A Place in the Shade: The New Landscape & Other Essays
By Charles Correa
Hatje Cantz 2012
The Indian architect Charles Correa, who died last June at the age of 84, was a master of architectural philosophy and balanced building. For an introduction to Correa and a clear perspective on our present “state of architecture,” anyone should leap at the chance to read A Place in the Shade: The New Landscape & Other Essays. The book is a compilation of Correa’s writings between 1964 and 2009 along with his 1985 prescient primer, “The New Landscape.” It is a provocative, accessible collection of essays by a theorist who was also an eloquent, lyrical and innovative architect. Although these essays span decades long passed, they remain relevant today both for their observations and pragmatic solutions. Correa was writing from Bombay/Mumbai, but his discussion on housing affordability, humane habitat for all, urban growth and transportation could mightily contribute to the present debate here in the Pacific Northwest.
In his essays, Correa elaborates on his views of global architecture and urbanization. His perspective is unique, as he was born and raised in India, then attended and often taught at universities in England and the United States. A practitioner as well as a theoretician, his design firm, based in Mumbai, undertook major projects worldwide. Having spent enough time in the West to understand and be constructively critical of it, his position in India put him in the front row for observing the growth of urban centers. Correa had the status to criticize both worlds and to celebrate that which should be celebrated. In his writing, he assesses the power of Western ideas, the corruption rampant in India and the politics that has mismanaged urban growth in both the West and the East. He marvels at the genius of spaces as varied as the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, and a townhouse in London. Correa holds special praise for the “open-to-sky space”; here, with an awareness of moving from inside to outside, from open space to private space, movement becomes magical.
Yet, first and foremost Correa was an Indian with a gaze backwards to an ancient culture and forward to a rapidly growing nation of a billion souls. He clearly and calmly observes the chaos of the city that surrounds him. As he states: “The apparent chaos and disorder here, on close observation, actually consists of several layers of order, all superimposed.” Throughout the book Correa tries to coax his readers to look beyond the surface in order to understand the city’s contradictions. An essay titled “A Place in the Sun” is really about a place in the shade and the need for housing.
Repeatedly Correa stresses the importance of awareness of place. Knowing where you are means knowing (and respecting) the climate and the culture:
“When we say art builds bridges, it does not mean the exclusion of roots. On the contrary, without roots, there can be no foundations to the bridge you are building. Perhaps this is what is so deplorable about so much of the globalization going on today, especially in the world of international architecture. It is not the gesture of wanting to build in another place—but the lack of any understanding of the soil on which the bridge must land.”
Correa believed that the historical elements of a local vernacular design can be integrated into inventive contemporary architecture. He produced design in a wide variety of scales, from a new city outside Mumbai to a simple sun shade. In his writings, he can wax lyrical about the courtyard and its importance to housing schemes and then forcefully analyze transportation systems, revealing their connection to the success of a city economy.
Correa was especially interested in how we can ensure decent housing for all urban dwellers, examining the core of what is needed and clearly explaining where public housing has wasted resources. Many consider him a pioneer in addressing the issues of housing and urbanization in the developing world. In the 1960s, exponents of post-War modernity held up concrete high-rises as the answer to housing the poor. Correa, way before others, laid out the imperative for a local response to housing needs, and how design based on traditional typologies could vary the size of units to allow for a mix of incomes. On a related note, in essay after essay, Correa speaks about the importance of planning public transportation. In “Looking Back, Looking Forward” he writes, “Affordable housing isn't something that happens in a vacuum—it is a direct result of the correlation between the pattern of public transport and employment distribution in the city.” Examining the issues of poverty, slums and private and public space, the essays move from celebrating the front doorstep to the inequalities of urban land use allocations.
Architects must absorb and adapt to constantly changing technologies. Correa managed to take advantage of technology while maintaining intimate connections to place, which often seems forgotten in the rush to embrace new advances in what is now a global profession. Reading Correa's book gives us a guide for both how to look at our cities holistically and understand the role of the architect. When and how does the design community start speaking out—about housing affordability, transportation needs, climate and maybe even beauty?
For those who knew him, Correa’s death is a great loss; for those who are not familiar with him, now is the time to start reading.
“For the city which we each experience is, of course, much more than just a physical plant – it is also a set of powerful mythic images and values that give sustenance and enrichment to our lives. This, in the final analysis, is what cities are about. What culture is about. And what our towns and cities could hopefully become.”