I first encountered Charles in the early sixties when I was in my late teens. He had returned from the US and he and his wife Monika had come to live on the first floor of a sprawling bungalow on Mount Mary Hill in what was then the leafy Mumbai suburb of Bandra.

It was a stone’s throw from our bungalow. My parents knew his and Monika had asked my mother for advice on domestic help. We invited the young couple over a couple of times.

He immediately struck me as being different from anyone I had ever met. He had a casual informality and sported his later signature gymkhana-style cane chairs in the apartment. Even his city office had these later.

The large drawing room of his apartment was mostly occupied by drawing boards for draftsmen during the day; a small corner served as a space to meet guests. This only added to his persona as someone out of the ordinary.

When I last met him, in Delhi for the Urban Age conference last November, he recalled an amusing incident to underline my father’s impeccable manners.

At dinner at his home, he had served my father a whiskey and added water, at my father’s request. It turns out that the colourless liquid that Charles had mixed into the whiskey was actually vodka, but my father had been too polite to mention this. However, when my father asked for a refill, he demurely requested that it be topped up with water, this time.

'Path-breaking' visionary

It was in Charles’s apartment that I was initiated into having my first Bloody Mary – the vodka must have been a rare tipple those days.

At a dinner party in my parents’ house, he was happy I was going up to Cambridge and advised me to visit Ely Cathedral. Unschooled in anything much to do with architecture, I wondered at such a strange suggestion, since everyone else was recommending what to study or wear there.

There is an uncanny connection with a film I was half-watching on TV last night, less than an hour before he passed away. It was a feature on the hit Broadway musical Hair, which I had seen in New York before returning to India in 1968.

The first piece I ever wrote for the Times of India, while anxiously aspiring to join the newspaper, was on Hair for the Sunday edition. Charles complimented me on this article as well as on another on American political paranoia.

In later stints as resident editor of the Indian Express and the Times of India in Mumbai, I often published Charles, usually as the front-page anchor piece at the bottom of the page.

I often referred to his almost literally path-breaking article in the early sixties in the magazine Marg, where he, with Shirish Patel and the late Pravina Mehta, made a compelling case for altering the north-south traffic axis in Mumbai in favour of an east-west trajectory.

This was the seminal proposal which paved the way for the twin city, Navi Mumbai, on the mainland across the harbour and helped absorb much of the development which would have otherwise occurred in Greater Mumbai.

Dispelling urban myths

While he should justly be complimented on his brilliant buildings, public and private, in the country and abroad, he should also be recognised for heading the National Commission on Urbanisation, which produced voluminous reports in 1988.

The slim red volumes still adorn my bookshelf immediately above my workplace. The report taught me several things which still confuse urban experts till today.

First, compared to other South Asian countries which have “primate” cities, like Kathmandu, Colombo and Karachi, India’s urban growth is fairly well dispersed, with many more towns and cities.

Secondly, contrary to reports – particularly in the media – India’s urban growth is by no means rapid. In his own city of Mumbai, the population growth is decelerating, with an absolute decline in numbers in the island city.

While we and our wives continued to be friends, I disagreed with him publicly on one occasion. He had convinced Tasneem Mehta, Mumbai convenor of INTACH, that the plaza at the Gateway of India, the city’s iconic space, should be restored to its original condition.

On opposing sides

This meant that the road from Regal Cinema would come to the Gateway, turn right and head towards to the Taj Mahal hotel. This would have bifurcated the plaza where thousands of people – mainly visitors to the city – congregate.

My fellow INTACH trustee, the architect and activist PK Das, and I were eventually able to convince Mehta that Charles’s proposal would have deprived the city of valuable open space with a road bisecting it.

When we asked the visitors there, we found that for many coming from interior parts of Maharashtra and farther afield, this was the first – and perhaps only – time they came so close to the sea.

On behalf of INTACH, Das submitted an alternative plan that had to run the gauntlet of many who supported Charles’s proposal, not least in the municipal corporation’s heritage committee. It argued for keeping the plaza open, without a road through it.

It was finally sanctioned, though not with all the amenities originally proposed, which would have relocated all police and other booths below the surface.

Das and I formed the Mumbai Waterfronts Centre in 2007 and shared the first Urban Age-Deutsche Bank $100,000 award with an NGO working in slums and sanitation. It was for a project or projects which had made the biggest difference to people’s lives. The Gateway scheme figured among ours.

Man of many interests

Charles had a huge variety of interests, unusually perhaps for an Indian architect. He was widely read and had an avid interest in films and music. He could cite many such interests in conversation, which flowed freely.

He also had a gift with words. A line which I have quoted so many times, always with attribution, is: “Mumbai is a wonderful city, but a terrible place.” It sums up so many things about our beloved, maddening metropolis.

In the '60s, the Los Angeles-based planners Wilbur Smith & Associates had recommended the construction of a ring road, Manhattan-style, around Mumbai.

The fledgling environmental movement, with the Save Bombay Committee and Bombay Environmental Action Group, opposed it. We did not think, then as now, that reclamation would solve the city’s problems and certainly not when it is meant only for cars, then a much smaller number than they now are.

The proposal has just got a new lease of life, with the Union Environment Ministry clearing a Rs 12,000 crore 36-km coastal road to connect the northern suburbs to the southern tip of the city.

Disagree, not dispute

In the '70s, Charles took exception to our opposition and I was always apprehensive of getting flak for objecting to coastal roads, then called the West and East Island Freeways. I never had the nerve to discuss this with him, but knew that we were not in agreement on this. But he never let this get in the way of our friendship.

In 1992, he wrote:
If any one of us had been around 80 years ago, Marine Drive would never have got built. After all, there are many compelling reasons to oppose it. It brings more traffic. It involves reclamation (that filthy eleven-letter word!), adding more buildings between us and the sea. It’s obviously very bad news. Why don’t we just continue using Queen’s Road?

Yet, aren’t you glad it happened? Not only is Marine Drive a vital artery for the city, it is also without any doubt Bombay’s single more powerful urban image. The presence of this great gesture, precisely defining the edge between land and water is one magnificent sweep, is what sustains us as we battle with the urban mess and chaos that constitute 99 per cent of Bombay (just as the imagery of Manhattan’s skyline creates the élan necessary to survive Brooklyn or Queens)…

Still I know, our “environmentalists” will oppose the new artery as a pollutant and an eyesore. Well, regarding pollution, don’t they realise that all the lakhs of people who live in Mahim and Dadar will at long last be free of the horrendous petrol fumes caused by hordes of motor vehicles struggling through those congested areas? That’s a decisive advantage (unless of course you happen to live in Malabar Hill or Colaba). As for the eyesore bit, all one can ask is: what are the credentials that accompany such opinions? Do they really understand what they are pontificating about? Take a look at Marine Drive. But then again, that would take us back 80 years or so. When things actually got done.

It appeared in the Times of India. And I published it, much to my chagrin. You couldn’t argue with Charles Correa.