Kamu Iyer passes away: Revisiting noted architect's 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbai's metamorphosis

Kamu Iyer's observations present us with an alternative genealogy to understand Mumbai as it is today, writes Mustansir Dalvi.

Mustansir Dalvi September 19, 2020 18:49:35 IST
Kamu Iyer passes away: Revisiting noted architect's 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbai's metamorphosis

Kamu Iyer. Image via Facebook

Editor's note: The prolific Mumbai architect Kamu Iyer passed away on 18 September. The following is a 2014 interview featuring Iyer in conversation with Mustansir Dalvi, when Iyer's book Boombay: from Precincts to Sprawl had just been released. The interview has been republished here with due permission from Mustansir Dalvi.

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Architect Kamu Iyer’s new book is Boombay: from Precincts to Sprawl, in which he dispels the notions of the city growing only organically. Right from early childhood, he talks of growing up in a ‘planned precinct’, where the city held back its chaos, while order, inclusivity and contemplation ruled. In these areas of Bombay, planning order and social order went hand in hand. This allowed for the absorption of migrants from several parts of the Indian sub-continent to come to the megapolis to seek a life. The buildings which came up in these several precincts defined the urban fabric of the city for almost fifty years, until very recently; where they are being systematically undermined by what Rahul Mehrotra has called ‘impatient capital’. But in their heyday, from the late twenties to the late fifties, the architecture that emerged was open and expressive and self-similar, not hidden behind gates, watchmen and CCTV’s.

Iyer’s childhood, as he describes in his book, was spent in the areas of the Hindu and Parsee Colonies in middle Bombay. In the fifties, he went to architecture school, where he was taught and later worked with the very architects whose designs made these precincts. The 'planned city' that emerged from the initiatives of the City Improvement Trust was a tram ride away from the imperial piles of South Bombay. The colonial expressions in and around the erstwhile Fort had run out of steam by the first decade of the last century. In a sense, it is urban design, rather than architecture that forms the final contribution of the colonial state to the city of Bombay.

In 2000, Iyer edited Buildings that Shaped Bombay, a monograph on the work of GB Mhatre, whom he had as a teacher in college and whom he briefly worked with. Mhatre was perhaps the best architect whose canvas was the planned precinct, whether the Oval Maidan stretch, the Marine Drive, the Pherozeshah Mehta Road or indeed the Five Garden developments. Iyer has lived in a GB Mhatre designed building for the large part of his life, and the lessons learnt, both subliminally and through active critiques and debates on what architecture is appropriate have governed his professional life and his practice.

His education stood at the cusp of change from the slow decline of (locally adapted) Beaux-Arts practices, when the architectural education was still ensconced in the Art School, to the emerging Modernist possibilities being explored by the various practices prolific at the time. Iyer’s practice continues in the present, more than half a century after he started his firm ‘architects’ combine’ with friends from architecture school. He is both prolific and critical in his designs. He has, in this book, several sharp observations about the present, the city turning from a fabric of precincts to the boom of suburban sprawl, where real estate monetization and self-help appropriations exist side by side.

I am very pleased to engage Kamu Iyer in the conversation that follows where he elaborates on several of the themes I have mentioned. While his new book tells us the tale of the Bombay of over three-quarters of the last hundred years through his perspective and reminisces, his observations also present us with an alternative genealogy to understand the city as it is today.

Kamu Iyer passes away Revisiting noted architects 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbais metamorphosis

Front cover of Kamu Iyer's book - Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl. Published by Popular Prakashan, 2014

“I have always lived in apartment buildings that stood on individual plots but I had friends who lived in other types of houses. Arun Ranade lives in a chawl at Girgaum, Vinodini Gajaria, till her end, lived in a chawl among a group of them in a gated community called Halai Bhatia Mahajan Wadi, Jehangir Choksi lived at Cusrow Baugh, a housing enclave for Parsees and JB Fernandes, an architect associated with Ridley Abbot the designer of New Empire and Liberty cinemas, lived at Khotachi Wadi, an urban village in the heart of Girgaum.

The variety in house typologies, all of which exist even now, make layers that add to the richness of the city. Bombay is a palimpsest in which the imprints of successive typologies of housing and their individual histories overlap. They did not evolve in a sequence. Most grew independently and simultaneously. But the apartment building which, appeared first in Bombay, has changed the most. It is constantly outgrowing its form.” — excerpted from Boombay: from Precincts to Sprawl.

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What are your earliest memories of Bombay? We take a lot of its urban fabric, especially the developments of the thirties and the forties for granted. Even today, they form the backdrop of our lived experience. Was that also true for your growing-up years or do you have memories of the city 'filling up', as it were?

My earliest memories are from 1938 when I was six years old. I lived in Hindu Colony at Dadar till my ninth year after which I lived at the northern end of Parsi Colony. Both areas were part of a planned neighbourhood. The areas I lived and studied in were planned but many parts of Bombay that I saw from an early age sitting in a tram appeared crowded and disorderly. Buildings were close to one another and there was little or no space between them. The streets were sometimes winding and buildings were higher than in my neighbourhood.

In contrast, both Hindu and Parsi colonies had houses and spaces between them placed regularly. Houses stood on individual plots and there was space outside the house to play in. This made me feel that the city was not the same all over and there was more to it than what I was used to in my locality. What Bombay might have been before the thirties is, for me, a matter of speculation.

You studied architecture in the Sir JJ School at a time when the most prolific and significant architects in Bombay were also its faculty and driving force. There has perhaps never been a time in the city when academia and practice were so synonymous. What do you think has been the lasting legacy of the Sir JJ School?

In the '50s, when we were students, the school of architecture itself was small and it was a part of the Art school. The number of professionally qualified architects was also small — there were more engineers practising as architects because you needed only a surveyor’s license from the Bombay Municipal Corporation to sign building plans for approval. I read many years later that the school was always short of teachers and Foster King, during his tenure as (acting) head of the school, encouraged senior students to help their juniors in their studies. He also sought the help of professional architects to teach in the school. Whether it was for survival in a profession inundated with engineers or love for architecture, most felt duty-bound to teach.

The profession, represented by the Indian Institute of Architects, also took interest in students because most of its prominent members were teaching at the school. The Institute also had its nominees in the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) examination board. The institute's concerns were largely with the profession, unlike the present day when the emphasis is on conference jamborees.

As students, we got the benefit of the experience of the practising architects of the city. The school, from its inception, had luminaries like George Wittet, Claude Batley, Foster King and in later years GB Mhatre, Durga Bajpai, Jehangir Billimoria and a host of others. The situation in other professional colleges was similar, especially the medical colleges attached to hospitals. The best doctors were 'honorary' in public hospitals and their services were available both to students and patients who could not have otherwise afforded it. Over the years the custom of having practising professionals teach ceased but fortunately the school of architecture continues the tradition of inducting professionals in design studios, juries and lectures. This is good for the school.

Was Modernism taught by default when you were in architecture school? It certainly was when I studied in Sir JJ in the eighties. The Modernist agendas and processes, fueled by the works of the Modern masters and their manifestos had got normalised by then. Was there debate over what architecture was appropriate when you were a student?

When I was a student, the Beaux-Arts system adapted to Indian conditions by Claude Batley was prevalent. Teaching was centred on the study of classical and Indian orders, their proportions and details and drawing them up skillfully. There was also a study of historical styles. For instance, there was a subject called composition in which you composed on sheet elements of a style and rendered it to make an attractive drawing. The emphasis was on drawing and rendering and little else which was frustrating to most of us. We found it easier to understand what we were drawing only when we actually saw the building. We could understand the Doric Order only when we saw the Town Hall.

Kamu Iyer passes away Revisiting noted architects 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbais metamorphosis

Study of the Basilica of Maxentius - History Composition at the Sir JJ School of Art, circa, 1940, by GS Kalkundri. Image via archives of Sir JJ College of Architecture.

We realised that drawing had limitations and there was more to a building than what appeared on its front. In the design studios, elevations carried more weight than plans and if there was a mismatch between the inside and outside it did not matter as long as the elevations were attractive. The elevation had to have 'elevation features', which meant embellishment. This system was done away with in my second year at school.

By the time we came to the third year, though the earlier method of teaching was discontinued, the approach to design continued in which the plan and elevation of a building were different elements designed separately. We also had a studio in the third year called Specialised History in which you had to design a building for modern use but adapt and modify, if need be, a traditional style of architecture for the design of the facade. This was a dichotomy difficult to comprehend.

Kamu Iyer passes away Revisiting noted architects 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbais metamorphosis

Design for a Small Museum' Specialized History Drawing at the Sir JJ School of Art, circa, 1940, by ND Desai. Image via archives of Sir JJ College of Architecture.

We were a group of friends who felt differently though we did not quite understand Modernism. But examples of early modern architecture in books then, reading about the Bauhaus, Howard Robertson's books and seeing Frank Lloyd Wright's work in magazines convinced us that we needed to understand Modernism as a movement. We realised soon that a movement becomes one only when people also think similarly in their respective fields. We looked around us. In the Art section of the school, some students were moving away from pictorial art, a set of artists formed the Progressive Group and exhibited their work in the city. TS Eliot was a departure from the romantic poets on whose works we grew up and J Krishnamurthy, who used to give public lectures in the school compound during winters, was telling us to set aside all gurus and their teachings and instead find out for ourselves.

Kamu Iyer passes away Revisiting noted architects 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbais metamorphosis

Le Corbusier at the High Court of Punjab and Haryana. Image via www.highcourtchd.gov.in

You were witness to Le Corbusier’s buildings coming up in Chandigarh. What kind of influence did his work have on students of architecture in Bombay?

The biggest impact was Le Corbusier. His design for the Chandigarh High Court stunned us all because it was a major departure from the 'box' and the modernism of the Bauhaus which we had by then become familiar with. We argued among ourselves whether a building can be seen as an object by itself or as a part of a larger picture of the street and the city. To find out we spent time walking around the city and cycling in the suburbs looking at buildings and streets, market places and other commonly used places and discussing in the canteen. This taught us more than making drawings in the studios.

There were debates but these were more between those in favour of Frank Lloyd Wright's organic architecture and those supporting the International style. Le Corbusier appealed only to a few and his work was a topic for discussion among them. The transition in the school was gradual. At the same time, modern architecture was also emerging in the city.

There has not been an adequate assessment of the architecture of the sixties and the seventies. The influence of architects in Bombay as a dominant force nationally was already in decline by the end of the fifties. Delhi and Ahmedabad had become the new capitals of modernist expression.

On the contrary, Bombay in the sixties and seventies saw a boom in building activity. The high rise buildings in Nariman Point, industrial complexes with sophisticated buildings for advanced processes and apartment and office buildings for ownership were all coming up at a brisk pace. The typologies of the apartment building and the high rise towers are ' Bombay Firsts'. Delhi and Ahmedabad appear as leaders of modernist expression but buildings that came up there were mostly institutional, built for the government and public bodies. Most architects were heavily influenced by Le Corbusier at first and Louis Kahn later. The buildings that came up were monumental, each vying with the other for attention.

In Bombay, the situation was different. Clients were demanding. They insisted on strict adherence to programme, cost and time schedules. They also said that a building had not only to be good to look at but also to live in, the latter being more important. In other words, their demands were exactly what modern architecture exhorted- the rational use of space, structural clarity and no mismatch between interior space and external expression.

These decades also witnesses the withering of the post-independence/republic euphoria. Your practice was already into its second decade by then. How do you remember those times, and in retrospect today how do you assess their influence?

The spurt in building activity in the '60s gave young architects work. Clients recognised the need for an architect's services in a project. That itself was a departure from the past when an architect was appointed only to ' beautify' the facade. Young architects got projects for designing interiors or industrial buildings or for apartments promoted by developers. As young practitioners, we got industrial projects which instilled in us a discipline of keeping to time and cost schedules. We also did some houses in Ahmedabad and Bangalore as also a residential school and many small projects. The variety of work and interaction with clients added to our 'experience bank'. We discussed our work in the studio and we learnt soon enough that every project, regardless of its size, had its own complexities and no job was too small for the office to handle.

The sixties and seventies were still idealistic and euphoric though it started waning towards the late '70s. Cynicism crept in when some architects saw architecture more as a business than as a profession. Developers were largely responsible for this perception. Architects who looked at their projects as a search and introspected on them when they were completed could not reconcile with the commercialization of architecture that was getting rampant.

Modernism took different forms. In Delhi and Ahmedabad architects educated at CEPT and SPA did serious work though most of them adapted the language of Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn. In Bombay, commercially oriented architects blindly copied western models without thinking about the suitability of such buildings to Indian conditions while the others plodded on, attempting to create architecture that evolved from a past understanding of materials and ways of handling them, construction methods and forms suitable for the context in which they were situated.

Kamu Iyer passes away Revisiting noted architects 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbais metamorphosis

CIDCO Low Income Group Housing, Vashi, New Bombay, 1991. Image via Architect's Combine

The constant clamour today is that the housing stock in the city is inadequate. But there have been mass housing projects in the past, generated by the state accommodating all levels of housing. You have designed mass housing projects in New Bombay as well as in Karnataka. Is there still a future for projects of this kind?

Housing is generally affordable if it is done by public bodies because developers and their architects are not interested in housing other than that for the affluent. Their argument is that land costs are high due to scarcity and it does not make economic sense to construct smaller flats. Architects who are on the bandwagon argue that since land is scarce FSI has to be high and buildings tall. This puts those needing affordable housing out of the reckoning. So it becomes the responsibility of government and public bodies to supply housing for the have-nots.

Unfortunately, the housing authority does not have enough land since almost all land is owned privately. Despite that, there is a future for public housing, cooperative ownership and self-help groups. But for this to happen there must be a concerted effort and political will. Providing affordable housing is a daunting task but it is not insurmountable but the political class and bureaucracy need to know that just as a society is only as strong as its weakest section, a city's quality depends on how its poor live.

How do you assess the decline of both the rental paradigm as well as the cooperative movement on housing in Bombay?

Affordable rental housing is nonexistent and is not likely to revive even if the Rent Act, which is always unfairly blamed for the shortfall, is repealed. Today cooperative ownership of property which, again, is a Bombay First, is a viable solution. In this system either a cooperative society is formed before a site is purchased and a building is built on it or is formed after a developer hands over a building to individual buyers of flats in the building. Flats become more affordable when a society is formed before a building is constructed because it eliminates the developer's profit margin. Moreover, he bases his price on the current cost of land which keeps varying all the time. Forming societies before construction has declined in recent years because all land in the city is cornered by developers and getting approvals is time-consuming and cumbersome.

How would you address the symptom of swift gentrification that seems at affect inclusive growth in the city? I see aspiration fulfilment through ownership and the inevitable influence of the developer/ speculator as the main factors. Would you agree?

Gentrification is a recent phenomenon. It is a part of a vicious cycle of inflated land prices, a typology of housing that is inherently expensive to construct, maintain and live in and a marketing strategy that lists exclusivity as one of the unique features of a project.

Gentrification is inbuilt into the way housing projects are designed, which basically are gated communities containing stand-alone, high-rise towers with large floor plates. The open space in these gated communities is developed as gardens for the exclusive use of the community. The contrast between these high-end towers and Dadar/Parsi Colony is palpable. In the Parsi Colony, most of the apartment blocks are exclusively for the Parsis. Yet segregation is imperceptible because the streets, gardens and spaces around the buildings are for all. In earlier developments, gated communities were for people belonging to a caste or religion or a subculture group but within the wadi or Baugh, there was no class division. The rule was “you are welcome to stay here if you belong to my caste or religion" now the rule is “you are welcome to live here if you have the money".

Gentrification distorts social balance. Bombay, unlike New Delhi, was not stratified. It was more egalitarian than most cities and gentrification does not fit in Bombay's ethos. Interestingly, when the Greater Bombay Plan was being drafted the British Government appointed a panel to advise on housing. The panel, in which Claude Batley was a member, stressed that neighbourhoods should be inclusive and segregation of people into income or social groups should not be encouraged. Planning should provide for mixed housing in neighbourhoods. The suggestion has been overlooked; instead distorted land prices and investable surplus funds with a few have resulted in ample built space for investors but not for housing the majority of the people living in the city.

Kamu Iyer passes away Revisiting noted architects 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbais metamorphosis

Back cover of Kamu Iyer's book - Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl. Published by Popular Prakashan, 2014

Your book Boombay: from Precincts to Sprawl has been several years in the making. I have been privileged to read some of its early drafts. Could you describe the processes that went into settling upon its final form?

My book has taken years to write. I had no intention to write because my observations of the city over the years were subjective and I did not think anyone would be interested. I used to share them with friends now and then. People would tell me to put down what I saw or knew in some form or other. My friend Shekhar Krishnan and Vaishnavi Chandrashekhar planned a series of conversations which would be recorded and made available as oral history. This did not happen. Charles Correa was largely responsible for taking it further. He insisted on my writing a book. That is how I started.

The first version was structured around three frames through which I looked at the city. It was illustrated in the usual manner. People I showed it to said that the book was a personal view, yet I was in the background. I was not sure if a first-person account would be taken seriously. That doubt took a long time to resolve.

When I started, I wondered what type of book would convey my view without a bias. I also found that books about Bombay were either coffee table books with nostalgic imagery or academic books with references and substantiation of every other thing. Most of those books were awfully boring because only words do not tell the story of a city. Likewise, pictures alone cannot tell you why a city looked the way it did. A city as a living entity consists of so many things which have to be lived through. The ideas I was putting down were also visual and I thought the book should have both words and pictures to tell the story. The difference would have to be that the words and pictures tell the same story. It would be a parallel narrative.

I find this most interesting as it is a book that defies genres, being a document, a chronology, a critical assessment and a subjective viewpoint all in one.

Since I was writing in the first person it was easy to structure it like a journey through different stages of my life. It takes you from my schoolboy days to my time in architecture school and later, my professional life. I thought it is important to find out why and how a city grows or metamorphoses. I could do that through analysis, diagrams, maps and sketches. That is what makes it difficult to classify the book. It is like the Bombay Bhel that has a little of everything.

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Mustansir Dalvi is an architect, author, editor and urban commentator. He is professor of architecture at Sir JJ College of Architecture. He collaborated with Kamu Iyer on the architectural monograph Buildings that Shaped Bombay: Works of G B Mhatre, FRIBA.

— © Mustansir Dalvi, 2014, all rights reserved.

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