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Bombay’s Last Great Architect, Kamu Iyer, Now Belongs to the Ages –

What I will miss most is the second phone call.

No telephonic chat with Kamu Iyer was ever complete without a supplement, often an interesting historical reference or, even more often, a laterally creative leap of imagination. Like the finest of architects, Kamu Iyer was never bounded in the nutshell of his discipline. His interests encompassed multitudes.

Sitting across him, his speech would always be punctuated with his sketches. Never a pencil and tracing paper too far away, he could describe his thoughts as little diagrams that communicated directly to those around him. These diagrams are what I remember him best by.

For Iyer, a sketch, perhaps no more than an inch across, could be both the articulation of an architectural programme, as well as its eventual resolution. Sketches and memories were his essential tools, by which he developed his ideas on history, design, art, sociology, the city, especially Bombay and its architecture.

Architect Kamu Iyer’s life and practice spanned the second half of the last century and the first two decades of this one. His memories of growing up in Bombay and his architectural education are narrated in detail in his semi-autobiographical account of the city Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl.

He grew up in the Bombay of the 30s and 40s, a time of great change. New, planned precincts were coming up all over the city, and as such these last two decades before independence were also boom-time for architects and builders. The years of influence on the future designer paralleled the transformation of the metropolis from an imperial city into a modernist city-in-waiting, where precinct by precinct, the image of the city became one of egalitarian inclusively and a vibrant civic life.

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Kamu Iyer joined architecture school at the Sir JJ School of Art in the early 1950. There, in the afterglow of the newly formed nation state, he was taught by some of first generation of Bombay-trained architects who were the designers of the buildings that shaped the city, including G.B. Mhatre, a maverick but prolific architect, whose work Iyer would document in the monograph Buildings that Shaped Bombay: Works of G.B. Mhatre, FRIBA (KRVIA, 2000).

The Sir JJ School of Art was set up in 1857 as the Bombay School of Art & Industry. Photo and caption: Website

In fact, Iyer grew up in an apartment building in Matunga designed by Mhatre, in the elegant proto-modernist Gold Finch on R.P. Masani Road, one lane away from VJTI (Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute).

For Iyer, this building with its “big cantilevered verandahs 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.” Gold Finch was one of the many modern buildings that came up in this quiet and leafy enclave, part of the Dadar-Matunga planned precinct, conceived in the early 20th century by the City Improvement Trust.

The buildings in the vicinity of Five Gardens, their understated elegance and architectural good manners could also be seen in Iyer’s own work in Bombay and elsewhere. His buildings held Quiet Conversations with their surroundings, the title of a short monograph on Iyer written by Vandana Ranjit Sinh and myself for the Mohile Parikh Centre for the Visual Arts in 2000.

Iyer’s years in architecture school also saw a change in architectural pedagogy and thinking, moving beyond the Beaux Arts/West Kensington curriculum into a modern understanding of architecture that was reflected in some iconic buildings being built in the 1950’s. Buildings like Durga Bajpayee’s Jehangir Art Gallery and Darshan Apartments by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai caught his imagination, as did the climatically oriented Petroleum House (formerly called Esso House), a building that Iyer worked on in an early internship at the Standard Vacuum Oil Company.

The appreciation of place and environment, site and orientation would always be the key drivers of his architecture.

Jehangir Art Gallery. Photo: Wikipedia

It was, however, the coming of Le Corbusier to India, and his work on the design of the buildings in Chandigarh and Ahmedabad that formed a key moment in the making of the architect. Iyer has remarked that the great master’s work appealed to all in his generation because of Le Corbusier’s robust building forms, facades with deep shadows ‘as a tribute to the sun’ and the manner in which light was used to modulate interior spaces.

These aspects became the hallmark of modernist architectural practice in India and Le Corbusier’s long shadow could be seen right until the mid 1970’s in the buildings that came up in the country.

The Palace of Assembly, Chandigarh. Photo: Wikipedia

In 1956, along with Raja Poredi, Sreekant Mandrekar, and Dilip Purohit, Iyer set up ‘Architects Combine’ in Bombay. This was a ‘coming together of friends’ from the Sir JJ School of Art.

Iyer has said: “The firm was a confluence of different backgrounds, cultures and political views that ranged from moderate Gandhian ideals to leftist ideology.” This partnership allowed each member full freedom of expression in a supportive environment and that surely has been the reason for its success and prolificity.

‘Architects Combine’ has endured to this day, now with a new generation of principals, making it one of the longest running architectural firms in the country, with an alumni list of some very influential architects, academics and authors including Ved Segan, Ravi Hazra, Dean D’Cruz, Vandana Ranjit Sinh and Kaiwan Mehta.

With Iyer’s passing, all the original members of the firm are now gone, but their legacy remains.

Iyer’s earlier projects

In one of his earliest projects, Iyer collaborated with Charles Correa in the design of the Cama Hotel in Ahmedabad. This was followed by several bungalow projects in Ahmedabad and Bangalore. Iyer also carried out several housing and planning projects in Karnataka, which were unique at the time for stressing on local material availability and construction techniques.

For a year in the late 1970s, Iyer was also on contract as ‘Architect to the Government of Karnataka’. His buildings in Bombay include several educational and institutional buildings including the SP Jain Institute of Management and Research in the Bhavan’s College campus, the SIES College Campus in Nerul, the Spastics Society of India Building, the Dr E Borges Memorial Home and the (old) MMRDA Office Building in the BKC.

In the early 1980s, along with a stellar group of architects like Charles Correa, Uttam Jain, Hema Sankalia and Raj Rewal, Iyer designed mass housing in rapidly growing Navi Mumbai. His firm has, in the last six and a half decades carried out more than a thousand projects, significantly impacting design thinking in industrial, institutional, educational and housing design.

Kamu Iyer’s lasting legacy for the city of Bombay, however, began in April 1997, when he gave a public lecture on his erstwhile mentor, the architect G.B. Mhatre at the Max Mueller Bhavan. Mhatre, whom Iyer considered a first-generation modernist in Bombay had, by the end of the century, been largely forgotten. Today, Mhatre is remembered, appropriately, with the same reverence as Claude Batley.

This lecture also put a number of aspects about Bombay’s pre-independence urban past into fresh perspective. This well-received lecture revived interest in the architect as well as in Art Deco architecture in Bombay that, until that point was seen mainly as stylistically expressed cinema houses.

Iyer’s contention was that the domestic scale of Art Deco buildings was equally, if not more, significant in the understanding of a changing city. He also re-introduced to public imagination, planned precincts beyond the Oval and the Marine Drive, such as the Dadar-Matunga areas and Shivaji Park as sites of very fine Art Deco and proto-modernist architecture.

Iyer would follow up this lecture with full-fledged documentation of the architecture of G.B. Mhatre, which was published in a book in 2000. I was privileged to be part of this effort and wrote an essay for the book as well.

I recall that every discussion on Mhatre’s buildings was punctuated by a small sketch that abstracted that particular design. In the end, these sketches were also included in the book, which made the understanding of Mhatre’s designs, especially the very specific influence of each site self-evident.

Buildings That Shaped Bombay has endured as a seminal book, which along with the simultaneous rise in the city’s interest in architectural heritage conservation in the 1990s, can be considered responsible for the sensitivity that Bombay has subsequently shown for its heritage buildings.

Of course, the next book that Iyer would write was his love letter to the city Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl, a book that is now, along with those of Rahul Mehrotra and Sharada Dwivedi, de rigueur for any researcher on the urban fabric of Bombay. He is the last of his generation whose life spanned Bombay’s development as a modern city. Now the city is Mumbai.

After the 2000s, Iyer would contribute immensely to architectural education through his writings in various publications as well as through his active participation in the development of pedagogy, especially in the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture. He was now able to mentor and influence a generation of architecture students almost half a century younger than himself.

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“My career has been like a long train ride with no fixed destination,” he has written, “but with varying and boundless scenic beauty. Seeing different places and meeting people, doing a variety of projects, conversing with students in schools, and writing have enriched the experience of the ‘ride’.”

Searching for a correct date while writing this piece, I instinctively reach out for my phone to dial Kamu Iyer, which I know he would have readily available in his memory, when I realize that I am writing a tribute to his passing.

There will no longer be easy answers. Those of us who loved and were mentored by him did take his presence for granted, as he equally lovingly took ours — his return phone call came swiftly but now we will have to come to terms with his absence while we celebrate his legacy.

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.