Looking Back

I became an architect because of toy trains: An essay by Charles Correa

India's best-known architect died on Tuesday at the age of 84. In this article, he explains how he developed a passion for designing buildings and spaces.

I think I became an architect because of toy trains. As a child, I had a Hornby tinplate track and a couple of locomotives and wagons. Nothing very ambitious, really just enough to run the trains around your room, and the following day, perhaps change the layout so that they could run into the next room, under a table and back again. That was the marvelous thing about those old tinplate rails. They had flexibility. Every time one finished playing, back they went into their wooden box – to be reincarnated the next day in a totally new formation.

Ah, to have more rails – and more trains! But since World War II was on, there was no way my layout could possibly have been augmented. All I did have was catalogues (the legendary Hornby Book of Trains, Basset-Lowke’s Model Railways and so forth), which I would pore over. I drew out on graph paper the most elaborate layouts: straight rails, curved ones, sidings, crossovers, the works. Trains moved through tunnels, stations, over-bridges in one direction and then, through cunningly placed figure eights, came right back through the same stations and tunnels – but now in the other direction, setting up a brand new sequence!

That’s how I spent many of my classroom hours: drawing up these hypothetical layouts in exercise books. Years later, at the age of fifteen or so, coming across an architectural journal for the first time, I felt I could read the various plans and sections – and what they were trying to do. That much I owe to Hornby.

The architect's conundrum 

Cut to many more years later. As a young architect, I’m perplexed by the contrary attitudes of two quite different thought processes. The first produces architecture which has very strong conceptual ideas – but on which you do not really linger beyond the first five minutes. An example might be Eero Saarinen’s three-pointed dome at MIT – a very elegant creation, but also perhaps something you might feel you have digested in one scanning. On the other hand, there is another kind of process, which does not involve any holistic schema at all. Many buildings (and most interiors) are designed this way. They present you with a series of spellbinding effects, one after another; perhaps without any real inter-relationship – except, of course, that one set-piece follows the previous one in a knockout sequence, rather like the way Gone With the Wind is structured around a series of unforgettable scenes. Or like the stories of Scheherazade. Once the sequence starts, you’re hooked – but can this ever provide a legitimate basis for serious architecture? Can such arbitrary and episodic narrativeever express the control, the rigor, and the discipline, so fundamental to holistic thought?

Jump cut again, to China. Before I visited my first Chinese garden, I was confused. Photographs showed only some fragile scenographic effects: the quirky little bridge, the dragon wall, the pond of water and so forth. Yet, when you actually get there and start walking through the garden, it gradually builds and builds until it finally overwhelms you.Hornby all over again! First you go through the sequence of pond and bridge and dragon wall in one direction, and then you find yourself coming in from another direction, experiencing them all in another sequence, in another order, from another height and so forth. The same handful of props are used and reused, again and again. And each time, because of a slight change in angle, or in sequence, they carry a new significance.

Limiting elements

Restricting the number of elements, and using them over and over, is the key decision. It confers on the Chinese garden the rigour that the mandatory square piece of paper generates in Origami. By making the number of set pieces finite, but the variations in your perception of them seemingly infinite, the garden becomes, at one and the same time, both holistic and episodic. Perhaps the repeated tales told in Rashomon (the bandit, the husband, the onlooker, the wife) also stem from this same paradigm. With each narration of the identical events, truth is reborn again in a new form, trans-forming the lyrical open-ended tales of Scheherazade into the refracted and imploded metaphysics of Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

That is what toy trains are really about – those wonderful tinplate rails that made patterns across the bedroom floor (the way the real thing makes pat- terns across a landscape, or across a nation), abstract patterns that recall in the mind’s eye the true reality of railway journeys. Today, these toys are no longer available. What killed them off? The banal quest for super-realistic "scale model" railways and those stunningly prosaic attempts at so-called realism. Instead of the continuously changing patterns of demountable rails, we have today scale-track, nailed down permanently on to a baseboard – in the process fatally maiming that extraordinarily sophisticated level of abstraction and imagination that children brought to their tinplate layouts.

Excerpted with permission from A Place in the Shade: The New Landscape & Other Essays by Charles Correa, published by Penguin India.

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