Sankalp Meshram reminisces legendary architect Charles Correa

Today marks a month since the legendary architect Charles Correa passed away. Filmmaker Sankalp Meshram, who worked closely with him on several projects, the most recent being a film called Into The Unknown that showcased Correa's designs for Lisbon's Champalimaud Centre, reflects on the work ethic and the life lessons that the genius taught him

"He always believed in a deep affinity between architecture and cinema. He felt that just as cinema was an immersive experience, architecture too was an art form of immersive experiences," reminisces director Sankalp Meshram while recalling one of the many lessons he soaked in from the late Charles Correa.

What the director tells us later, is also how the icon - a keen follower of Blues and Jazz - had introduced him to the melodies of the great Nellie Lutcher. "He was always looking to find the deep aesthetic relationships between the various arts - be it music or sculpture or painting - and find vital connections with architecture."

Monika Correa (left), Sankalp Meshram (centre) and Charles Correa. Pics courtesy/Sankalp Meshram
Monika Correa (left), Sankalp Meshram (centre) and Charles Correa. Pics courtesy/Sofia Vasconcelos, Lisbon

It's been a month since India and the world lost the iconic architect. Yet, for some like Meshram, it feels just like yesterday, when they would spend hours discussing an emerging cinematic trend in European cinema or the next new-age urban design to catch the world's imagination.

Taking shape
For nearly 20 years, Meshram worked in close proximity with the legend, a bond that began in 1995. Award-winning filmmaker and scholar, Arun Khopkar was working on a film on the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics (IUCAA), in Pune; Meshram was the chief assistant director and editor of the film.

Charles Correa at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown
Charles Correa at the Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown

Since Correa had designed the building, an interview was scheduled with him at the IUCAA building. "As AD, I was to escort him to where the camera was. The moment I saw him emerge from his car, I became aware of his star-like quality. He spoke eloquently about 'Architecture as the model of the Cosmos.'

Charles Correa (left) with Sankalp Meshram while shooting the film
Charles Correa (left) with Sankalp Meshram while shooting the film

It was like falling in love instantly," chuckles Meshram, then a fresh graduate of FTII, Pune. "I marvelled at his original ideas and the brilliance of his work. Soon, I realised that he was a genius," he recalls. A few months later, Meshram learnt that Correa was looking for a film editor. Obviously, Meshram was most keen to get the job.

He landed up nervously at the Matthew Road office of the architect in Mumbai. "Charles looked me in the eye and asked - 'Between (Luis) Buñuel and (Jean-Luc) Godard (both filmmakers), whom do you prefer?' I was stunned, but repled, "Godard."

Thankfully, it was also his favourite. 'Buñuel is too stated and locked in his own style,' he said, '...but Godard is more difficult to decipher, and reinvents himself with every film,'" relives Meshram, of the first meeting, when they discussed everything except architecture. A beautiful friendship was born.

The master at work
The first film they worked together on was called Blessings of the Sky. Correa had collected material on his handycam, and wanted an editor to put it together for a film that would be shown at an exhibition in Tokyo.

This was immediately after he had won the prestigious Praemium Imperiale Award (an annual global arts prize awarded by the Japan Art Association in honour of Princess Takamatsu).

The bond bloomed during this project. Meshram admits, "I was an under-confident graduate, fresh out of FTII, and yet, he made me feel like nearly an equal." Soon, he was able to gauge the principle and ideas that stirred within Correa. "With him, there was an understanding of how climate creates form. And also, how the non-manifest world reverberates within the manifest world.

He talked about mankind's primordial mythic relationship with the Earth and the sky and how the sky instantly evokes the idea of infinity, which leads to the idea of God, which leads to the idea of the sacred. Architecture must have a relationship with the sky, especially in a tropical country like ours," says Meshram.

After three months of film editing, the a fascinating film emerged. "But the time spent to solve its creative problems, was a priceless education for me," he adds. In 2002-03, another association with the architect came Meshram's way.

Arun Khopkar was commissioned to make a film on Charles, and he teamed up with Meshram as co-director and editor. The film, Volume Zero - the life and work of Charles Correa, took four years to complete. "Charles had become very involved in this film, and after seeing several rough cuts, he felt it was beginning to resemble a catalogue.

His guidance throughout this crucial documentation of his work was invaluable," Meshram adds how the film was well received globally, especially in Spain. However, one of Correa's projects - at Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown in Lisbon, Portugal was incomplete when Volume Zero was made.

It was represented only as a computer graphic animation at the end of the film. In 2012, The Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown, in Lisbon decided to make a film (Into the Unknown) on their building that was designed by Correa. Meshram was selected as the director. The shoot began in March 2013, and was completed by April-end, 2013.

"It was a film that Charles liked a lot, perhaps since it could illustrate the difficult-to-grasp idea of the non-building. For me, to have made a film that Correa approved of, is a matter of pride," he says, nostalgically. "After the film's completion, our friendship got stronger. By then, I had become almost a family member in the Correa household.

Over countless lunches, dinners and drinks, we would talk endlessly about everything under the sun, especially cinema, music, politics, art, history, and of course, architecture, " he recalls.

Mumbai on his mind
Inevitably, the conversation reached home, to our doorstep, Mumbai. "Charles was a man of high integrity. He would rather walk out than stay on. As chairman of the Urban Planning Commission under late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, he created a blueprint - a basic vision plan for India's urban cities.

He was against concrete jungles; his was a holistic plan. Correa felt it was stupidity for our country to ape the West. The US-educated Correa could have set up practice anywhere in the world but he chose his favourite city that was the centre of his world," shares Meshram.

The director reveals how Correa had tried to intervene to change things but "It takes two to tango, doesn't it?" he suggests, adding, "He had so many plans for the government. His will power was inspiring. He didn't believe in dilution." Little wonder that few designs grace the city.

Navi Mumbai too was because of Correa's idea but the growth that ensued wasn't in his control. It's sad that Correa's applicable, sustainable ideas for the city were up against corrupt politicians who found no commercial sense in it.

Meshram signs off, "Often, during our brainstorming sessions, he would ask, 'What happened to us Indians? We were such great people.' " His loss is Mumbai's. Look around, if you're still wondering why.

The Champalimaud Centre for the Unknown
The state-of-the-art facility for science, medicine, technology and public use was inaugurated on October 5, 2010. Designed by Charles Correa, the project returned to the public an important part of the riverside area of Pedroucos, next to Belem, Portugal. This point is where the River Tejo meets the Atlantic Sea; it's also where the great Portuguese navigators and explorers set sail to the other parts of the world.

Correa’s mantras on design and architecture
>> He was keen to see how architecture responded to the ‘place’ or the natural site. He often quoted architect, Christian Norberg-Schulz, who had said, “Place is that part of truth that belongs to Architecture.”

>> How the architecture would respond to climate.

>> Architecture as a model of the cosmos. He was intrigued by the idea of how the mythic structure of the cosmos could be reflected in smaller built forms.

>> The idea of the empty centre; this echoes the Upanishadic ideas of the self as ‘shunya’ or nothingness.

>> The idea of the non-building, where one experiences a building phenomenologically than visually. He would say, “One must think of architecture more as an energy field. In this energy field, there must always be a relationship between the built form and the enigmatic human experience of it. It was through this enigma of forms that one could create the non-building.”

Did you know?
Meshram had an interesting tidbit to share about Correa’s plans for Mumbai. In the 1960s, the architect had made a film, City on the Water. It includes all his ideas: How it should be, complete with frames of a city along waterfronts.

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