EPW Vol - L No. 28, July 11, 2015 | Mustansir Dalvi
An urban architect who was a friend of the residents of the city and the environment, Charles Correa was more than a builder of sustainable houses and offices. He was a quintessential Bombaywallah, one who put forward eminently sensible solutions to some of the problems of his favourite city. Sadly, most of them did not materialise and the problems continue unabated.
Charles Correa was a shaper of the public realm. Remembered and revered for several striking and iconic buildings, his ideas, both through writing and design, through built, unbuilt, and speculative work, foreground the community, the civic and importantly, the inclusive. As a true-blue Bombaywallah, a lot of Correa’s attention was focused on his hometown, but there are few interventions that allow us to identify Bombay as Correa’s city. Even today, Kanchenjunga is the apartment building we associate best with Correa. In Bombay, he was proselytiser, activist (sometime film-maker), academic and architect, but above all, he was Citizen Correa. His vision of the city was both broad and specific. He saw patterns and possibilities before most others, especially the government, did. And offered solutions freely. That few of these were actually taken is something that all its citizens must be held to account for. Therefore, on Correa’s passing, this lament for Bombay.
Even in his more upmarket housing, his buildings never turn away from the city; instead they embrace it, look upon it, and take it in. The famous corner balconies of Kanchanjunga allow panoramic views of the city. Their double heights are intended to give the impression of being outside, as in an al fresco space, one with the urbanity around, capturing “a piece of the sky.” The apartments corkscrewed around these balconies made the best of Bombay’s meagre breezes, ventilating the rooms within. The tower became, according to Correa, “a Tree of Life.” In later years, he would rue the addition of air conditioners to the apartments, for they were designed to function without them.
The public realm, as mentioned earlier, becomes central to Correa’s architecture. One of his proposals in the late 1960s was a series of simple upraised platforms (or otlas) for organising hawking along the edge of D N Road in Bombay, lined on both sides with classic covered arcades (an idea developed more than a century ago by Bartle Frere, the head of police in Bombay, to protect citizens from the harsh summer and hard monsoons). Correa’s platforms gave pedestrians unrestrained access. Each platform had a water tap for washing the platforms at the end of the day and providing a clean place to sleep under the stars, as so many in Bombay still do. He was keenly aware of the difference between pavement sleepers and the homeless—“Migrants don’t come to the city looking for housing. They come looking for work.” The sleepers were workers and employees of offices on D N Road. One immediately thinks of the American Express Bakery tragedy in Bandra. There, the people killed by the car Salman Khan was in were bakery workers, not the destitute or homeless. This simple proposal never came to fruition, nor did his later proposal for reorienting traffic at Flora Fountain, creating an urban plaza for the public rather than a paid parking lot. Neither the traffic nor the issues with hawking have been addressed with any degree of resolution, 40 years down the line.
Correa was called upon by the Government of Maharashtra in 1996 to set up a committee to prepare an integrated development plan for the now-defunct mill lands. The redevelopment was to include “coherent urban form and civic amenities and to generate new employment opportunities for mill workers” now out of jobs for nearly a decade. The famous one-third/one-third/one-third solution that he proposed for open spaces and amenities, for affordable housing, and for sale in the open market, was lauded in the city. It offered a real chance for having a consolidated open space in the city, which has one of the smallest amounts of open space among all cities in the world. A space like Central Park was imminently possible. But various vested interests whittled down and diluted the proposal to make it but a shadow of its original self. Today there is no consolidated open space. Instead an alternative business centre is consolidating itself, populating the spaces that were once mill lands with malls, hotels and office spaces, certainly not inclusive, nor incremental.
What has been lost is the old urbanity of the city, one where people of all classes and stations lived cheek by jowl. “Affordable housing isn’t something that happens in a vacuum,” writes Correa, “It is the direct result of the correlation between the pattern of public transport and employment distribution in the city. The third that would have been converted to affordable housing is ultimately become the city’s biggest loss.” This large area has only fuelled the stakes of the real estate market. Today, there is hardly any affordable housing being built in the city. Those living in the chawls in the proximity of the mills still live in conditions of decaying buildings or have moved out to the furthest reaches of the metropolitan region where some affordability is possible. The absence of sensible social housing in Central Mumbai is a vacuum that is filled by self-help housing in other parts of the city having advantages in terms of public transport. In other words, slums, self-built and regulated, outside the pale of mainstream amenities and civic regard. Correa’s opportunities for urban transformation were also opportunities for social engineering through harnessing the power of the city.
What remains in Mumbai today is an aspirational population clamouring for the limited spaces and opportunities that it offers. Gentrification is now a mental construct that makes the citizen demand rights—from subsidised transport to free housing, giving little in return. Inclusive spaces such as those conceived by Correa through his designs and his advocacy are usurped by the real estate sector, which does not share space, awaiting monetisation. In a city where only two types of growth can be seen—the rise of luxury towers and the agglomeration of slums—the convivial, collegial, and ethical urbanity that Correa had always talked about, something that he clearly identified as the spirit of the city, is in recession. The public realm exists so far as to allow people to commute from one place to another, not to loiter, to contemplate, or to breathe in. We lament the city, for in Correa’s passing, he will, without doubt, be remembered as an architect of some of India’s (and the world’s) finest contemporary buildings, but might well be forgotten as Citizen Correa—a person who knew Bombay intimately, had ideas to transform the city into a place for all, but for all his efforts, was not really heard.