September 04: If only Charles Correa were Mumbai’s chief architect. The city might have scored higher on aesthetics and urban planning . Even though the architect works out of Mumbai, the city has little of his work. To see what we’re missing, head to the NCPA today to watch Arun Khopkar’s Volume Zero: The Work of Charles Correa, an hour-long film on Correa’s architecture.
Khopkar’s documentary is a cinematic tour of some of Correa’s best work. “I’m interested in the relationship between architecture and cinema,” says the film-maker who has previously documented Jehangir Sabavala’s art and Alarmel Valli’s Bharatanatyam. “With each location there is a specific problem with how to make the location come alive.” The first Correa building he came across was the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya in Ahmedabad 20 years ago. It’s a large airy structure built around a courtyard, a feature that Correa repeats in many of his later buildings. In the film, Khopkar recalls feeling “the rhythms of its spaces’ ‘ and noting how “it responded to changing lights” .
It wasn’t till the mid-1990 s during a visit to Pune’s Inter University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA) that Khopkar considered making Volume Zero. As Correa wanted the complex to reflect the work being done by the institution’s scientists, IUCAA is littered with astronomical themes. A courtyard has two trees that represent a spatial phenomenon called Roche lobes. Another patch of green has a fractal pattern known as the Sierpinski Gasket.
As Khopkar’s film shows, most of Correa’s buildings draw on the architectural forms local to the place they’re situated in. Jaipur’s Jawahar Kala Kendra, whose blueprint is a matrix of squares that represents nine planets, is a nod to the city’s town plan drawn by its founder Jai Singh. Correa has a novel explanation for the excellence of traditional Indian architecture. “Architecture was used to give a message to the people,” he says. “Today the media is used. Akbar used architecture to tell people that he was the new game in town. The reason architecture is so banal today is that there’s no message to put across.”
Despite Correa’s enchantment with traditional Indian architecture , his buildings are thoroughly modern. Simply take a look at the Kanchanjunga on Pedder Road, a structure far more modern than any new building even though it was designed in 1970. (Correa’s other Mumbai projects include the Portuguese Church at Dadar and a low-income housing project in Belapur.) Sankalp Meshram, who edited the film, says, “In terms of style Charles is a great minimalist. He is able to bring a very simple form which is at the same time, gestural and dramatic. His is a rather self-effacing architecture. [Yet] he understands the importance of the dramatic gesture.”
The project that promises to be Correa’s most dramatic work to date is Lisbon’s Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, a scientific research centre still under construction . It’s situated at the point at which the Tagus river joins the Atlantic. For the Portuguese, it’s a historic site as it was from here that Vasco da Gama began his voyage to India. The folks at the institute hope that it will be completed by October 10, 2010, which marks the hundredth anniversary of the Portuguese republic. Correa views the building as a monument to early explorers who plunged into uncharted territory without trepidation . “Science is also a journey into the unknown,” says the 78-year-old architect. The centre pays tribute to the “excellence and daring that went into [people like] Vasco da Gama and Einstein” .
The film, which took four years to make, hops from one project to the next, occasionally offering glimpses of Correa’s life from photographs of his childhood in Secunderabad to footage of him relaxing at his home in Goa. Khopkar says he wanted to keep the film centred on Correa’s work. “I didn’t want to have a compendium of opinions” of people who know Correa , he explains.
What also gets a brief mention are the architect’s town planning designs, most of which never left the page. His plans suggest a syncretic approach to architecture, one that doesn’t look at a building in isolation but as a component that acts in concert with its surroundings . Most modern buildings, on the other hand, shrink away from their environs. The gated communities that are so fashionable today look to create islands of temporary peace, ignoring the infrastructural mess that lies just outside their portals. “Political parties are being funded by real estate,” he says. “Decisions for the city have nothing to do with what city needs. I’ve realised now that until the political parties find another source of funding’ ‘ the city remains at risk.