Charles Correa was one of the few truly Indian architects, who incorporated international modernism in the Indian context without copying it. Being a native of India, he understood the nuanced relationship between culture, traditions, and architecture, better than any top-level international architect ever could.
A child of Goa, a pupil of Ahmedabad, and a mentor to Bombay, he eventually made the whole of India his workplace.
He has famously said that “Bombay is a great city but a terrible place.” Today, Mumbai is home to over 2 crore people. Shortage of space is and has been its biggest problem for years. Starting from little interventions like modifying pavement usage according to its activities to planning the entire city of New Bombay, Ar. Charles Correa has really contributed a great deal to the development of India’s financial capital.
The main problem in Mumbai has always been too many people and not enough roofs to cover them with. Correa studied and provided apt and unconventional solutions to this problem. His work in low-cost housing is vast and exemplary.
One of these projects is the incremental Belapur Housing. Belapur is located in Thane district, then just on the fringes of Navi Mumbai. It is a node in Nerul, some two kilometres from the centre of New Bombay.
The site area of 5.4 hectares was developed to house 500 people (about 100 families) per hectare. Work on the project began in 1983, taking three years to complete, with the first residents moving in by 1986.
The project has a single principle at its roots: an individual plot for each dwelling to allow for future expansion as and when necessary.
The scheme was designed to cater to a variety of income groups: lower, middle, and upper. Though the range of income groups is wide (a ratio of 1:5) the plot sizes vary less, from 45 sqm to 75 sqm. Initially, Ar. Correa wanted the same plot size for all, but that had to be modified due to affordability and rules of lending agencies.
Each house has its own plot and shares no common wall with its neighbour, allowing for it to have its own small open space. This is beneficial in two ways: a sense of individuality even in a dense community and for expansion as and how seen fit by the owners. This was commended as a feature of good contemporary planning.
The overall development is low-rise high density, in-keeping with most of Correa’s other low-cost housing projects. There are five types of dwellings designed according to plot size, the smallest being just a single room with a toilet, and the most elaborate a two-storeyed tenement. The houses have no common walls, but the toilets of two neighbouring dwellings do, for ease of plumbing services.
Here, too, Charles Correa ingeniously uses his trademark hierarchical open spaces to create a sense of home and community. The smallest open space is the individual yard of each house. Seven dwellings are grouped around an intimate courtyard of about 8m x 8m.
Three such clusters come together around a larger space of about 12 m x 12 m. Three of these clusters combine around the largest community space of 21m x 21 m. The community spaces open out to a seasonal stream (nullah) flowing through the centre of the site which also carries the stormwater during rains.
All the units are arranged such that one house can abut the boundaries of two others. No windows are placed on those sides to maintain the privacy of the residents. All the units are built in load-bearing masonry, plastered and painted. The structure was kept simple so that the houses can be constructed even by local unskilled labourers, giving them employment.
The overall feel of the settlement is that of a quaint village, with small close-set white-washed houses topped with Mangalore tiles. The front yards are paved with Shahabad, the most popular stones used in angans.
The brilliance of Correa’s planning, especially for housing, is always that it is easy to understand but very difficult to come up with. Belapur housing makes a statement which combines the principles that Correa believed to be most important in housing: incrementality, open-to-sky spaces, equity and a strong sense of community.
The movement within the development is entirely pedestrian, with parking spaces allotted on the fringes. The open spaces flow from small court to large community space with ease.
THE PROJECT TODAY
However, the Belapur of today is very different from what it was in the 80s. it is now a prominent business district. The trend of high-rise housing schemes has caught up with it. Considering this scenario, the low-rise dense settlement might seem like it is taking up way too much space and sheltering not nearly enough people.
There is hardly any space for car parking in an age where even low-income families have at least two two-wheelers. Being an incremental housing scheme, it is expected that the owners would make changes as needed. However, the requirements increased drastically which led to many houses being remodelled or rebuilt.
The residents themselves did not want the ‘village’ feel. If we see Belapur housing today, it seems to be teetering on the wrong edge of sophisticated low-cost housing and shabby haphazard growth.
Does this mean that the scheme is obsolete in the current context? No, because Charles Correa carefully analyzed the requirements of the then suburb and came up with the most effective solution for that time. And while Correa could not control how his concept would be changed by users several years later, the overall feel of the space is still intact—a result of great planning.
In today’s age of ‘compact’ and ‘space-saving homes’, there are ample open and green spaces right in the middle of a bustling city. The community spirit still prevails in the residents of Belapur incremental housing, despite today’s apartment culture promoting people to be locked inside their own little boxes. And that is the success of Ar. Correa.
No one could have visualised the growth spurt that hit Mumbai in the past four decades. The city continues to grow and change. No one can really predict how a city is going to be just a decade later. The best the architects and the users, the citizens at large, can do is adapt, and try to make their great city also a great place.
- Khan Hasan-ud-din, (1987), Charles Correa: Architect in India, Mimar Book, Singapore, Concept Media Ltd.