Void Form: Correa's Vision

in Overview
Published on: 16 April 2016

Himanshu Burte

Himanshu Burte is trained as an architect and teaches at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. He writes extensively on urban and architectural issues, sustainability and Goan culture.

In his famous essay, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, published in the 1930s, Walter Benjamin makes a passing, but profound, comment about our experience of architecture. Benjamin suggests that, as with film, the work of architecture is usually experienced collectively in a state of distraction. On the face of it, it is not difficult to agree with his observation. However beautiful the building or interior space, we are usually more concerned with our own everyday agenda—getting dressed on time, returning calls, looking for the tea stall in the theatre—to bother about the elegant corner detail. When we inhabit it the best architecture emerges into our attention only intermittently. Common though this experience is, Benjamin’s suggestion can make serious architects uncomfortable. Architecture is widely accepted as an art, after all. And in modern times it is considered sacrilege to be distracted for long when faced with an art work. That is why museums and auditoria are such silent spaces full of attentive and solitary individuals. So is not something wrong if people routinely appropriate architecture, often hailed as the mother of all arts, without giving it the respect of concentrated attention?


It might sound strange to suggest that this question offers one fruitful way of approaching the work of Charles Correa (1930–2015). Strange, because there is little danger of being distracted away from the architecture while visiting a building by Correa.


Correa’s architecture has always been theatrical. Yet, in his best work, its theatricality calls attention to the architecture while also enriching our sometimes absentminded appropriation of habitable spaces. The theatricality of Correa’s architecture has not been solely that of the dramatic pose. Rather, it has often emerged from an exquisite internal tension between two opposed ideal states of architecture he appears to pursue simultaneously in his buildings—that of the monument that arrests our attention with its power, and the non-building, a setting that makes our everyday habitational actions look and feel unusually graceful.[1]

I believe that the contrast Benjamin sketches between the modes of concentrated and distracted attention to art works and architecture respectively is a useful way of approaching this tension, and mirrors that between the monument and the non-building as ideal architectural states. I also believe that this tension plays out in parallel with another tension, that between Correa’s modernist training and outlook on the one hand, and his need to situate his work securely within different Indian contexts.


Half a century of building

Correa’s critical and localized reinterpretation of modernism, as well as his work in urban planning in India, has been widely acknowledged. He was awarded most major international architectural honours, including the Gold Medal of the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Praemium Imperiale from the royal family of Japan. He was awarded the Padma Vibhushan from the Government of India. Born in Hyderabad on 1st September, 1930, Correa completed his architectural education in the USA, including an undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, Ann Arbor, and a Masters in City Planning from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He started an independent architectural practice in Mumbai in 1958, and designed many buildings seminal to the development of Indian modernism, also contributing new ideas to contemporary architecture worldwide. In a career spanning over half a century, he also contributed massively to urban planning in India, most notably through the plan for Navi Mumbai of which he was a co-author (with Shirish Patel and the late Pravina Mehta), and later as the chairman of the National Commission on Urbanisation in 1985.

The continuities between his earliest and his last projects are remarkable given the differences in place, period, programme and expression. In the year he started his independent practice, Correa began work on one of his most important projects, the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya, Ahmedabad (1958–1962), located on the premises of M.K. Gandhi’s Sabarmati Ashram. This checkerboard arrangement of open courtyards and museum spaces presenting Gandhiji to the visitor through text, image and memorabilia was an early consideration of the traditional courtyard as a substantive component of a modern Indian grammar of architecture. The museum foreshadowed many themes that would recur in Correa’s work. One understated aspect of the museum design is the way in which the layout encourages the visitor to literally ‘spread’ his walk across the building.


Half a century later, the much larger medical research facility, Chamapalimaud Centre, Lisbon (500,000 sq.m., built in 2010), is similar yet different. It too is designed as an invitation to wander around, though here, instead of the meditative courtyards, the walk leads to the widescreen panorama of sky meeting sea.


Both can be thought of fruitfully as ‘non-buildings’, a term Correa himself has often used. However, it is important to approach them in terms of the tension between the monument and the non-building mentioned earlier. This is because the sculptural, and even monumental, dimension of architecture is also explored equally convincingly in Correa’s work. A discussion of this expressive dimension is important with regard to Correa’s work to prevent a simplistic misreading of the idea of the non-building.


Non-building, in Correa’s work, is not non-architecture. Rather, the ‘non-’ applies mainly to the common tendency of buildings, especially large ones, to colonise attention and impose their presence on us. Monuments repress us, even if ever so slightly or pleasurably, by demanding that we concentrate our attention on them, or rather, by making it difficult for us to turn our attention away to our own experience or existence.


In a range of projects, many public and institutional ones, Correa has sought partly to repress the object-ness of the building so as to unfurl the potential for human action that its space carries. Yet rarely does Correa erase the monumental possibility of architecture completely. When he does so most thoroughly, as at Bharat Bhavan, we are left without any mark of the institution hidden in the landscape. We walk through the gate and are disoriented for a while not having an architectural object—a building—with which to engage as the representation of the institution. We recognize in that moment of confusion that the monumental function of architecture is also important. For it is the monument that makes visible an abstract social or organizational presence—the institution—that the building shelters.


In fact, it is difficult to find a project by Correa which does not have sculptural or monumental ambition at some level even as it embodies the ideal of the non-building. What we find, rather, is a changing balance of the opposed explorations. That balance keeps shifting across the continuum of ideals from the monumental-sculptural towards that of the non-building, and the other way round, depending on the programme and physical context that a design responds to.


It is, in fact, this simultaneous movement towards contradictory ideals at every moment in his architecture that makes for its special character. The twin frustums of the Portuguese church in Mumbai, for instance, present a monumental-sculptural intention towards the street. But as you enter, its intimately scaled forecourts enclosed by a peripheral ‘wrap wall’ begin to pull away from the monumental intention of the concrete frustrums. The experience of monumentality then re-emerges in the interior space of the church under the soaring concrete frustrums.


The modernist and the non-building

Against this background, it is perhaps worth dwelling a bit on the expressive depth that Correa has brought to the ideal of a visually and experientially memorable non-building. This is important because the modernist approach to architecture has leant much more towards the monument, especially the enigmatic monument. The modernist paradigm was centred on the abstract, sculptural object in a park, say like Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye in Poissy in France, or Mies Van der Rohe’s Farnsworth house near Chicago. Both, of course, had a strongly expressive spatial quality within. However, their most famous photographs are of industrial-age objects standing clearly apart from the flux of everyday social life in the green emptiness of a natural setting. Each is internally well integrated. There is a sense of completion and finality to their composition. There are no loose ends and no components of either building diverges in form or tone from the whole. 


Comparing Correa’s work to this tradition that he was trained in, we see fundamental continuities and contrasts emerging together. Correa’s vocabulary of forms, and his compositional grammar are modernist (as is his frequently critical restructuring of the functional brief that he received from clients). Thus a large number of his compositions are carefully totalized, though in a very different way every time. A simple overarching plan or sculptural form usually holds a range of recesses (as at Kanchanjanga, as well as Vidhan Bhavan) or projections from that overall form. Naturally, the ‘wrap wall’ is a common device in mid-career projects like Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), Pune, as well as the most recent Champalimaud Centre, Lisbon. In both projects the horizontal sprawl of the buildings is gathered into a smooth exterior form by a wall that also encloses differently shaped open spaces, as it travels around the building.


Even as he gathers parts of buildings into a modernist whole, Correa also charts a path that challenges some of the central assumptions of the modernism he inherited. Perhaps the most remarkable divergence from the ideal of the precious modernist object is the commitment to the ideal of the non-building. That divergence is expressed in the language of modernism, and even builds on Le Corbusier’s innovations. But it is a crucial divergence, a contrary current even. The canonical modernist architectural object does not seek self-cancellation of the sort implied in the limit condition that the non-building gestures towards. 


Two things mark Correa’s pursuit of the non-building. First, it is not a doctrinaire pursuit. As mentioned earlier, across his non-buildings, there is a variable interplay with the opposed modernist idea of the enigmatic monument, which makes for stimulating architectural experiences. Secondly, Correa has shown that non-buildings can be incarnated in very different morphological and experiential personalities. There are at least three very different ways in which he has formalized the ideal of the non-building across major works.


Kasturba Gandhi Samadhi, Pune, a memorial to Gandhiji’s wife, designed in the early 1960s, and the later Bharat Bhavan (1979–84) by the lakeside in Bhopal, embody the almost thorough non-building, one that is completely pushed underground. In both we experience the building as a hard, geometric landscape we walk over. In both we enter at a height and make our way down towards intimate spaces. In both we are conscious not so much of active sculptural form, but of being urged on and down an architectural landscape. At the memorial, we progress more purposefully towards a moment of release: a generous enclosed garden with the memorial, meditative but not self-serious. At Bharat Bhavan we descend into a system of three courts, which lead to museums, a theatre and art studios. Alternatively, from the entrance itself we can walk the roofscape and reach the lake. The entire building has disappeared and become a public promenade.


The National Crafts Museum, New Delhi, connects to a much more traditional model of the non-building: that of a sprawling house with a series of courtyards that reveals little of its scale or form to the street. All that is visible of the museum campus from the street is a low wall with a roofed entrance door. As we walk the memorable alternation of daylit and shaded spaces, there is no moment at which a convex architectural form stands apart from us. Instead we are always ‘inside’ even in the open space leading to the bazaar outside the museum section. Once inside the museum section we find ourselves embraced by one court, nudged along by the shaded passages, and pulled ahead by pools of daylight in the courtyards ahead. If at Bharat Bhavan the pervasive experience is of being in an open landscape, here we are forever in a daylit inside. The modernist architectural object in open space is not available for encounter.


Kala Akademi, Goa, provides a third variety of the non-building experience. It is not a self-evident non-building, since it enjoys an emphatic presence on the street because of the double-storey ‘veranda-to-the-city’ that the roof level pergola forms. However, in concept the building is fundamentally a kind of non-building. If at Bharat Bhavan the ‘building’ is pushed underground in principle, at Kala Akademi it is held aloft and all the public life of the institution is staged in its shade. Once inside, we realize that the mass of the building gets out of the way of the walker who would wander from the street straight through the building to the river Mandovi beside which the institution stands. The raison d’etre of the design is to provide shelter (as well as tea and samosas at the canteen along the way) to this welcome wanderer.


Space as architectural substance

Correa’s committed explorations of the very opposite quality of the monumental leads me to believe that his is an architecture primarily of space, in spite of its often striking sculptural, chromatic and compositional qualities. One small indicator of the predominance of spatial concerns in his work is the fact that the large, relatively monumental void is perhaps his most enduring gesture of emphasis visible on the exterior of buildings. This is significant. For Correa appears to trust an absence most to register his building’s presence.


As mentioned, Kala Akademi’s relative monumentality on the street is secured not by a large and dominant mass but by an inviting, exhilarating space. As it is at the LIC Centre in Mauritius, or the fluidly sculptural MRF corporate office in Chennai. At the British Deputy High Commission, New Delhi, the framed void (with its dramatic mural by Howard Hodgkins) is the architecture, at least for the street. A slightly different kind of void is formed out of pergola-covered terraces at different heights in the Permanent Mission of India to the UN in mid-town Manhattan. The tall, slender, stepped mass, deftly wedged into a crevice between tall buildings, is capped by a void at every stage. The void at the top is open in four directions and produces a light but emphatic termination that ushers the sky into the perceived mass of the building. The grace of the vertical termination at the Permanent Mission derives from its paradoxical nature. An empty cube in principle, this void simultaneously affirms as well as undercuts the solidity of the tower it sits within. Defined delicately but surely by its columns and the pergola, the well-formed void mediates between the solidity of built form and the emptiness of sky.


The well-formed void is an intriguing and revealing visual paradox central to our experience of Correa’s architecture. Walking through a Correa building, I have often had the uncanny feeling that what is clearly an empty space is also a very definite form. Ordinary experience allows us to perceive the forms that solids take. But rarely do we see the obverse of that solidity in the voids that lie at the heart of architecture. Habit lets us assume that absence of matter is absence of form. But I have repeatedly sensed the paradoxical presence of a definite form in an absence of matter at Bharat Bhavan, the forecourt of the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute for Development Banking, Hyderabad (JNIDB), and certainly at the central courtyard of the Jawahar Kala Kendra, Jaipur (though, strangely, not in courtyards of other buildings). 


But a more temporal and directly habitational phenomenon secures my belief that Correa is fundamentally an architect of space (and even of time). Correa actually designs for the moving inhabitant. He does not design for the static eye. This brings us back to the tension between the monument and the non-building. Don’t get me wrong. Correa certainly designs for the static eye too, and his architecture is clearly photogenic. But as he has shown in a range of non-buildings where there is no simple drama for the eye, it is really the experience of moving through that is at the core of his concerns. Not surprisingly, he has often mentioned ‘the ritualistic pathway’ of traditional Indian architecture as a point of inspiration (though it is perhaps the spontaneous, un-ritualistic wanderer he seems to design for more often!). Walking through his buildings, we begin to appreciate the creativity and commitment with which he redeploys that principle in his very modern work.


It is the inhabitant who must activate the spatial theatricality of Correa’s buildings. This is perhaps true of all good architecture. But it is especially true of Correa’s. At the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Centre of MIT, Cambridge built in 2007, I suddenly realized Correa’s skill at orchestrating movement. At the heart of this very simple building is a large atrium a flight of steps up from the entrance lobby. An attractive staircase flanks one side of the atrium. I found myself bounding up the staircase only to realize soon that without noticing it I had already climbed four or five storeys, pulled by the spatial promises of the design. As in many other Correa buildings, the subtle spatial drama I had experienced in entering the building had already set up a series of expectations that led me up the atrium staircase at the end of a tiring day.


Identity and architecture

I shall end by gesturing briefly and indirectly towards the implications of the discussion so far for the issue of cultural identity in architecture. That is often the main lens through which the work of postcolonial Indian modernists is approached in most arts. I alluded at the beginning to a tension between Correa’s modernist training and sensibilities and his personal understanding of how traditionally architecture receives dwelling in India. I believe that Correa’s work, like that of his Indian peers, Balkrishna Doshi, Joseph Stein, Anant Raje and Raj Rewal, has staged a valuable struggle between these apparently contradictory forces. What distinguishes Correa’s work in this context is the fact that he both resolves and sustains the conflict in his buildings.


The various tensions are not completely resolved or sublimated, but they do not surge about uneasily either. In fact, Correa often deliberately stages new tensions, perhaps as proxies for other more profound unanswerables. Thus we have the astonishing back and forth between real and surreal spaces that many of his murals in public and private spaces set off. At other times a rhetorical device like the wrap wall disciplines certain internal contradictions simply by its totalizing action as at the Vidhan Bhavan, Bhopal. Correa’s realized designs often bespeak an elegant and reassuring finality, that strangely also lets you glimpse the many contrary pulls that the smallest personal decisions must always negotiate. Even though a public utterance, architecture is a personal art, as many have observed. In Correa’s best work, then, we may recognise a hybridity at the level of personal intention that presents one very accurate reflection of what it means to build and dwell in modern India.


(This is a slightly edited version of a catalogue essay in a monograph produced by the Government of Goa in 2011, on the occasion of Charles Correa being awarded the Gomant Vibhushan by the Goa government).


[1] For further discussion of the poetics of architecture and habitational actions, see Burte 2011:311–12



Burte, Himanshu. 2008. Space for Engagement: The Indian Artplace and a Habitational Approach to Architecture. Calcutta: Seagull Books.