Saturday, June 18, 2016

On Charles Correa's Passing: A Lament for Bombay

It is a year now since Charles Correa left us, and the city feels his loss with every revised policy for densification, over-urbanisation and the commissioning of redundant infrastructure. I am posting a paean to the architect that I wrote last year. It was published, in a slightly different form in the Economic & Political Weekly VOL - L NO. 28, JULY 11, 2015.

On Correa's Passing: A Lament for Bombay

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 his several striking and iconic buildings, his ideas, both through writing and design, through built, un-built 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 filmmaker), 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. Therein, in Correa's passing, lies this lament for Bombay.

Charles Correa set up his practice in Bombay in 1958, returning from MIT after a Master’s Degree. His thesis, interestingly, was presented in the form of an animated film called 'You and your Neighbourhood'. He brought his concerns into his practice from the very outset. His early work can be seen in the context of the early post-independence years, where along with a few other practitioners like Habib Rahman and Balkrishna Doshi, an expressive internationalism defined the optimism of a Nation State. Public spaces like International Pavilions in the country's capital brought him in touch with the government as client, and this relationship continued right until the turn of the millennium, but with varying degrees of success. His design for the Gandhi Smarak Sangrahalaya in Ahmedabad (1958) is one of the finest examples of civic buildings that represent independent India.

At the same time, Correa built several houses that allowed him to explore the contexts and specificities of site and climate. Buildings in Ahmedabad led to his developing a template for what he called the 'Tube House' (1961) - a small open plan, two level, row house prototype that created comfort conditions within using passive means- where the design itself allowed for ventilating the house. This was built as an exploration of low income housing for the Gujarat Housing Board. This design is significant it became the fountainhead for alternatives in Ahmedabad, Kota, Lima, Bangalore, Bombay and New Bombay, and for all scales of housing, from housing the poor to housing the very well-off (as in the Sonmarg and the Kanchanjunga Apartments).

Correa's housing designs play out like the variations of a jazz soloist, riffing on a central theme, wandering away and returning, working and reworking ideas. The central theme was inevitably, the interface between the building and its beyond, the quietness of the interior space and the bustle of the public. In his housing designs, he always had place for the raucousness and unwieldiness of a city, of an old city like Bombay, set in its ways.

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 270* 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 precisely to function without them.

The public realm, as mentioned earlier, becomes central to Correa's architecture the poor. One of his proposals in the late '60s 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 the 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 the 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 Best Bakery tragedy in Bandra. There too, the people killed in 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 the 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, forty years down the line.

In the early seventies, Correa made a series of designs for squatter housing in Bombay. He proposed twin units of two room houses organised in clusters with open to sky space and organisational centrality, all with their own small courtyards opening out into larger community spaces, creating a hierarchy of territories and common ownership. This design was the precursor of the Belapur Housing in New Bombay (1983), now regarded as a significant landmark in mass housing in India. Correa was clear about not recreating the sub-urban sprawl in this part of the new city, but rather making a concentrated cluster of low-rise land use. Correa laid out a set of guiding principles that governs this development- incrementally, open-to-sky spaces, equity, dis-aggregation, pluralism, malleability, participation and income generation, principles he called ‘non-negotiable’. The housing units would be 'packed close enough to provide the advantages of high density, yet separate enough to allow for individual identity and growth options'.

It is the elegant drawings and old photographs from the freshly built scheme that we still recall with some nostalgia. In reality however, after about thirty years, the Belapur project has transformed considerably from that which it was originally intended for. Meant to be social housing for artisans with modest resources, with a basic shelter, site and services, it was intended to grow with accretion as the families grew economically better off. Today, it is a bit of a curate’s egg. Parts of it show clear indicators of gentrification rather than community living and growing together. Several signs of upper middle class aspiration and comfort are visible. Built over and over-built, on occasion demolished and rebuilt, individual houses turn their backs to the sensitively planned open spaces as only Mumbai's cautious middle class can. Balconies are bricked up, terraces are harnessed as extra rooms, windows closed for air-conditioning and cars parked everywhere. Elsewhere, it does seem that the original homeowners have moved out and a newer lot with no affiliations to the original scheme have come in, displaying current post-liberalisation aspirations and entitlements. The appreciation that the neighbourhood was designed by one of India's finest architects is academic and probably more in the minds of visitors and students who keep landing up there and wondering if they have the right address.

Many of Correa’s guiding principles are seen in the planning of New Bombay (now Navi Mumbai). Intended to house two million people across the harbour on the mainland, it was designed (along with Pravina Mehta and Shirish Patel) as a series of nodes strung along a central transport corridor like a string of pearls. New Bombay offered well designed urban neighbourhoods for contemporary living across scales. Here clear plots and wide roads with infrastructure, well placed gardens and pedestrian paths form the highlights of each node. Several projects of mass and affordable housing were designed by architects like Kamu Iyer, Uttam Jain, Raj Reval, Hema Sankalia and Correa himself. Navi Mumbai did take about thirty years to come into its own. Execution struggled far behind planning, local trains took more than ten years to set up, and international airport is still in the works and the legislative and executive branches of Bombay never shifted to the CBD in Belapur as was intended. But still, the new city is slowly finding its own identity away from Bombay. Still a lot remains to be realised, most significantly the effective and sustainable use of the water edge, the western seafront of Navi Mumbai and options of water transport. Even the node designed by Correa- Ulwe is only just being populated, and more by speculation rather than occupation because of its proximity to the chimera that is the airport. And, Correa would sadly live to see and record that squatters had begun to establish many pockets in his new town.

Back in the island city, Correa would be called upon by the Government of Maharashtra in 1996 to set up a committee to prepare and 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 the real chance for having a consolidated open space in the city that has one of the smallest amounts of open spaces in all the cities of 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 and alternative business enter is consolidating itself, populating the spaces that were once the 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 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 in by self-help housing in other parts of the city having locational advantage 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- thorough harnessing the power of the city.

What remains in Mumbai today is an aspirational population clamouring for the limited spaces and opportunities that she 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 within the ambit of real estate and not shared space, awaiting monetization. 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 Charles Correa had always talked about, something that he clearly identified as the spirit of the city is recession. The public realm, exists in 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 (and the world’s ) finest contemporary buildings, but might well be forgotten as Citizen Correa- a person who knew Bombay intimately, had the ideas to transform the city into a place for all, but for all his efforts was really not heard.