To Kamu Iyer, architecture was not just building

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By Hussain Indorewala

█ 1932-2020

The noted architect — who died at the age of 88 on Saturday — once wrote, ‘You can judge a city by how its poor lives’

Ifirst witnessed Kamu Iyer eight years ago, as he reviewed student work at the Kamla Raheja College of Architecture in Mumbai, which I had recently joined as a teacher. The task for students was to design housing and infrastructure for a low-income settlement. Those familiar with juries in architecture schools know what the “best” projects are like: grand visions, bold ideas, cleverness, flamboyance and style. Kamu Iyer’s winner was a project least expected to do well — one undertaken with integrity, humility, subtlety and persistence. He demonstrated something that most teachers are paid for but seldom possess: critical judgement, or the ability to discriminate what is essential and valuable from that which is superficial or peripheral.

Over the next few years, we got to know each other, and our relationship grew over many conversations about the city of Mumbai. He was a member of the Academic Council in the institute, an advisor to the teachers. While I was able to happily profit from his innumerable stories and rich experiences, he perhaps found some joy in encouraging a younger academic to think more deeply about the city he loved. As the architect Charles Correa wrote about him, he was like “a modern-day Proust — sifting through his memories and insights, presenting them for our consideration.”

Over the next few years, we got to know each other, and our relationship grew over many conversations about the city of Mumbai. He was a member of the Academic Council in the institute, an advisor to the teachers. While I was able to happily profit from his innumerable stories and rich experiences, he perhaps found some joy in encouraging a younger academic to think more deeply about the city he loved. As the architect Charles Correa wrote about him, he was like “a modern-day Proust — sifting through his memories and insights, presenting them for our consideration.”

And most of all, he loved to talk about housing. In 1971, he was invited by the planners of Navi Mumbai to study the cost of building low-income housing in buildings of different heights. The assumption then, as it is now, was that more people could be accommodated in less land if the buildings went higher. His study, however, showed that this assumption is false — as buildings went higher, the distances between them increased, and the number of buildings on the same site reduced. Four storey walk-ups would be the most economical and liveable form of housing for the poor.

He had not foreseen at that time what the city’s authorities would eventually do to housing regulations. Since the 1990s, the gap between buildings has been reduced to such a degree that even daylight could not pass through them. In the name of profit and pragmatism, more and more tenements could now be dumped on site, worsening living conditions for people who have no choice but to live in them.

When asked about the SRA and R&R schemes in the city of Mumbai, he once said, “the present paradigm of development emphasises FSI, vertical growth and infrastructure, forgetting that there has to be a balance between space inside the house and space outside it.” He grumbled about how Mumbai now thinks only of luxury living in the private sphere, while the public sphere is neglected. When asked about the vanity projects and the…



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