The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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To market, to market

Calcutta, even in its present state of decrepitude, retains its mystery and a certain element of surprise. The famous winding lanes and alleys of the city, with their shabby genteel old houses and ruins of grand mansions in both the “white” and “native” quarters of this colonial hangover of a metropolis, have contributed to its aura.

But after the Fifties, it determinedly became an uglier city. Only concrete boxes of various sizes have come up here since. The seminal contribution of Le Corbusier in conceiving and executing the plan of Chandigarh had influenced the built environment of New Delhi. Some of the best architects of the country worked there. In Ahmedabad, the modernist master himself and later his assistant Balkrishna Doshi were commissioned to design private homes. Mumbai has its Charles Correa. Somehow Calcutta was left out. At long last Correa is bringing his City Centre to Salt Lake. But building beautiful is not on Calcutta’s agenda. We have been responsible for spawning a middle-class slum named Salt Lake where people are allowed to make an exhibition of their bad taste. Calcutta’s strong civil engineering culture and economic downslide contributed to this visual anarchy.

Amidst this urban nightmare, old structures, sometimes labelled “heritage”, create charmed spaces of their own. The ugliness of Chatterjee International seems to recede when we look at Victoria House (beaux arts, according to architect Prabir Mitra) dominating the Esplanade area, the once-opulent interiors of Statesman House, the art deco splendour of Metro, that home of Hollywood stars, and other cinemas and buildings of that ilk. New Empire, Minerva – even Bharati and Bijali – and Tower House, opposite Tipu Sultan mosque, are significant examples of art deco. The list of impressive buildings and apartment blocks in the heart of the city itself is inexhaustible. Strand Road and Esplanade East are showcases of some grand neo-classical structures.

The babus forged a hybrid idiom of their own that is a heady mix of the classical and the vernacular that Desmond Doig called Bengali baroque. And they have survived in spite of Calcuttans taking them for granted.

But the big change is about to happen. Or so we are told by the backlit vinyl billboards promoting the City Centre. About four decades ago, long before he had become a name, Correa had designed two houses for the Sens of Sen Raleigh fame, one still extant on Ballygunge Circular Road. He was friends with the family. Now Bengal Ambuja Metro Development Limited has commissioned Correa to create the first public space to be designed by any architect of international eminence.

Harshvardhan Neotia, director, Bengal Ambuja, speaks in glowing terms of his collaboration with Correa. “Whenever there were constraints, he evolved to a higher plane of creativity,” says Neotia. The land was awarded under a tender floated by the Calcutta Metropolitan Planning Authority and it was stipulated that a marketplace with a broad mix of activities must come up there. Neotia had prepared the project brief but it “left a certain flexibility”.

The promotional literature of the City Centre that is a shopping plaza and a residential complex, comprising 60 designer homes, already bears the Correa stamp. It is a conglomeration of squares and rectangles that seeks to break the monotony of straight lines through variations in dimensions and levels. The openings and windows in these geometric shapes of concrete, too, echo the square. Keeping in mind the courtyard in Indian homes, the City Centre has a large open space at the centre. The obligatory kund in its midst, too, cannot be missed. Both the courtyard and kund are very recognisable Correa hallmarks.

Though now it is too early to jump to conclusions about the design, and going strictly by the evidence provided by the promos, the City Centre does not reflect the texture of life that is uniquely Calcutta’s, that is so different from that of, say, arid Delhi. This City Centre could have been built anywhere. It looks more sleek but functionally it is no different from the appalling shopping malls that have come up in the heart of the city, where yuppies are invited to, as the slogan goes “Shop till you drop.” Power dressing or jeans are de rigueur. Saris are only meant for the elderly. Tradition (handicrafts) is something you can buy over the counter. The cineplex will screen the likes of the pedestrian Devdas. The Residency holds the promise of living happily and youthfully ever after — like all high-end housing complexes.

Not the kind of place where flaneurs are welcome, where one can roam aimlessly, or spend hours window-shopping. For the only driving motive here is the profit principle.

Think of the City Centre and think of the pleasure of walking into the maze of New Market. The latter gratifies all your five senses free. Perhaps it is a cliché to sell New Market as the ultimate shoppers’ paradise but it is undeniable that we all love its functioning chaos. The accessibility of its shops and kiosks that overflow with their stock-in-trade, the division of intimate space and its penetrability contributes to the feel-good factor. Feeling good here not being equivalent to feeling like buying up everything in sight.

As to the secrets that each turn of a north Calcutta alley seems to hold, can serendipity survive in such cut-and-dried structures'

Artist Chittrovanu Mazumdar says: “You don’t force history. A city centre grows over the years. Places like Park Street have personal histories. There is not much of an exchange between architects, urban planners and artists here.”

One expected a different dimension in the design of the City Centre for it came from the drawing board of Charles Correa, who, along with colleagues Balkrishna Doshi and Raj Rewal have used the vernacular idiom to their own end. Correa, for example, came into his own in the conception of a hotel in Goa where he played around with space and illusions.

While stressing it is too early to hazard any comment, architect Kabir Ray says Correa meets his Waterloo in Calcutta. For one, the materials he uses cannot be used here. Many people were vying for it, he says. Correa was the “clincher”. The question is will it be another promoter’s project or is it something the city desires, he wonders. If the latter, there should have been some discussion with the people.

For Calcutta, the City Centre is all the more important for it is the first full-fledged project undertaken by Correa and it is bound to have a strong impact on young architects, says Ray. But will it be a straitjacket or will it have a liberating influence'

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