By Adam Plowright -
THERE is 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," he adds.
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 said. "For people in Bombay (Mumbai) and Delhi, Dubai is a big source of inspiration. They go there for shopping. They think it’s 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 shaikhs 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 Delhi, he has no answer. "What should I do? Go and throw stones at them?" he says.
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 said.
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.
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.