In Memoriam: Kamu Iyer; A Tribute by Mary N. Woods

A Tribute by Prof Mary Norman Woods

Mary Norman Woods pens a tribute to Kamu Iyer – one of Mumbai’s most cherished architects and a much respected member of the design community in India. With his passing, we lose one of the last few keepers of the conscience of our profession – a citizen-architect who loved Mumbai and was perpetually engaged with the fate of the city through his work, his writings and his activism.

The tribute is followed by a reproduced dialogue between Kamu Iyer, Brinda Somaya and Mary Woods titled ‘Working from Mumbai‘ originally published in Brinda Somaya’s monograph titled ‘Works & Continuities’. 

Kamu Iyer (1932-2020)
Mourning and Celebrating a Friend and Mentor

Albert Mayer, American architect and planner who worked in post-Independence India, wrote about his excitement at being present at the birth of a nation. Throughout his seven decades of practice, teaching, writing, and mentoring, Kamu Iyer sustained and nurtured the “tingling atmosphere of plans and expectation” envisioned by Indians of “ability, outlook, energy, and devotion” that so impressed and inspired Mayer. Kamu embodied the ideals of the Independence struggle and hopes for a free India in his life and work. He was a mahatma, a great soul who touched so many and whose like we will not see again.

Kamu Iyer was the Dean of architects and planners in first Bombay and then Mumbai. But it was always one city for him. He celebrated but also contributed so much to its spirit, energy, and diversity throughout his life. He left his architectural imprint on Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and throughout Karnataka and his birthplace Tamil Nadu, as well as Bombay (Mumbai). Collaboration was always at the core of what he did. He and four friends from Sir JJ School of Architecture founded Architects Combine in 1956. When his first partners had all passed away, Kamu ensured the future of the practice by bringing his former students into the practice as his new partners.

He once told me India was all about family. Thus people had a family physician, family lawyer, family astrologer, and family architect. And his clients returned again and again because he relished both the affection and quarrels of the extended family he created as he built for and with them. Architects Combine has always been known for its housing, factories, medical facilities, and educational institutions, the architectural touchstones of a newly independent India. Architecture was a social art above all for Kamu. He insisted we need not only great architecture but good and useful buildings, knitting the fabric of everyday life, work, and pleasure together for all. In a time of ‘starchitects’ all competing for attention, he spoke and designed with grace, dignity and humility.

Because he was a life-long student, Kamu Iyer was an inspired and inspiring teacher and mentor. He was truly a Renaissance person who took delight in the films of Chaplin and Mickey Mouse as much as Satyajit Ray’s. In his many publications, he was equally expansive, writing eloquently about G B Mhatre’s buildings, Boombay from Precincts to Sprawl, and the process of moving from diagram to design in his forthcoming book, virtually celebrated just a few days before his passing.

As Chaitanya Shanbhog, researcher for that book, wrote to me: “We always thought that he would stay strong and recover because we are used to seeing him soldier on and keep working despite everything. In my last conversation with him, he’d said ‘I say, we have a lot of things to do’ ”. One of Kamu Iyer’s next projects was to be a book on housing. Drawing on the intertwined legacies of his buildings and writings, I hope this work will be carried forward by his partners and colleagues ♦

Mary N Woods
Professor Emerita, Department of Architecture,
Cornell University, USA
September 26, 2020
With thanks to Chaitanya Shanbhog for his help and advice.

Sketch: From the Back Cover of the book “From Diagram to Design” recently published by CEPT University Press

Bibliography of Kamu Iyer’s Writings:

From Diagram to Design (2020)
Boombay- From Precincts to Sprawl (2014)
Build a Safe House with Confined Masonry (2012)
4 From the 50s-Emerging Modern Architecture in Bombay (n.d.?)
Buildings that Shaped Bombay – Works of G B Mhatre (2000)

All Synopses at

Dialogue: Reproduced conversation between Mary Norman Woods, Brinda Somaya and Kamu Iyer from the book Brinda Somaya; Works & Continuities [2018].

Working from Mumbai
Kamu Iyer, Brinda Somaya and Mary Woods

Originally Published in ‘Brinda Somaya, Works and Continuities’ (Mapin, 2018)

Kamu Iyer and Brinda Somaya initiated their practice in Mumbai. The city is both a laboratory and a backdrop for their work. They have witnessed the fabric of the urban landscape change over the years from what was primarily a network of precincts and neighbourhoods to a dense metropolitan agglomeration. While Mumbai became the source of their endeavours, the city influenced their ideas on architecture and urbanism and captured their imagination in many forms: from the houses they grew up in to the professional responsibility they assume in the interest of a larger agenda. So, how does Mumbai influence their thoughts? How does the city feature in their practices? What are their concerns about the practice itself? Mary Norman Woods has sharply observed their practices, discussed their ideas and written about their work, moderates this dialogue.

Mary Norman Woods
: You both grew up in buildings by two important Bombay architects, one Indian and the other British. You spent your lives in wonderful architecture. Kamu grew up in a G B Mhatre building that has, sadly, now come down, and Brinda, you grew up in a Claude Batley house. So, you both intimately knew another kind of modernism apart from the modernism that was brought from the West to Ahmedabad and Chandigarh. Did this particular “other modernism” of Bombay shape your ideas and design practice?

Kamu Iyer: Chronologically, Batley preceded Mhatre. In fact, Batley was older than him and brought in a kind of a modernism that, I would say, is still not really truly modern but it was in transition. Batley was a great admirer of traditional Indian architecture and was very keen on transiting to modernism through a deep study of the traditional. In fact, he brought out this book on design development of Indian architecture, where he got his students to make measured drawings because he believed that it was important. Great examples of traditional architecture were already recorded in the Archaeological Survey, in the Jeypore Portfolio and others. But there was no recording of any of the domestic architecture and the lesser of the smaller buildings, which is why he took up this whole exercise of documenting. He believed in tradition. Batley was also very English in the design of his buildings and even in the layout of the rooms, and there was a lack of colour… his buildings totally lacked colour. Yet, I would say that they still rank better than most buildings. G B Mhatre was quite different, eclectic in a way. The bulk of his practice was actually residential buildings. It was not a transplant of Western ideas. If you see G B Mhatre’s art deco, his usage of art deco features, he yet adopted a lot of Indian features too, like the necessity of weather shades. You know, in the West they called it eyebrows. They called chajjas an eyebrow! So, he brought that in. There was a lot of colour and a lot of flair, the use of mosaic tiles and the use of new materials in his work.

Brinda Somaya: I was just eight years old when my parents moved from Calcutta to Bombay, and we moved into this house. I hadn’t heard of Claude Batley or Mhatre or anybody else. I just remember growing up in this wonderfully designed apartment. What was different looking back at those days was that either people lived in step-up apartment buildings or they lived in individual houses. And this was very different, because it was just a four-storied building, but each floor was one apartment. So, it was sort of a mixture of a house and an apartment. I remember going as a child to the third floor and Batley always had these wonderful sloping roofs, which he believed were very important in our weather. I recall looking up at the dark stained wood on the third floor and seeing that great space and height that he created, the multiple roofs, his joinery, the marble mosaic floor. I remember some of these things as a child, and it is only later when I studied about all these people did I realise the importance. But certainly, looking back, I definitely feel that growing up in a house like that left on me an impact about space, light, woodwork, connections and angles.

MW: Of course.

BS: And I recall so clearly my route to school on the bus whose route was via the Rajabai Clock Tower, the University buildings and the High Court building. Only school buses were allowed on Cuffe Parade and not public buses, because there was no reclamation. We had the elevated walkway and then the broad road with no divider. Then studying in the Cathedral Schools, which were also in colonial buildings, was also important. We had a lot of friends in central and north Bombay in the Parsi colony and the Hindu colony. Marble Arch, right next door to where I stay now, is one of Mhatre’s projects. . . beautiful buildings! So, I was very aware, and it was not just one architect—Corbusier or Kahn—that one talked about.

KI: In fact, we didn’t know these architects!

BS: Yes! We didn’t even know, exactly! We didn’t even know much about good architecture but it was around us, it was part of us… and I think a part of growing up in Bombay, was the privilege of being surrounded by all this. To me this was as important as or even more important than just seeing one famous house built by one person or one public building built by another. These were our surroundings; we were breathing it. We were part of it.

KI: Yes. You will know, Brinda, that the thing that was common between them is that both Batley and Mhatre were sensitive architects aware of their context. Since both of us have grown in beautiful buildings designed by good architects, I am quite sure that our sensibilities would have been very different had we been raised in ordinary buildings. I actually took to studying architecture only because of the building I lived in. We always thought of the building as part of a bigger scene.

BS: Yes! Exactly!

KI: Not a standalone object.

BS: It was part of the city. Of course, we enjoyed growing up in that building, in that space, in that apartment. But, as Kamu says, what’s important and different about this city is that you are often a part of something that is a part of something much bigger, and for which you have a responsibility too.

MW: What I think is so distinctive about both of you as individuals, as designers, as citizens is that it is about entering into dialogue and listening to people. So, could you talk about that in terms of your relationship with your clients? And clients being not just those who pay the fees but a kind of larger clientele, a community?

BS: Well, you know about my practice and how diverse it has been, and I think that is really what led to clients that were also very different. The Bhadli village, where the village was the client and the villagers were the users… how to interact with them, as against a big corporate IT campus, where the client is a big corporation, and we may not even know all the users. It is that wide expanse of work that has been the richness of the profession that I belong to and that I have enjoyed so much.

KI: But tell me about your experience when you started factories.

BS: It was for the Chauhan family who own the Parle biscuits. They gave me my first real job, which enabled me to set up my practice. I have built many factories for them over the years: in Bengaluru, Lonavala and Mumbai. The first job they gave me was a small-time office and extension to a wheat storage godown. It was followed by many other factories and their homes. They have been my clients now for 40 years! So, for me, industrial work and patronage from an industrial family like theirs was only possible in a city like Mumbai. In those days, who would give a young woman an industrial project?

MW: I read a statistic that 98 per cent of Indian businesses from the tea stalls to these huge industrial groups are family-owned. Brinda, but isn’t it because you’re really dealing with individuals within a family as opposed to a kind of corporate entity where the executive staff may change over time. So, because of the “Great Indian Family”, again, it’s possible to build over time a dialogue with the client. And I think of the clients that Frank Lloyd Wright had, like Edgar Kauffman or CF Johnson. Again, they were family businesses, and they were dealing directly with them. So, have we sort of lost that with our impersonal corporate structures in the West? And so, you really do have a particular advantage that has continued over time.

BS: Absolutely. I would say… even though I have corporate clients… I would say that we have been very involved. If I consider any one of my corporate buildings, they have been commissions for people who have believed in us and therefore have come to us. There may have been many other architects who perhaps would build for them quicker and maybe in a more “Alucobond way”, much faster.

KI: Alucobond architecture!

BS: Exactly! We have built all types of corporate buildings. For instance, Gokaldas Images for an individual who owned this company, and he was very involved with the building. It was built in 1990, almost 25 years ago. Same thing with Parle. Then we have Zensar Technologies, the campus I built in Pune. As Kamu said, we had a few people at the top who were involved with the project from the beginning to the end, and they very much wanted the campus, and they often told me that this was going to be their first campus. It was so important for the company to send out its message of its beliefs through the way we built this campus. Same thing with the Nalanda schools in Vadodara…Mayur Patel was always involved. So, I don’t think scale necessarily means that you are not in close contact with your client. It depends on who they are, why they have come to you and what they believe in.

KI: So it’s the same story. It reminds me of my own practice. I have not had such a huge roster of clients, but my clients have given me work for 25–30 years!

BS: Yes!

KI: That is exactly the case with Brinda.

BS: Absolutely. My repeat clients and different types of buildings have sustained me.

KI: One of the nice things in India is the relationship between a professional and the client. These are personal relations. I am sure that clients who I have worked for say that this Kamu is a lousy architect, but he’s been with us so long so let’s give him work!

MW: So you’re part of the family!

BS: You become part of the family.

KI: It makes for inefficiency, but it makes for good human relations! It is such an important factor but one that is disappearing fast. It has now become so very impersonal.

MW: Years ago, when I first met you, you were very philosophical. I mean your sister had left and you had such an important bond with her, she was the person you really could dialogue with, and you spurred each other on. But she left, and you had to build the practice. Do you feel that your daughter’s presence now makes this a more hopeful situation than perhaps Kamu is indicating? That she will bring clients of her generation into the practice, who might be from the same families with whose older generation you interacted?

BS: Well, it is a combination of that. For instance, an old client came to us for their daughter’s house recently. Nandini was involved, but she is also building her identity independently. She has her own connections who know her and her work. So, she has brought in clients of her generation. I think for me it was very important that she shadowed me for a while. Now she is her own person. She understands very well the values this design firm has been built upon. Many clients that I had earlier are still with us. I think that it is a combination. There is change.

MW: In a way, it circles back to the beginning of our conversation, Kamu, which you so aptly put in terms of Batley and Mhatre… that there was a way to approach modernism, but it was through tradition and it was through certain values. In the same way, I am very cognisant when I talk to her that Nandini is very much aware of the traditions and history of a practice and she very much values that. There is a sense of tradition here, but it is a tradition that can also project me into the future. They can root me in some way, which I think is something precious and remarkable that I have seen in the Indian practices that I have had the privilege to study and learn about.

BS: I hope so, because we cannot be around forever, and we hope that some of the reasonably good things we have believed in and tried to do or contribute to in our own small ways will be continued.

KI: I am sure this will be true of her people, whether they continue with her or they go out on their own. They would’ve imbibed some of the values. Those values are very important.

BS: Absolutely.

MW: Kamu, you have produced four publications and your last one, Bombay, was this wonderful kind of intertwining of the history of the city with your own personal history as an architect and as a citizen of the city. Brinda, you’ve been involved with many publications through your foundation HECAR, and now you are going to produce a monograph. You both have a voice and a presence outside of your practice, and so, I wonder if you could reflect a bit on the point at which you felt that it was important… to have that voice? What was your entry point?

BS: My entry point was very much connected with women. The “Women in Architecture” conference that I chaired, followed by the exhibition and the document that I brought out, was my first real interaction with publications and something outside the profession that I was involved in. In 1990, I had started building up my body of work, and I found that I was very isolated. There were only male clients and architects, and I never ever came across any women who were running their own practices. There were problems that I wanted to talk about and issues I wanted to share. That is when I identified and wrote to women architects, but I got very poor response. But 10 years later, in 2000, things had changed a lot, and that is when I brought out the first publication. I think it was a seminal exhibition. It was not an exhibition of complaints; it was a celebration of women’s work. I believe that it led to various other interests of mine being translated into publications.

MW: It inspired me, and I think it was important because, as you say, it was not just about “women” architects, which many women object to, being defined by their gender. It was the diversity of practices and of interests that were of significance.

BS: And it was all of South Asia.

MW: Yes, it wasn’t just India.

BS: There were architects from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

KI: There were very few women architects those days.

BS: Very few.

MW: So, Kamu, when did you feel the desire to begin writing?

KI: Actually, I never really thought of writing specifically, but I used to spend a lot of time talking to people and, you know, sharing experiences, most of all with Charles Correa. We used to travel together, and Charles talked about Bombay. He loved Bombay, and I knew a lot about Bombay, so I would keep telling him about the city. He and many others began telling me to write and put it all down in a book. Then one day, Charles told me, “Look, I’ll tell you what, I’ll interview you.” So, then I said, “I tend to ramble on” and he said, “don’t worry we’ll edit it.” But then afterwards, I thought to myself, if Charles interviews me, he will ask a question and he will give the answers, and so it seemed simpler if I wrote a book. That’s how I wrote the book!

MW: That’s wonderful! So, to conclude, Kamu, you said that one important thing is to pose a question. For you and Brinda, what questions about working from Mumbai would you pose?

BS: It is a difficult question. I think what we have to worry about is the future of the practice of architecture. What is going to be an architect’s role in the city of Mumbai, and what do they see as their responsibility to the city, as architects? How are they going to be able to handle this responsibility? As Kamu said, groups of people getting together, discussing ideas, thoughts that are good for the city … how will they be able to convert that into reality? That is what is really important. I always say that even the smallest project, if completed, can have a much greater impact than the biggest idea. I also think a lot about urbanisation and the process of building a city. Growth is inevitable, and we are looking at decades of rapid growth to come, so the core question perhaps is: What kind of development is it that we want to see?

KI: Also, the real question for architects today is: How are you going to cope with the onslaught of the real-estate lobby and those people who have a vested interest in the most important resource of the city, i.e. the land? Will architects abandon their roles as professionals, or are they going to really toe the line?

BS: And we need to begin talking about the protagonist of the space! Nobody talks about man, the person who is living in the city, and that is really where we need to begin ♦

December 22, 2015: Photograph from the day of recording the dialogue; courtesy the office of Brinda Somaya (HECAR Foundation)

Professor Mary N Woods teaches urban and architectural history at Cornell University, where she was the first to hold the Michael A. McCarthy Endowed Chair in Architectural Theory. Woods has received fellowships from: Fulbright in India, Graham Foundation; Canadian Centre for Architecture; American Council of Learned Society; and American Institute of Indian Studies. In 2018 she was awarded the Tau Sigma Delta Silver Medal for Distinguished Scholarship in Architecture. Her books include: From Craft to Profession: Architectural Practice in 19th-Century America (1999); Beyond the Architect’s Eye: Photographs of the American Built Environment (2009); and Women Architects in India: Histories of Practice in Mumbai and Delhi (2016). Her current projects include a documentary film about ‘Indian Migration and Cinema Halls’ with filmmaker Vani Subramanian.

The dialogue excerpt reproduced here was recorded on December 22, 2015 at Somaya & Kalappa’s office in Fort, Mumbai. The edited piece was published in ‘Works & Continuities’; a monograph on the works and ideas of Brinda Somaya (Mapin Press, 2018).

Published by CEPT University Press


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