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India's top architect warns of urban breakdown

May 02, 2012


This picture taken on March 7, 2012, shows Indian architect Charles Correa gesturing during an interview with AFP in New Delhi. In a career spanning five decades, the Mumbai-based architect and planner from the former Portuguese colony of Goa has passionately advocated buildings adapted for their climate and environment and shaped by local culture and history. - AFP Photo

NEW DELHI:There’s a note of despair in his voice as Charles Correa, India’s most famous modern architect, discusses the multiplying shiny high-rise apartment blocks sprouting across the nation.

“You see the big ads, ‘Buy your house, it's time you moved up in life’, and it’s a horrible project. Twenty-five identical buildings, some swimming pools somewhere, and the angle is such that you see all 25 of them,” he says.

“They’re the kind of cloned building that used to be done by Stalin and the Russians or in the Bronx that people just hate and dread,” adds the celebrated Modernist.

The reason, he believes, is that people think tower blocks are “progressive” and “modern”, a perception derived from cities such as Dubai and Singapore which are visited and admired by India’s new elite.

“People see that as an image of progress,” he told AFP. “For people in Bombay (Mumbai) and Delhi, Dubai is a big source of inspiration. They go there for shopping. They think its a smart place I presume.”

Dubai, Correa has written in one of his many essays on architecture, is inspired by the imagery of Houston, the sprawling US oil town that impressed the sheikhs of the Middle East.

In a career spanning five decades, the Mumbai-based architect and planner from the former Portuguese colony of Goa has passionately advocated buildings adapted for their climate and environment and shaped by local culture and history.

Asked about the generic glass-fronted office blocks that line the streets of new towns like Gurgaon, the booming outsourcing and IT hub outside the Indian capital, he has no answer.

“What should I do? Go and throw stones at them?” he says.

- The Future -

While the battle for good design might be lost, Correa has not given up on his campaign for more livable cities in India as overcrowding, pollution and the destruction of open spaces gather pace.

At a recent conference in New Delhi, the sprightly 81-year-old could be found speaking to city planners from all over, stressing the need to protect forest areas and other public spaces for citizens to meet and socialise.

“They (India’s cities) are mostly getting worse, but the good thing is that they are a system of cities. It's not like Lagos dominates Nigeria, London dominates England and Paris in France. That's deadly,” he told AFP.

Correa’s hope is that small and medium-sized towns can be developed and grown, integrating efficient public transport and proper planning which are missing in the current urban centres of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata or Bangalore.

Medium-density residential buildings of five to six storeys are ideal structures, not the vanity high-rise projects whose occupants overwhelm local infrastructure and public amenities.

“You can’t go on overloading these existing cities. They will break down,” says the former chairman of the National Commission on Urbanisation and one-time Harvard professor.

“I do worry and despair that our government won't understand that you need a proactive role,” he sighs, holding his round thick-framed spectacles which recall one of his heroes, the French master Le Corbusier.

The scale of the task, and the stakes for the hundreds of millions involved, could not be larger.

India is a land of gigantic, often alarming numbers, but those available for the predicted explosion in the urban population are truly arresting.

Only 30 per cent of India’s 1.2-billion population live in cities currently, far lower than the 50.6 per cent in China or the 70-80 per cent in developed countries, according to the UN’s 2011 World Urbanisation Prospects report.

It forecasts India’s urban population will grow 28 per cent from its current level of 377 million to 483 million by 2020. By 2030, it will have grown 60 per cent to 606 million.

The McKinsey Global Institute research centre says India needs 700-900 million square metres of residential and commercial space a year, 350-400 kilometres of new metros and subways a year and 19,000-25,000 kilometres of road lanes.

“This urban expansion will happen at a speed quite unlike anything India has seen before,” conclude the authors of the 2010 report.

 ‘Not in Delhi or Bombay’

Correa’s home town of Mumbai with its 20,000 inhabitants per square kilometre on average has vastly exceeded the limits of its infrastructure, as demonstrated by its astronomical property prices and dangerously overloaded trains.

In the early 60s, Correa worked on a plan called the New Bombay which proposed opening up areas for office and residential space across from the main landmass that forms the heart of the city.

“When we were working on the New Bombay, the city was just four million. It was going to be eight million and we said 'it's never going to work if we are 8 million,” he says.

The plan was mostly ignored and today Mumbai, as it is now officially known, has a population of 12.5 million according to the 2011 census.