed, saving them from being plastered over by the bureaucrats,” said Devilal Patidar, who is the deputy director of the graphics and ceramic department at Bharat Bhavan, indicating the careless attitude of bureaucrats towards the aesthetics and design of government buildings and their maintenance. I asked him if he liked the building. Similar to what many others have said, he appreciated the openness of the building. “We all came from rural villages and didn’t like closed spaces. If there is any work in a room or a hall, then I will stay there all day, but if there is no work there, then I won’t stay there even for two minutes.”
Another feature he loved about the building was that it “was not over one’s head, but rather under one’s feet.” He explained, “The plan and design of this building are done according to the site, so it does not overpower you. It’s not on your head all the time. If you go to other monumental buildings, those buildings dominate you; it’s in a way a character of authority, similar to how kings and landlords make huge main gates in their palaces to show their power. Architecture should break that. Democracy should also come in the design.”
Author’s note: The full project “Charles Correa Now” is supported by the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and Aga Khan Documentation at MIT ([email protected]). Thanks to the Charles Correa Foundation (CCF) for their help with permission.
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Nipun Prabhakar is an independent documentary photographer and architect based in India. He works on long-term projects dealing with intersections of ideas, artifacts, the built environment and folklore. His background as an architect has deeply impacted his sense of space in situations that call for a contextual response to culture and geography. His work has been supported by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, AKDC at MIT, among others. He is a recipient of the Berkeley Essay Prize 2014 and was Cornell University’s South Asian Fellow 2019-20.
1 Correa, Charles. “Transfers and Transformations.” In Charles Correa, 165-175. Singapore: Concept Media Ltd., 1987
2 Form Follows Climate | Charles Correa | Pidgeon Digital. https://www.pidgeondigital.com/talks/form-follows-climate/. Accessed 22 Oct. 2021.
3 “Supreme Court of India Parmanand Patel (D) Th. Lrs. & Anr vs Sudha A.Chowgule & Ors on 6 March, 2009.” Indiankanoon, https://indiankanoon.org/doc/1034974/. Accessed 23 Oct. 2021.
4 Frampton, Kenneth, et al., editors. Charles Correa. Thames & Hudson, 1996.
5 indiankanoon.org. “Puri Construction Pvt. Ltd. vs State of … – Indiankanoon.org.” indiankanoon.org. Accessed October 7, 2021. https://indiankanoon.org/doc/44961/.
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