Hafeez Contractor on why Indians don’t deserve good architecture

Shiny Varghese
Architect Hafeez Contractor

Architect Hafeez Contractor at his office. (Express photo by Prashant Nadkar)

Mumbai’s skyline stands dotted with tall towers, like arrows in the sky. It all began with architect Hafeez Contractor, 70, one of the most recognisable name in the galaxy of Indian designers, who started the trend. Contractor, who speaks in metaphors and who has done the math to house 22 million Mumbaikars is the subject of a recent book, Becoming Hafeez Contractor: The Making of an Architect (HarperCollins, 2019), written by urban designer-architect Harshad Bhatia. As we enter Contractor’s well-lit office in Mumbai, his work space is unhindered by doors or partitions. It is just as Contractor, whom Bhatia calls the “catalyst architect”, would like it to be — open and accessible.
Having begun work in 1968 with his architect-cousin Tehmasp Khareghat, even before he joined the Academy of Architecture, Mumbai, Contractor had been drawing and designing bikes and dams, guns and forts since he was in primary school. Even today, he keeps his sketchbook close to him. One such sketch is of Contractor’s idea of a future city — an intense highrise that seems sliced in horizontal planes at different levels, with tube-like projections emerging parallel to the ground. It’s a series of ideas that he uses as arsenal to talk of how climate change, food security and green cover can be addressed.

“The world has changed a lot and we need to think about how we will build to accommodate the millions who come to the city, without compromising our farmlands. Almost every day, people come to me with plots of land that are orchards and they want to convert them into residences and offices. Imagine if we have about 20,000 sq. km to build a new city,” he says, as he takes a fresh sheet of tracing paper and draws a large circle. And then plots five squares in different corners with ample space between them. “Take about 10-12 acres each and have high density developments, with 60-80 floors, where you have underground stations, offices on the top, gardens on the deck and residences above them. These four to five nodes, that can house a million people each, can be linked by underground transport and you leave the rest of the land free to grow your food. You won’t impede the biodiversity, the rivers won’t be dry, and you’ll still have development. The world can be saved by an architect,” he says.

Architect Hafeez Contractor, slum rehabilitation

A rehabilitated home in a slum at Tardeo in Mumbai.

For one of his first slum rehabilitation project in Tardeo, Mumbai, in the late ’90s, Contractor says, he made it possible for those in existing slums to have pucca homes, and also gave builders sky-piercing towers with sea view for its premium buyers. A story in The New York Times tells of how Contractor and his client, Shiv Sena leader Uddhav Thackeray, were treated like gods with aarti and puja done for them in the rehabilitated homes, which were way better than the tin-roof dilapidated sheds they had built. While he’s been instrumental in slum redevelopment, he has always been mindful of his high-end clients’ needs. Some of his mega projects include the Hiranandani Gardens in Powai, the DLF masterplan and development in Gurugram and the Dubai Marina, built to his customer’s vision.

Architect Hafeez Contractor, DLF Phase V Gurgaon

DLF Phase
V in Gurugram (Source: Architect Hafeez Contractor)

In his initial days after setting up his firm — Architect Hafeez Contractor — in 1982, he was approached by a client to make a vastu-friendly building. It would be called Vastu, set on a tricky corner plot along the Worli sea face. Initially, Contractor had designed a triangular crown on the top of the 18-storey building. However, the owner’s spiritual guru would have none of it. “I took the same plan and gave it curvilinear edges and now the maharaj (guru) was happy,” he says. This building won him recognition and set the tone for highrises in Mumbai. Then, there was the time when Mumbai’s heavy rains caused intense seepage in homes. Contractor got rid of it in his apartments by giving his buildings a “raincoat”. “I reduced the external wall thickness from 9 inches to 4.5 inches and created another wall of 2 ft-6 inches, not only increasing floor space but also creating facades that never allowed the internal walls to get wet. I called it the 2ftx6 inch architecture,” he says.

Even though builders have been happy with Contractor — known for his cost-sensitive, pragmatic approach — others in the industry raise their eyebrows at the way he has been changing city skylines across the country. His critics hold him up to higher ideals, for not intervening in public spaces around his projects that could have made social spaces more equitable. They ask: Could he have thought of new ways of building homes, besides the BHK format, given people’s changing lifestyles and evolving choices?

In the Central Vista project, Contractor’s firm was among the six shortlisted ones. As he shows sketches of it, he says, “Shouldn’t the new Parliament building put India on the world map? Do we have a single iconic building that we can be proud of? In the US, there is the Empire State Building; in London, you have The Gherkin (30 St Mary Axe), but in India, we can’t think beyond the Gateway of India or Taj Mahal. Why is there the need to use red sandstone today? When Lutyens and Baker used it, it was easily available and the material of the time. I don’t deny heritage is important. If you have a grandparent and a child at home, each will eat and dress differently. Both are important; you can’t only hold on to the past. It’s said in India, if you don’t have a kid, you can’t carry forward your legacy. Apne architecture ka koi aulad nahi hai (Our architecture has no one to carry it forward),” he says.

Quoting Winston Churchill, he says, “We shape our buildings, and, afterwards, our buildings shape us.” Which is why, criticism of his work sometimes bothers him. “A painter can wake up any time of the day and paint the way he wants; there is no law against it. But, as architects, we have to think of the by-laws, the FSI (floor-space index), land size, and we fight against all odds — of time, complying with fire and seismic regulations — and it merits no mention in the media. Indians don’t deserve good architecture,” he says.

Despite all his grouse, what keeps Contractor going is his motto: A home for every Indian. “I’ll achieve it,” he says.

Rather secretive about his current projects, the architect briefly mentions his work in Dharavi and his drive towards zero-waste architecture. “I’m building 1,50,000 houses for the poor under the PMAY (Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana). I want to eradicate slums in Mumbai. It’s my biggest love, but, of course, in an office of 600 people working on many different projects, there are other flings, too,” says Contractor.