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Correa: ‘We must create cities where the poor are not dehumanised’

Charles Correa on cities, slums and architectural emotions. AJ deputy editor Rory Olcayto reports as retrospective opens at RIBA

Last week an exhibition celebrating the work of Indian architect Charles Correa opened at the Royal Institute of British Architects. The wide-ranging show covers Correa’s most significant buildings, including the Mahatma Gandhi Memorial Museum, numerous Indian housing projects and his most recent completion, the Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon. It coincides with Correa’s gifting of his archive, more than 6,000 drawings, to the RIBA Library. He says: ‘It had to be London. It’s the liveliest place for discussions on architecture.’

Correa’s practice of architecture, which began in the 1950s, tracks India’s emergence as a nation state and is chiefly concerned with how cities and buildings can improve the lives of residents.

Much of what Correa says on these matters is unexpected: cities should be high-density, but they should also be low-rise. ‘You can save space by building high, but you lose that connection to the ground,’ he adds. The architect too, must always be careful in how they design for others. ‘We have a responsibility to arrive at a consensus,’ he explains, during a tour of the David Adjaye-designed exhibition. Especially with housing, there must be flexibility: ‘It’s like a bird building a nest. You have to let the people who live there change it.’

There is another side to Correa, too. A thoughtful, metaphysical side. ‘The essence of architecture is discovery, a sense of adventure,’ he says. ‘There is a compelling void at the centre of all things. Think of a courtyard – have you ever been to a house with a courtyard you didn’t like? We are hard-wired to understand space in a certain way.’ Still, Correa’s bottom line is down to earth: ‘Get drinking water to everyone,’ he says.

Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad (1958-63)

Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad (1958-63)

If you are trying to find a Japanese architecture, or an Indian architecture, you can’t come down the pathway set by the Greeks, the Romans, Palladio and Le Corbusier, which has to do with a certain relationship between what man makes and what nature makes. They don’t imitate each other – it’s a very clear dichotomy.

Hinduism and Buddhism don’t have such simplistic constructs. It’s a much more blurred relationship. I mention the caves of Ajanta. They neither destroy the hill, nor do they leave it alone. From that follows another kind of architecture.

But strangely enough, if you look at some of Frank Lloyd Wright’s houses, there is a very ambiguous relationship to the hill. It is part cave, part cantilever. Wright was someone who worked much more on intuition. He had his instincts. Don’t ever build on top of the hill – build on the side.

I love Corbusier – you can see his influence in my work – but he had much less understanding than he should have had of how people use space. His work is evocative, and he is a singular architect, but his ramps, for example, are more theatrical gestures than useable. So he was completely innocent of the importance of the pavement and the streets. It didn’t register on his mind. There would have been no life in the Paris he proposed.

There would would have been no life in the Paris Le Corbusier proposed

Pavements and parks belong together. It’s where the life is, the activity. In Chandigarh, by throwing out the streets Corbusier threw out the pavements, too. Corbusier was very much a Mediterranean man. You know what I mean? You can’t suddenly make him a Ganges man.

A connection to the ground is very important. That’s where London scores so tremendously. Of all the great cities in the world, London is the easiest to live in. It is the most pleasant to live in. London is comfortable, like an old shoe. I’m talking about the older London. The density is right. Better than Paris. Better than Manhattan. At no point did they accept apartments, unlike the Milanese, the Parisians, the Berliners. Why did the English refuse to accept apartments? That’s crucial. As long as you give people access to open ground, [urban design] becomes far easier to do. Refusing the apartment: That’s how London was saved!

The wonderful thing about Istanbul is the life in the streets, but also the life on the ferries. When we were there, a friend said: ‘You must come on the ferries at 5 o’clock, and [we criss-crossed] the Bosphorus. Everyone was talking, moving around. When you commute in a car, you are all alone. When you commute in a bus or a train, you’ve got other people – but you’re still stuck to your seat. The wonderful thing about the ferry is that the moment it starts, everyone gets up and sees their friends, it becomes like a moving cocktail party.

In Manhattan they all make a fuss of Central Park– Gene Kelly running up and down and dancing away – but the fact is, how many people there have easy access to Central Park? It’s not like London, where there is a park near you. Amenities of all kinds should be easy to access by as many people as possible. If there are no affordable schools and hospitals, the middle class moves out and the city becomes only for the very rich and the very poor. It’s what happens if you allow densities to climb too high: cities become useless.

If you allow densities to climb too high, cities become useless

When you leave out amenities, you lose the families. Sometimes the only kinds of people who stay on are singles or double-income-no-kids, so we have a society and city made up of bars and restaurants. It’s a nice life for them, but it drives families out – it’s not what they want for their children.

[The Western interest in slums and what can be learned from them] is just romance. Slums are not as high-density as they seem. The high density is due to high occupation per room, sometimes 10 people per room, which you would never accept in England. And, secondly, there are no amenities. No hospitals. No schools. No open space. So of course you have high densities.

The mistake we make in India is we try to put in the transport after we build the city. Transport should lead. Supply triggers demand. Public transport should precede demand, especially when Indian cities are growing at the rate they are. We know they are growing, so it is unforgivable not to act accordingly. The crucial question we have to ask is: ‘What kind of cities can we afford?’ We must create cities where the poor are not dehumanised and pushed into a corner.

Architecture has a very limited spectrum of emotions. Films for example, which depend on split-second timing, can break your heart. You can suddenly get a shock. Films can talk about the most basic thing in life: happiness, tragedy. Architecture can’t cover that. But when you look at a mountain, since it cannot move, it has a nobility, a gravitas. It is the one area of emotion you can deal with as an architect. From that comes the idea that a building is rooted to the land it is built on. Because it cannot move, it is lit by the sun in the same way and this gives it a wonderful quality. It has a seriousness. A building, being rooted, has to be of that soil, that climate, that culture. You cannot design the same building on another site. I will never forget what [Norwegian architect] Norbert Shultz once said: ‘Place is that part of truth that belongs to architecture.’ Isn’t that beautiful?

Kanchanjunga Apartments, Mumbai (1970-83)

Kanchanjunga Apartments, Mumbai (1970-83)

Readers' comments (2)

  • Yasmin Shariff

    Its not just about cities in India- our cities are dehumanising the poor. Poor infrastructure, poor social housing investment, poor space standards and poor design aspirations = poor 2020 vision!

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  • Having studied with Hassan Fathy, I would so enjoy
    an informal talk with Charles Correa, to speak of the same humane compulsions in designing a house or a city, of solutions where people without resources could be displaced without discomfort into basic harmonious houses within their own neighborhoods.
    I met Correa so briefly in NY that, alas, I learned later of his identity and of his great gifts in contributing to society the pursuit of decent housing.

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