“Malls don’t excite me,” Charles Correa had told Harshavardhan Neotia, currently chairman of the Ambuja Neotia Group. At the turn of this century, malls were the new sites of consumption, and Neotia had plans for one in Kolkata. After much coaxing, Correa agreed, but, days after laying the foundation, the architect thought it was a bad idea to have a mall in Kolkata, and tore his design into shreds. After many meetings and visits to Mumbai by Neotia, Correa finally drew up a plan that would be far removed from the conventional air-conditioned box with imposing entries and escalators.
When the City Centre mall opened in Salt Lake, Kolkata, in June 2004, it was a hybrid mall with closed and open spaces, a kund, and ample seating outdoors. At a gathering some years ago, Neotia had shared: “The non-air conditioned area was designed as a traditional Indian bazaar with shops alongside the pavement. The idea of merging a traditional bazaar with a mall was a huge success.”
Fast growing as an IT hub of Kolkata, Salt Lake at the time had seen a lot of development, both in offices and residential complexes. If mall architecture is to be studied, there is certainly a deliberate attempt to exclude people of a class and type. City Centre mall knocked down its boundaries to allow everyone to come in, making it a hugely popular hub in this extension of Kolkata. Without walls, therefore, the residential block of about 60 units to the rear side of the mall merges seamlessly into the space.
It captured the spirit of Kolkata, not only in the Kalighat paintings on the walls, but also by validating the Bengali tradition of gathering with friends and family for addas. It isn’t unusual, therefore, to find the elderly seat themselves in front of the mall or along the steps in the early hours of the day, from where they can watch the world go by. Students, both in college and school, find it safe to hang out here with their friends after class hours. Correa had been mindful of a culture that thrives on interaction and allowed it to be backlit with a shopping experience. The effortless connection the mall has with the main road removes inhibitions, while the open areas with their bazaar-like feel make one forget this is a mall. The feeling is accentuated by the many entry and exit points.
Built over 400,000 sq ft, its horizontal layout tunes it to a human scale. Correa deconstructed the idea of the mall, keeping the shopping primarily to the ground and first floors while the second floor also has offices. This arrangement allows visitors to navigate the many blocks through its many internal streets. The blocks are designed to make space for courtyards and pavements. Very mindful of movement patterns, as he is in all his projects, Correa worked with a combination of closed box and open-to-sky spaces. A translucent fibre roof ensures there’s ample natural light inside the mall during the day. Mindful of the economic and cultural context of the mall, Correa gave City Centre a blend of contrasts, where the details become the sum of many parts.
This article appeared in the print edition with the headline ‘For One And All’