Is architect Hafeez Contractor a superhero or just an overrated marketing success?
Is architect Hafeez Contractor a superhero or just an overrated marketing success?
In Hafeez Contractor’s factory, hundreds of architects and draftsmen sit elbow to elbow to churn out buildings. From morning to night, their sole purpose is to draft and design the innumerable rough sketches that originate from Hafeez, who has a good view of the office exit. As a result, employees do not attempt to leave before dinner. When a project is over they immediately begin work on the next. There are no milestones, only more buildings to make. People here do not linger. They have been taught to respect time. The act of endless production has stripped them of most ideologies, bar one: the client’s happiness comes above all else. Here, the architect is as the dictionary defines him: a person who designs buildings. This is not about form follows function, or less is more, or envisioning habitats. The factory’s patrons know the worth of a buck, and they do not care much for architecture as art. Which is why they come here. They like their costs minimised, and design amplified.
Contractor’s employees work towards this end, honoured to be a part of his assembly line. Whatever other architects think of Hafeez (“Worthless”, “Over-rated”), his workers believe he’s a genius. “Why do people hate me?” Hafeez Contractor asked his cousin, the architect Tehmasp Khareghat, one day. Khareghat, who had once convinced a young Hafeez that his future lay in architecture, replied that he wasn’t hated, just misunderstood. But the misunderstanding is a deep, divisive one. Called a mouthpiece for the builder lobby, accused of being a media manipulator, Hafeez’s ideas for a taller Mumbai are ridiculed, and his buildings are deemed ugly. He is viewed as an unfortunate freak by many in his profession, as well as by conservationists. This is because his allegiance is to the builders, and the popular perception is that he ignores the principles more discerning architects abide by. This perception gets him shouted down at lectures and public presentations, though he does himself no favours by letting his mouth run ahead of him, like he did when he called mangroves ghaas-phoos at a discussion where environmentalists and conservationists were present. To the naked eye, Hafeez’s dominant contribution to the Mumbai skyline is rooftop domes, and a mish-mash of elements derived from Greek and Roman architecture. A noted professor calls the style “deconstructivism and neo-modernism—there is no deeper connection to anything”. Asked to describe the development that first turned the spotlight on him in 1986-87, Lake Castle at Hiranandani Garden in Powai, architects opined that it was unspeakably horrible.
Adjectives like these have followed him since, and serious discussions that invoke him usually turn to aesthetic and moral objections. A former associate from Hafeez’s firm recalled watching students drown out his presentation at JJ School of Architecture a year ago as they objected to his plan to create a belt of greenery and skyscrapers around the city. “That was the first time I saw him feel bad,” says Santosh Wadekar, who worked with Hafeez for a decade before starting an interior design firm. “He didn’t say anything for a while, but you could tell he was shaken.” They returned to their office, where he seemed to forget the day’s events under a deluge of work.
Before Hafeez, architects usually worked on government projects, and residential buildings were built mostly by people without imagination. It resulted in a dour landscape with a depressingly bland skyline. His arrival changed how people saw the profession. Architecture had critically-acclaimed professionals, but in Hafeez it found a man of the people. “When Hafeez came into the picture, he looked at buildings from head to toe,” says Harshad Bhatia, an architect. “He tries to do something that makes it distinct. He thinks about adding value to skyscrapers. No one else treated their buildings like this. It’s a testament to him that we’re even talking about the skyline right now.” He made people look up.
At its heart, the issue regarding Hafeez Contractor goes beyond architecture. He is guided by the principles of free markets. He does not like restrictions nor does he impose restrictions on others. For him, his supporters say, every client is of value. He has turned down only two clients in nearly three decades—decisions he says he regrets (he refused because those projects were planned close to the sites he was working on, and would have led to a conflict of interest). The debate over Contractor can be condensed to this: is his work art? Some have made their peace with him, but many others (“The retired people,” he calls them) find him distasteful. “I feel senior members of the profession felt antagonised. He loves doing things quickly, while others would tell him not to take more,” says Bhatia.
Architects used to come with a standard understanding of rules and regulations, and gave their clients no options. “But he looked at things from the view of design economy as well as the market economy,” Bhatia says. “He told builders that if they added extra floors it would cost a little more, but their returns would be substantially higher. He sold them the idea of penthouses.”
Soon after Hafeez joined his cousin Khareghat’s small practice to learn the ropes, he asked Khareghat why he didn’t expand. He was better than the others, the teenage Hafeez insisted, so why didn’t he market himself better? Khareghat had a life outside architecture, and he says that he worked “for his own satisfaction, not the client’s”. He would leave at six, while Hafeez stayed on to draft projects until midnight. After his formal education was complete, Hafeez returned to his cousin’s practice, where projects moved disconcertingly slowly.
Also, he found Khareghat’s resistance to client suggestions baffling. “A client would tell him what she wanted,” he recalls. “But he would tell her she was not looking at the inside flow. Then there was a wife-husband client who we designed a bungalow for very enthusiastically. But she wasn’t happy. She liked pitched roofs, she liked Spanish villas. But we didn’t do it for her.” Khareghat didn’t believe an architect could design a Spanish villa in Maharashtra in the late seventies. After a few unsatisfactory meetings, the couple vanished.
“That hurt me,” Contractor says. He left to start his own practice. By now, his belief that architectural philosophy was futile hardened. The rules students were judged by were of little use outside. “I felt ‘why should we practise architecture the way it is taught, when those you are practising it for don’t want you to practise it that way?’” he says. “If a man wants something, if he has something in mind, why do you want to give him something else and lump it? A lot of times, architects force their will and views on others. All that happens is you get unsatisfied customers.” Every client deserved to derive satisfaction.
Among his first clients were the Hiranandanis, whose township in Powai (a suburb of Mumbai) is critically despised for its design but admired for the sense of community. “The thought for that first building came from wanting to construct something cheaper, and also wanting to create an environment so that people felt at home. We looked at Gothic arches and looked at palaces. Nobody had done this 18-20 storeys high. I knew that if we mastered it, people would love it,” Hafeez says. “But just because I did it for a builder, nobody (read: his peers) bought it.” (Asked about the rationale behind importing Roman and Greek elements, he said, “The world is connected in every way now. We drive Japanese cars.”) With today’s emphasis on client experience, Hafeez’s approach seems sensible. But at the time, it was completely unheard of. Architects who worked primarily on official patronage looked down upon most private developers. “All the great dons would not even touch builders,” Hafeez says.
The eighties were witnessing the rise of private developers, and he was there to catch the wave. Anybody with land came to him, and he was, by all accounts, an equal opportunity service provider. A Marwari client came to him one day, he says, with an aim to make 800 square foot flats. He had the measurements down pat. When Hafeez added them up, he saw that the client’s numbers fell short. “Kirti, how does this add up?” Kirti replied, “Boss, that’s why I came to you.” Even if he thought a request couldn’t be done, he didn’t tell the client. “Usually there was an answer.” Clients came in droves, and he said yes to everything. More spectacular, and contentious, was his method to design. They sat across a table in his office, telling him what they wanted. As they talked, he formulated the design mentally. By the time they were done talking, he asked an assistant to hand him a sheet of paper and a sketch pen. In minutes, he would have an external design ready, and this would be passed down to draftsmen. He understood the builders’ language perfectly. The ultimate buyers were people emerging from the stasis of socialist India, and the building had to be about aspiration. Of course, the builder had to maximise value too. So came the domes—which also served the purpose of covering rooftop water tanks—and fancy exteriors with a post-modern touch. The insides suffered, but this did not affect demand for the apartments. Their purpose had been fulfilled; it didn’t matter how uncomfortable the interior was, as long as the building looked great from outside. This was anathema to other architects, who selected their projects with consideration and deliberated on every space.
In an essay about contemporary architecture, a passage by Himanshu Burte about a certain kind of modern architect seems written keeping Hafeez in mind. ‘The approach of the architect to the surface of the building is similar to that of advertisers and marketing strategists. The objective is not just a beautiful surface, but a surface made saleable in a beautiful manner. Thus, the surface of a typical building is packed with a jumble of various elements borrowed from the popular imagination, for their association with exclusivity and opulence. The aspirational aspects of these images or elements (almost always of a Western pedigree) are startlingly similar to those in advertising campaigns for a consumer product… The development throws up the issue of the role of architects and architecture in society. On examination, it becomes obvious that the architect of this persona is working only as a member of the marketing team. That too, as a glorified packaging artist. This kind of service industry conception of architecture is limiting and socially irresponsible.’ (An aside: Khareghat has for long maintained that all architects are product designers.)
When Contractor cast out the thinking that academia encouraged, it was only natural the universities would fight back. Teachers used models of his work to show students how not to practise architecture. Particular colleges became bastions of an anti-Hafeez language and reaffirmed more traditional approaches to architecture. And yet, as Hafeez puts it, through it all, “half the students in college wanted to join me”. Not exactly half, but a large enough number. Prashant Chauhan, a product of Rizvi, was one. “For the first 2-3 weeks, I could not understand the volume of work,” he says. Other newbies reported feeling similarly disoriented. His dean, Professor Akhtar Chauhan, was puzzled by Prashant’s choice. But it made sense to the acolyte. He had heard of the factory, and it was so different from the world he lived in as a student that he had to experience it. He was given a space five metres away from Hafeez. “It’s a factory, and all ideas come from him. You do so much work that you start thinking like him.”
Wadekar, a product of the JJ architecture programme, got grief from his classmates when he told them that Hafeez had taken him on. “Thinking along his lines was a sin,” Wadekar says, “But I was never one of those guys who used to daydream about this or that. I just wanted to do. He’s very practical. There’s really no room for sentiment. In college, we are taught that form follows function, but this is not to context. Everybody did form follows function. What he did was something else. He did cityscaping.”
Cityscaping is not the term conservationists use to describe Hafeez’s work. They oppose a large number of his ideas as harmful, if not disastrous, to the city. One of them hinted that he laughed evilly as he planned to remove a century-old staircase for renovations on a heritage structure. His proposal to reclaim 500 m on either side of Mumbai for a continuous strip of parkland, a ring road, and a line of skyscrapers facing the sea was derided. “I’m not sure that’s the solution Mumbai needs,” says Mustansir Dalvi, a professor at JJ School of Architecture. Contractor says that at the time, he was invited to Bandra’s Bandstand promenade to present his plan, and felt humiliated when his talk was cut short. “I realised they had planned this… From then, I decided only to talk if I was invited to schools.”
Over the years, the heritage committee and Hafeez have met often. One of those instances was over the small matter of Buckley Court. Described as a seedy hotel, Buckley Court was, nonetheless, a heritage building, which meant builders needed approval from a committee before they touched it. The builders wanted to construct floors over the bungalow, a move that would have destroyed the aesthetic appearance of the building. A way out was found—the new floors would be placed over a 60-80 ft gaping arch that left the hotel seemingly untouched. “He sold the idea to the other members by telling them how the old structure had influenced the new design,” says Bhatia, who was also on the committee. “Despite me lodging a protest, they bought it. Now they agree that was a mistake.” What would have been a small building turned into a skyscraper that stuck out among the shorter structures in Colaba.
Hafeez believes the only reason people object to taller buildings is that builders lobby for permissions to build them, which means someone, somewhere, is making a lot of money. “Can you believe that?” he exclaims. He wants Mumbai to be taller so that there’s room for its inhabitants. “Do you know what age I was when I got married? I was 42. I got married at that age because that was when I could finally buy this house. If I wanted to be with somebody, we had nowhere to go. A lot of these guys who protest haven’t struggled. They live in South Bombay and don’t want things to change.” He thumps his chest. “I know what it’s like. I know what it takes to buy a home.” This is more than an act. Soon after I mentioned how beautiful his neighbourhood, Parsi Colony, looked, he said, “You think it looks good now, but ask the old Parsi lady who lives on the ground floor what it was like. She’ll say it was much better earlier. This place used to be a field. But things change. I’ll tell you something. Near my house, there’s a tall building. Before it was constructed, my wife came to me with a petition she wanted me to sign. When I asked her what it was for, she said it was to protest that the building would block our ventilation and light. I told her, ‘you married me?’”