Book: Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl : Kamu Iyer

As a memoir-cum-historical and cultural repository, Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl by Kamu Iyer captures the zeitgeist of an era in Mumbai from 1940s to the present.  


“This book is different. Kamu Iyer is an architect who has lived in Mumbai all his life. He is observant, analytical and visual. He understands how people use spaces – especially public spaces. And he has a sense of History.” writes Charles Correa in his foreword to Boombay.

Boombay pulls the curtain back on the evolution of Mumbai from 1940s in many ways. In a simple narrative – uncomplicated and effective, it examines the changing order of the city and affectual policies in its primary and de facto contexts.

Authored by Kamu Iyer, an architect with a prolific practice, it is a chronicle of means and leisure– one of engagement and involvement of a resident, an observer, a student and later, a professional of architecture. It does not romanticise but rather emphasises on the ephemerality of a city fabric – a dynamic that continually conforms to newer cycles of ideas and events and attributable to this book, some which we are now privy to. Succinctly, it speaks of the development facets of Mumbai in the 1940s, of a Mumbai today, of a Mumbai that evolved in between.

Kamu Iyer outlines the identity in measurable terms for the reader and gradually, the idea of a pluralistic Mumbai emerges. He has mapped his own experiences from the buildings in Hindu and Parsi colony and an apartment designed by G B Mhatre he lived in, to the streets and open spaces he walked and passed by and this develops as a framework and lens to react to and understand the influences whilst exploring the evolving heart of a growing city and its de facto typologies. For the reader, the book adopts the tone of a flaneur, meandering and reminiscing with the first-hand accounts.

Scan of a page from the book.

The retrospective through this lens disseminates the notion of a collective past into various constituencies; scales change, and with it, the patterns of the emerging city.

As one progresses through the history of thought, one becomes familiar with a Bombay of colonies, and planned apartments designed for ‘a traditional way of living’, multipurpose interconnected rooms, the gradual shrinking of kitchens that made way for apartments planned for a Western style of living. Details such as interconnecting doors that are no longer a part of our noticing conscious, correspond to newer meanings.

Scan of a page from the book.

At a city level scale, fewer of us notice the disappearing corners of the streets and no longer mourn the loss of urban spaces. The porous and penetrable relationship of the buildings and streets have been phased out to make way for the closed clusters the urban human secures himself in it today.

The compound walls that once unified buildings on the streets remain as testimony to many a gated communities, once designed to have grilles on the upper third of their height, where Kamu Iyer once sat as a child with his friends awaiting turns to play gully cricket.

Fewer still dwell upon the retributions of the nuclear constructs of our time such as the loss of diversity characterised by cultures that share spaces.

He writes, “We have come a long way from living in diverse groups within a planned precinct, where everyone had as much space outside his doorstep as he had inside. This is what the Improvement Trust meant when it promoted the Dadar-Matunga Scheme V as a garden suburb. Through its layout and design rules, the precinct showed that development becomes humane when every square meter of built residential space is matched by an equal or larger area of land for all the things that support city life – roads, parks, and playgrounds, education and health and infrastructure, which depend on land distribution.”

Attuned to such observations, the attributions are explored – certain principles that the Bombay Improvement Trust implemented, few of the significant ones being – the 63.5 degree light rule, the  Sanitation objective, re-calibration of the Princess Street and Phirozeshah Mehta Road, and the design of the Chawl window.

Scan of a Diagram depicting the 63.5 degree angle rule.


Scan of a Diagram depicting the design of a Chawl window.

Perceptual influences internalised under the guidance of teachers such as Claude Batley and G B Mhatre, from courses such as Specialised History in college, and exposure to the various styles of Gothic, Indo-Sarcenic, Modernism and then later, in 1951 Le Corbusier’s work in Chandigarh responded to the sense of enquiry and debate within the student of then. What draws one is this interest and a perceptiveness of the participant that becomes apparent  and raises pertinent questions as he discusses later of the meaning of the Skyline in the formation of the Marine Drive buildings.

The characterisation of the Student stems from the writings as one who was informed and curious.

 “Although,” Mr Iyer writes,  “the college curriculum in the 1950s did not include designing housing for the working class, our school canteen debates often revolved around this issue – we talked about everything from the socialist ideals of inclusiveness to modern architecture’s emphasis on utility and the rational and honest use of space and materials.”

His descriptions based on his own perambulations and work in Mumbai give an important insight into the nature of the growth – whether inward, suburban or a sprawl. Diagrammatic explanations work in tandem and talk about proposed and implemented plans.

Image of a spread in the book.

Every detail is imprinted with the suggestion of significance. As we broaden our base of understanding, the key variables in the continuity of the discussion are derivative larger ideas such as rigour, order, the difference of perception and so on.  One chapter dwells on the Art Deco Phase.

“Many refer to the buildings of Marine Drive as being part of the Art Deco as some people thought. Many refer to the buildings as being part of the Art Deco district of Bombay. Most of the buildings are not good Art Deco – at best, they are passable or non-descript. Their effect comes from belonging to the group.”

The book constructs a continuous, expanding reading of practices and dynamics that govern the underlying observations on topics of significance to the city fabric such as three important buildings – the Jehangir Art Gallery, Tata Institute of Social Sciences and Stanvac House, the evolution of Marine Drive and two office Districts – Ballard Estate and Nariman Point. Tangential discussions from societal forces to the evolution of an apartment typology, the chawl systems find place in the sharp prose. [Read an excerpt published by Scroll here]

When the narrative freezes on frames of concern and contemplation on issues of inclusivity is where the relevance of a curatorial orchestration is visible. “Concrete roofs had become standard construction procedure by then, and both poor and rich had one thing in common: they wanted RCC roofs over their heads. In the city, this has become a kind of a social leveller unlike in a village where a person’s position in the social order is determined by the kind of roof over his or her head.” he states.

Through the chapters, these examinations act cohesively as a slider that measures the changes within formal dimensions of understanding – nature of practice, role of an architect, socio-cultural topography and a fabric of a city where ‘built form rides on the back of planning decisions.’ Each matrix supplements the other and feeds into the manyness that is Mumbai.

To a degree, the deliberation matures toward the concluding segments – ‘You Can Judge A City By How Its Poor Live’, ‘Policies Affect The Urban Fabric’ and ‘Opportunities for Growth’ – as the modes of observations change for the city and observer both and hem a more responsible engagement.

Image of a spread in the book.

The sheer assembly of the account with archival drawings and photographs, structured in short and crisper reads are testament to the narration skill. Albeit monochromatic, the design of the book itself by Sudhakar Nadkarni is simple and handy and the layouts with the notes and sketches in this two-third / one-third framework belong to the explanatory style making it easy to follow.

In its detailing, it shepherds concise documentation and referential material, isolating slices of time and transforming it into moments of self-interpretation to be drawn in relation with other times. It is an insight into a metamorphic collage of a city – in some ways, always finished, but never complete. ♦

Title:  BOOMBAY: From Precincts to Sprawl
Author:  Kamu Iyer
  Popular Prakashan Pvt Ltd

Language:  English
ISBN:  978-81-7991-844-9
Year of Publication:  2014
Reviewed by: Maanasi Hattangadi

To Order:

Popular Prakashan


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