'Kamu Iyer was the architect for everyone': Kaiwan Mehta on his mentor's legacy

Kamu Iyer's agility to understand the world through planning as well as through the chaos of everyday life made him a sharp commentator on city development, and he reviewed urban growth as realities of an ongoing history.

Kaiwan Mehta September 21, 2020 13:58:38 IST
'Kamu Iyer was the architect for everyone': Kaiwan Mehta on his mentor's legacy

Kamu Iyer. Image via Facebook

Kamu Iyer’s death indeed marks the passing of a generation, a generation not essentially defined by age but one defined by a thought-approach to the idea of architecture. Different generations have approached architecture differently, and in India the debates on nationalism and post-colonialism intensified this idea and approach to architecture even further. What does architecture do? When is the architect a cultural hero, when is the architect a hero in the financial world of business and real-estate? Iyer, all his life asked himself and all of us around him the former question: what does architecture do? And he never was either of the hero-models; what he most importantly was – is that he was Everyone’s Architect!

He was a humanist, who understood his role as an architect as the one who engages in the constant churning of society, but through the strong ideals and propositions of design. He believed in the power of design, while he always was aware of the fallibility of the architect — and it is between these two poles of power and error that one can say Iyer debated, celebrated architecture, but also lamented the state of the built environment we occupy, and the contribution an architect can have in shaping it. Look at just the titles of two of his books – Buildings that Shaped Bombay – the biography of an architect’s work, and BoOmbay – or ‘Bombay to Boombay’ the story of a city’s growth especially its living environments; between these two titles, you see Iyer’s approach to architecture, and the world through architecture.

Iyer was the architect who through his practice as well as his inquiries into history, became the complicit critic of his profession, his peers, and his friends. His bus-ticket sketches, as we all fondly referred to them, carried sharp design compositions for the projects he was working on, debating the present context of his site and programme, the contingencies of client and budget, but also pulling in memories of a Christopher Alexander or Alvar Aalto; and then he had long stories to share about his experiences and observations as young boy or a rising architect, to some complex questions of history some of us may have had, and in doing so he contextualised history to a lived reality; and design, construction, or planning ideas – all became narrations in a long-running story of human civilisation. The self and civilisation, were somewhere tied up in his head through the stories of the built environment, subconsciously though I think, but that is what allowed him to be a delightful teacher, a beautiful friend, and a wonderful peer or mentor.

He was a modernist, no doubt, but he brought to those set of modernist beliefs an enormous capacity for humility – design was civilisational, was universal, but design was human and about the everyday lives of people. His designs for institutional buildings, or his ideas on housing large populations were always touched by thoughts of how individual people occupied buildings and the workings of life.

Born on 14 December, 1932, R Kameshwar Iyer was fondly known to all as Kamu, the last surviving founder of the partnership firm Architects Combine, where eight friends came together soon after graduation – combining shared resources but also an idealism towards design and shaping a newly emerging national society. The studio was best known for four of its partners who more formally associated in the firm – Dilip Purohit, Raja Poredi, Sreekant Mandrekar, and Kamu Iyer, and then a long list of architects passing through the studio as interns and architects. A studio and partnership that exemplified for Bombay and for India the best in approach, practice, and ethics to the world of designing and making buildings.

My first job was as a student-intern at Architects Combine in the summer of 1996, and I never realised till much later how that short internship had set the ball rolling for years of friendship with Kamu. Iyer was involved with the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute for Architecture, founded by Sen Kapadia, where I was a student first and then one of the first young teachers. As a young architect with a keen interest in design histories, architecture and the shaping of everyday life, as well as ethics and practice, I soon, and hardly realising it, found a mentor in Kamu, worked with him on research projects, often a workshop, and every association led to hours of chats and discussions at his office – a most generous person he was in sharing all he knew, and never without the doubts and questions he himself had. No doubt generations of teachers and scholars have not only found in Iyer a wonderful mentor, but also a great resource of knowledge, shaped through memories and stories he readily shared. One could easily point out to several doctoral theses and published books, that would have Kamu-stories woven into their pages.

His growing up in Mumbai, as well as his familiarity with Bangalore, his reflections on days at the Sir JJ School of Architecture or of working and friendship with Charles Correa... all transformed into registers of memories and histories that Iyer processed through his keen interest in design and the way our built environments were and are transforming.

As he introduced himself, Iyer would say, “I studied at the Sir JJ School of Art in Bombay, which included architecture among other disciplines of Art. My choice of profession was influenced by my living in ‘Gold Finch’, a beautiful modern building in Bombay designed in 1937 by GB Mhatre. The building with a big cantilevered verandah that was skewed on plan, and Art Deco features like coloured mosaic flooring and exquisitely designed woodwork, was far ahead of its time in design and structure. The other reason for my choice was the experience of staying in my ancestral home in a small town during my summer vacations to the south. The house, built in the early 1900s where a 150-year-old structure once stood, was designed by a retired architect draftsman from the Public Works Department (PWD) of the princely state of Mysore.”

He added, “I needed to study a subject that would allow me to understand the larger picture. A neighbour advised me to study architecture, saying that since it encompassed many disciplines, it would help me understand life better. Before long, I knew I wanted to be an architect.” And then much of his learnings grew from walking observantly through the areas of Fort, Kala Ghoda, Crawford Market, Dadar-Matunga, Wadala and Lalbaug, as much as observing the changing landscape of Bangalore to Bengaluru; in his book Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl (Popular Prakashan. Mumbai, 2014) he indeed records the spirit of these journeys through the city all his life that literally spans the 20th century and the city from early modernism to post-liberalisation.

Kamu Iyer was the architect for everyone Kaiwan Mehta on his mentors legacy

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

His important buildings and projects include SIES Campus (1995-2006), Nerul New Mumbai, CIDCO Housing (1991), Navi Mumbai, MMRDA Offices (1986-1988), Mumbai, Usha Kiran Eye Hospital (2002-2005), Mysore, SMIORE Housing (1969, 1982), Vysankere, as well as buildings for the Mumbai University, Kalina Campus more recently. In an essay from 2008, I wrote on Architects Combine and the projects of Kamu Iyer: how a long-running practice maintains a sense of design process and inquiry, rather than be locked into any stylistic propositions in the name of continuity or identity. Iyer also discussed during the conversations for that essay how his teaching and engagements with students were crucial to his own practice but he also spoke of how many minds and influences passed through a practice – partners, architects, interns, and how they all contributed to the different ideas across projects. The essay debated how certain processes are more important as governing factors in a design practice than allegiance to certain design formulas or patterns.

For three years I assisted Iyer in guiding graduating students through their design dissertation projects, and what a wonderful experience that was in seeing him balance the world of ideas and free-thinking with the protocols of managing spaces, and various measures that practically make a building possible. This agility to understand the world through planning as well as through the chaos of everyday life made him a sharp commentator on city development, and he reviewed urban growth as realities of an ongoing history. Iyer was not a classical historian, he was someone who knew how to think of time-past in the present context. Continuity, and investment in design as a continuous process of human civilisation was important for him. While his buildings were 'Quiet Conversations' (incidentally the title of a 2000 monograph on Iyer, by Mustansir Dalvi and Vandana Singh), his engagement with the contemporary were conversations through history and memory. In his book narrating the history of a city as a lived memory and the practice of an architect, he titles one of the concluding chapters thus – “You can judge a city by how its poor live” and you can see how strong opinions were always embedded in his agile and polite arguments.

A few years ago, when Kamu Iyer received the Lifetime Award as a Teacher from the association of architecture colleges in Maharashtra, I had the privilege of being invited to introduce him, there were three things I spoke of to describe him – a person who combined generosity and humility, someone who embodied a sense of joie de vivre always marked by his hearty laugh after a joke or comment he would share with you, and then I read from Tagore’s 'Where the Mind is Without Fear' – Kamu was a beautiful mind!

Today Iyer is no longer with us, and I will miss his teasing, his challenging, his laugh, his endless conversations and Sunday morning calls, sharing a beer with him... checking with me what I thought of something twice and then questioning it... I will miss the man, but the Kamu-world will continue to be around us, the world he wove not leaving anyone of us out, with his ideas and conversations, his stories and memories, his friendships and doubting, his strong views and humble arguments. He lives on in all of us, some part of him is always speaking to us, sitting in our thoughts, with that sharp look and genial smile.

Also read on Firstpost — Kamu Iyer passes away: Revisiting noted architect's 2014 interview in which he spoke of Mumbai's metamorphosis
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Kaiwan Mehta is an architect, academic and researcher, and has authored books like Alice in Bhuleshwar: Navigating a Mumbai Neighbourhood (2009) and The Architecture of I M Kadri (2016). He is the Managing Editor of DOMUS India and Professor (Adjunct) and Chair of Doctoral Programme (Faculty of Architecture) at CEPT University, Ahmedabad.

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