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Belapur Incremental Housing

New Bombay, India
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Belapur Housing.

Charles Correa's housing at Belapur, New Bombay, uses and re-interprets traditional Indian urban spatial syntax. And, by putting into practice some of Correa's social and economic ideals, which derive from the traditionally incremental method of building, the project promises to vitalise the satellite city's previously drear housing programme. It holds lessons for housing design and production in both developed and developing countries. Behind the eastern coastline of Bombay harbour, the hills descend into a series of dry brown valleys, splattered with dark green scrub. This is the site of New Bombay, an idea first promoted by Charles Correa and a group of colleagues in the 1960s as a means of reducing pressure on an old city physically constricted at the bottom of the peninsula between the harbour and the Indian Ocean, yet subject to an enormous-and increasing-influx of work-hungry country people. Instead of expanding further and further up the road and railway links of the peninsula, Bombay should, suggested Correa's group, colonise the undeveloped land on the other side of the great natural inlet of the sea and set up water communications between mother city and satellite.

At last, the New Bombay project seems to be taking off. National and municipal agencies have moved parts of their operations to the eastern side of the harbour and there is a healthy growth of private investment in new factories and offices. Housing is, of course, an integral component of the strategy, but is usually realised as serried ranks of system-built blocks already showing signs of decay. If the present process continues, New Bombay will consist of a series of (rather dull) work buildings set in a grim slurry of housing built on 50-year-old European patterns which, for climatic and cultural reasons, degenerate into squalor much faster than their models.

Hope and Tradition

Against this grim prospect, Correa's new housing scheme at Belapur offers hope. It is a model which draws on the immemorial patterns of Indian life while being related to the structure (physical and economic) of the New City. Belapur is at the foot of one of the brown valleys, separated from the harbour's blue-green sea by the flat strip on which the grey workplaces are growing. In the scheme, Correa has been able to put into practice several long held beliefs about the nature of housing and community.

Based on observation of traditional Indian settlements, he has suggested that cities should be developed using a spatial hierarchy which ranges from the private world of the individual dwelling, through the 'doorstep', to the communal court (which traditionally contains the well or common tap), to the greater public space - the maidan - the public promenade of the community. The geometry of Belapur is a direct interpretation of this syntax. The basic element is the house. For Correa 'the territorial privacy of families is of primary importance, and he believes that, in the Indian climate, 'open-to-the-sky space' is essential for family life. So each house has a private yard in which is a lavatory block. Lavatories are paired to reduce service runs and three or four pairs of houses are grouped round courts which, in turn, open on to larger public spaces where, given the boundless energy of Indian entrepreneurialism, shops and other enterprises will doubtless quickly spring up.

Social and Economic Predispositions

Correa's community and spatial precepts are linked to socio-economic ideals. He believes that prefabricted system building is wrong for India (and elsewhere) because it precludes individual involvement in home creation and it diverts resources from the limitless pool of the bazaar's craftsmanship to inefficient centralised production. So the strutures at Belapur are one or two storeys high, built traditionally and are seen as the basic armatures onto which families will model dwellings which reflect their particular life styles.

Traditionally, Third World housing has been incremental and the incremental model is endorsed by Correa because it allows families to build according to their perceived needs when capital becomes available. Incrementality acts as a spur to producing housing quickly because people who build their own houses are highly motivated to complete the job. Correa hopes that his own, strong, architectural expression will quickly be overlaid with the accretions of individualistic additions. And he believes that, if the project really works, intrinsic Indian decorative sensibility for 'low-energy high-visual' effects will transform its rather Iberian first appearance. In India 'even the poor people know that with things like mud, they can change their lives'.

At Belapur, Correa has been at least partially able to put into practice his notion of equity plots. He suggests that India's violent divisions between rich and poor could be largely overcome if house plot sizes were rationed to between 50 and 100 square metres. On such sites, the poorest could have a couple of trees, a lean-to and a tethered goat; the richest could develop town houses as sophisticated as those in London or Udaipur. The Belapur plot sizes are between 45 m2 to 75 m2 and family incomes of the richest are five times those of the poorest - a quite astonishing ratio when compared to the social/economic monocultures of Western housing estates.

Of course, Belapur is not perfect. For a start, there are no tethered goats. It is still in many ways a middle-class housing scheme. It does nothing to relieve the torments of India's very poor- except as paradigm. Nor is it clear how houses will be easy to expand incrementally. Pitched roofs and complicated sections do not make for very easy addition. But Belapur is a built manifesto and, like all manifestos, it tries to encompass everything. Correa has attempted a complex programme in which a revolutionary social proposal grows out of a deep appreciation of tradition. On top of all this is the architect's own expression, and though this may perhaps seem limiting in terms of the overall programme, it is essential because the concept was born in the mind of a person who thinks in terms of forms and spaces.

It is easy to assume that people who imagine in this way can do nothing to combat the horrendous problems of Third World poverty, that the statistics of poverty are too overwhelming for any sensitive individual to copy. But as Correa asks 'what is the moral advantage in not acting, in merely watching passively the slow degradation of life around you?' Nothwithstanding its problems, Belapur is a noble creation- and one that has much to teach the First World as well as the Third.