Design New England

Charles Correa’s modest, dignified, superlative architecture

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Charles Correa (1930-2015). Photograph by William Morgan.

By William Morgan

Charles Correa was perhaps the most important unknown architect to work in New England. While the international architectural community lamented his passing in June, the highly lauded Indian architect was far from a household name in America. Not since the Finnish master Alvar Aalto created Baker Dormitory at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1940s has a true masterpiece by such an outsider graced our region.


Correa’s 2005 Brain and Cognitive Science Center, also at MIT, is across the street from the computer science building by celebrity architect Frank Gehry. Attention grabbing and quirky, Gehry’s Stata Center greatly exceeded its budget, and, as a design, has as much long-term staying power as a Mickey Mouse telephone. (At the press preview upon the building’s completion in 2005, then university president Charles Vest bragged to me that MIT’s Gehry would be finished before Princeton’s Gehry.) Gehry’s exercise in novelty for its own sake, however, reconfirms Correa’s position as an elder statesman of a broad humanistic modern architecture. Experience and soul trump immediate gratification and name recognition.

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The Stata Center at MIT designed by architect Frank Gehry. Photograph by William Morgan.
Although trained at the University of Michigan and MIT, Correa’s career was devoted to creating an architecture for his native India that was modest, dignified, and environmentally sensitive. He said that he did not want to imitate Western Modernism, but to “fuse it with India’s history and culture to create something new.” He gained early recognition with an appropriately ascetic design for the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya (Mahatma Gandhi memorial) in Ahmedabad, and then spent more than half a century shaping civic monuments, affordable housing, and cities on the subcontinent.
Correa’s eight-story neuroscience research center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is comprised of three separate institutes. It contains 47 labs, three libraries, and dozens of offices and classrooms wrapped around a five-story atrium. Despite its behemoth size, the 10-year old brain center quietly but brilliantly holds its own amongst what the architect referred to as Kendall Square’s “monstrous offices.” Correa insisted that the BCSC “looked as though it belonged where it is.”

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Brain and Cognitive Science Center at MIT (Stata Center to left). Photograph: Charles Correa Associates.
The building has two facades. The one that faces campus is calm and elegant. It is sheathed in a Portuguese limestone (a reference to MIT’s original neoclassical buildings) and glass, including a 45-foot tall conservatory housing giant palm trees.
More intriguing is the city side, where Correa capitalized on an irregular and awkward site to create a face with multiple personalities. In addition to the lively sculptural plane formed by extruded hallways and laboratory windows, the crazy-shaped plot cried out for a razor-sharp corner. (Correa called it “an ocean liner, its prow pointing towards Kendall Square.”)

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The main Street facade of the BCSC illustrates Correa’s genius. A railroad right-of-way cuts through the site, but the architect embraced the train as part of the building’s persona.
Photograph: Charles Correa Associates.
The interior opens to a 90-foot-high atrium, its white walls splashed with saffron accents and seemingly capricious fenestration, that is the heart of the BCSC, a huge common space washed with light from a giant skylight.

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Central atrium at the BCSC links the three separate institutes.
There are echoes of Le Corbusier (whom Correa knew while Corbu was working in India) in the bright colors and random fenestration. Photograph: Charles Correa Associates.
It may seem paradoxical to define a $175 million, 415,000 square-foot university research center as modest. Yet, it works, is environmentally sensitive, and provides a dignified setting in which to explore the human brain. Without resorting to bombast or egotecture, Charles Correa gave MIT — and the world — an understated triumph.
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