So What's It Really Like to Live In a Home that Charles Correa Built?

Friendly spaces that allow fantasies of all kinds. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria

While searching for a place to rent in Bangalore in 2008, I was attracted by a group of unique stepped buildings with a straight flight of staircases in a complex called Jeevan Bima Nagar, just east of expensive and noisy Indira Nagar.

The stepped housing units at Jeevan Bima Nagar in Bangalore provide the ideal setting for a typical Bangalore morning. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria

Amidst what looked like a slightly run-down colony, my broker had identified a flat available on rent on the topmost floor, with a single line comment, “Ideal for singles, sir!” The buildings resembled a terraced mountainside with each floor stepped back to gain an open space. As for the straight flight of steps, they seemed to reach out to the sky – to the space beyond.

A dreary staircase becomes a pulsating axis where day to day earth-bound existence meets the sky. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria

I remember my landlady saying that way back in the 1970s, the place was so far away from the city that nobody wanted to live there. “But it was the only place within our price range. With great effort we invested in the smallest unit,” she told me. The fact that each apartment had its own open-to-sky terrace and red oxide floors had sealed the deal for me.

The vibrancy of afternoon light simple whitewashed walls and a red oxide floor. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria

After shifting in, living in the space and experiencing its minute details, I was convinced that these design elements were not some accidental achievement, but the work of a master. From some of my Bangalore-based architect friends, to my great surprise and satisfaction, I discovered that I was actually living in a Charles Correa building! Nowhere else in the world would you be able to rent an apartment designed by a master architect like Charles Correa at regular rental rates and live in it without being repeatedly reminded of the privilege you enjoyed.

As I lived there I could see and experience the space as Correa had conceived it: people connecting to each other, one terrace to the other; children screaming in joy while running down the single flight staircases to join their friends on the street; the terraces lending themselves to a multitude of activities such as yoga, long sessions of hair oiling and combing, basking in the winter sun – visible and at the same time private behind a gentle screen of terrace plants and clothes hung out to dry. Behind this public interface, Correa had created a warm intimate space of red oxide floors and small balconies overlooking leafy backyards, with gentle natural light and cross ventilation, brightly painted doors and whitewashed walls. In short, spaces of peace, quiet and grace.

The open-to-sky terraces are bound by planters that are integral to the design. The profusion of plants provides a green screen with just the right mix of intimacy and connection. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria

Correa had designed Jeevan Bima Nagar for the Life Insurance Corporation of India in 1972-74 as a township for 15,000 persons, where every family had access to open-to-sky space, either as a personal garden or a terrace, as a pattern of living conducive to the climate and lifestyle of Bangalore. And I was more than happy living it.

In 2009, as a participant in a photography workshop organised on the theme of ‘Places I Like’ by German photographer Stefan Kopelkamm, hosted by the Goethe-Institut, I chose to work on Jeevan Bima Nagar. As part of the workshop I interviewed a family of five that had lived on rent in this township for over 15 years, without knowing or ever having heard of Correa, but who always had on their mind the creator of this ‘very fresh place’.

How long have you lived here?

For 15 years. When we came here, nobody bothered about this place, it was completely outside the city. See where the city has gone today. Although we came here because we did not have a choice, we have been very happy.

What are your feelings about this place?

Very pucca, very safe. Whether it is the corners, the lofts, the way furniture gets placed, the windows or the passages, the space is very well designed. Every nook, every corner has been utilised very well. It is very compact – just perfect for a family. The kitchen is large, unlike new apartments which only give an illusion of space. It is calm here, the air circulates freely and we have a lot of natural light. In most places, the ground, first and second floors are designed identically. Here each floor is different and has its own feel.

Friendly spaces that allow fantasies of all kinds. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria

What are the spots in the house that you like the most?

The kitchen, of course (says the lady of the house with a big smile). Compact and airy, it has been designed with care for the woman of the house, not like the kitchens in new flats where you can hardly stand. Then I like the hall because all our activities happen here. And the terrace is lovely – it is only because of the terrace that we get fresh air. It is a huge space.

The hall: the place where all activities take place. Photo: Peeyush Sekhsaria

Did you know that this place was designed by well-known architect Charles Correa?

No, we do not know who he is. Actually, the name would not mean anything to anybody living in these houses. As far as we are concerned we live in Jeevan Bhima Nagar and that’s it. But we have always wondered about the person who designed this space, who has paid so much attention to small things, created such a fresh place. Though we did not know his name, the creator of this place has always been on our minds.

What feelings will you have when you leave this house?

We will have to leave this house after some time. We have already started looking around for a flat. We know that our own house will never be as good as this one. For even if you spend Rs 40 lakh to buy a new apartment, you will not get a kitchen that you can stand in; the balconies are small and you can’t even hang out clothes to dry. There will be no storage space either. It will be impossible to get this kind of accommodation outside. We will miss this place and will leave this house with very good feelings. We will always remember this place as it is a ‘very fresh place’.

Peeyush Sekhsaria is an architect and geographer by training

Note: This article has been edited to replace the spelling of Bhima in the name Jeevan Bhima Nagar, which is used in Bangalore along with the spelling ‘Bheema’, with Bima, a more accurate transliteration of the Hindi word बीमा, which means insurance. The LIC housing complex in Borivili, designed by Charles Correa, is also called Jeevan Bima Nagar.