The pictures of the flooded city last Friday were not new, especially those of central Mumbai where rain water stirred with filth and garbage reached waist-level. Water-logging in parts of Mumbai is an old story. But the pictures of marooned, glass-façade, high-rises in the old textile mill areas forced a question: would the situation here have been different had the holistic plan for its redevelopment got the political nod?
As it happened, it was barely 48 hours after the master planner of that plan had been laid to rest. Charles Correa had gone from this world. The city that he had made his home, the city that he had wanted to make a less “terrible place to live in”, the city for which he generously ideated and dreamt big had saddened and frustrated him. Nothing encapsulated this as the quiet, Machiavellian, flattening out of the Correa plan for the textile mill lands in the 1990s.
Let the lobbies get their way on this land and Bombay (it had not been re-named then) will never ever be the same again, he told me during an interview then for a national news magazine. Over the last few years, as he watched its deliberate disintegration into a clutch of high-rises without promenades, public spaces, low-cost housing that he had envisaged, he got more frustrated.
Correa had not been prescient in the 90s. He was speaking from decades of engaging with the theme of urbanisation – how to build cities, what makes them work, how they die, what were ancient cities about, so on. The nearly 600 acres of textile mill land was this city’s best-ever chance at reinventing itself.
Eventually, as the spectacle between politics and money played out to marginalise all but those who could afford to buy or lease the high-rises, Correa laid the blame for this gentrification at the doors of two gentlemen, one a well-known politician and the other a well- regarded banker. “I knew them, had discussed the plan. But they let me down at the last minute,” he said to me earlier this year.
The two gentlemen he mentioned and their careers are, needless to say, thriving. Central Mumbai’s story is quite another matter. The high-rises bring alive his lines, “The prosaic architecture we create today is not due just to the banality of the forms we construct, but also due to the mundane briefs we address”, from his old essay “The Public, The Private and The Sacred”.
The rich and warm tributes paid to him last week from all quarters are not surprising. His imprimatur on the architectural world has been, and will continue to be, evaluated and admired. But Correa was not merely among t he world’s best architects; he was an urban planner, writer, speaker who regaled with his warmth, wit and deep understanding of diverse fields, and who brought ideas of j ustice and equity into planning and architecture.
He could quote Ivan Illich and Akbar in the same conversation. He could pull out his jottings to explain the intricacies of the Mandala and the city of Jaipur to an interested young reporter. Of course, he could also get impatient — booming voice and all — if he saw mistakes or during arguments such as with his Gateway of India plan.
“Cities have always been unique indicators of civilisation – all the way from Mohenjodaro to Athens, to Persepolis, to Peking, to Isfahan, to Rome. You can have great music created during rotten times, even painting and pottery, but never great architecture and cities,” he observed, urging Indians since the 1980s to treat cities as “national wealth”.
It is an idea that India embraced only in the last few years. Now, urbanisation is now a competition to create “smart cities”; Mumbai, a city of competing gated highrises; and the idea of Navi Mumbai that he co-authored, a piece of realty across the Mumbai harbour.