| Correa with wife in “one of the greatest cities of Asia”. Picture by Aranya Sen
Those who think they are fighting a losing battle trying to preserve Calcutta’s vanishing architectural heritage will find a very vocal advocate in Charles Correa. The architect, who was here to supervise the construction of the City Centre he has designed for Salt Lake, came out strongly in support of conservation. And he conveyed the same to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee.
“This is a real city. It is one of the greatest cities of Asia. People would not come to see Tokyo but Calcutta. They did not go to Singapore then. Even now, Singapore is not much of a city… You must save those buildings,” said Correa, meaning the rundown colonial structures in the Chowringhee and Dalhousie Square area.
And Correa, who teaches at MIT in the fall term, squarely blamed the Rent Control Act for the ruination of both Calcutta and Mumbai. The Act came into force during World War II, and around 1945, people began to sublet their rented premises. Now, he said, things have come to such a pass that the end-user pays Rs 50 per sq ft, the landlord gets 50 paise per sq ft, and the people in between rake it in. If the in-between people are removed, the landlord stands to gain much more. Thereby, he stressed, the whole tax base will change and more taxes will be generated.
In a lighter vein, he said, while as a stopgap measure it is fine, conservation cannot be achieved by “goody-goody boy scouts” collecting donations.
“This is an illness, like cholera or typhoid, and you have to look at the root cause.” Correa said he had formed his opinions after having worked on a commission on rent control during Rajiv Gandhi’s regime. They found that neither Bangalore nor Delhi, but Calcutta and Mumbai were the cities worst hit by the Act.
Correa also underlined the need for “reclaiming the Hooghly” and constructing a cultural centre on the river. “A garden and the whole thing should be built into the Hooghly. That way, you don’t lose the landscape,” he said.
People can enjoy an art exhibition or a performance and a tram ride down the Strand should add to its charm.
He felt that the city was being “pulled away from the river” like London. Like Paris or Rio de Janeiro, it should a “celebration of the river... Varanasi should be a better model for Calcutta,” he maintained.
Correa made these suggestions to the chief minister and bureaucrats when he met them on Friday. “You have to bring the city back to its feet. And I am not talking of commercial exploitation of the city,” said Correa, who has made such appeals in the past, too. Needless to add, they have fallen on deaf ears.
The City Centre, a joint enterprise of the CMDA and Gujarat Ambuja Cements Limited, is “not a project, but a piece of city”. A “pluralistic mix”, it will bring together people of different economic backgrounds.
In DC-Block of Salt Lake, it will have open plazas. People and cars will be separated. It will be ready for business by Diwali 2003. This is Correa’s first public project in Calcutta.
Correa is busy with two international projects — a large $ 150-million neuroscience research centre he is designing for MIT and a community centre for Aga Khan in Toronto.