The Hafeez Contractor Interview

“When people make disparaging statements about my architecture, they make them simply because they are not well-informed.”


Hafeez Contractor defends his choices as Prasad Shetty raises some critical questions.



Prasad Shetty: In the ’80s, when architects were discussing propositions about Indianness, were ‘localising’ modern architecture, and reviving indigenous construction techniques, you began your practice. What were the issues you tried to address?


Hafeez Contractor: What is Indianness? Moghul architecture is considered Indian even though Moghuls came from a foreign land. Why do we wear clothes the way we do now? Since you are from South India, you should be wearing a lungi and a towel. But you are wearing a shirt and trousers. In the ’80s, the big question for me was – Can I build something new? I did what was appropriate and needed.


Prasad Shetty: By Indianness, people meant using local materials, local techniques of construction, etc.


Hafeez Contractor: You have the choice of practising the kind of architecture you want to – what suits some people may not suit others. Even in a simple act like travelling from the suburbs to the city, there are many roads that one can take. And anyway, what is ‘local’? There is no such thing as ‘local’ today. When Jaisalmer was built, they had only stone. Even details of wood were copied in stone. In the south, people built with stone and wood, as they were available. At that time, transportation was difficult, and hence, people used local materials – because they were available and cheap. But today, cement is imported from Pakistan, because local cement is more expensive than Pakistani cement. Similarly, wood from Malaysia and glass from the Emirates is cheaper than locally available wood and glass. I feel, one should do everything that is practical, appropriate, cheap, and simple. Today, only a few buildings get built with local materials. These are basically institutions interested in keeping some kind of heritage intact. This is not the right approach to building; it is expensive.


Prasad Shetty: You mean to say your buildings are cheap?


Hafeez Contractor: Of course, one hundred percent! They are cheap. If my buildings were not cheap and simple to build, nobody would have agreed to build them.


Prasad Shetty: You have extremely controversial opinions on sensitive matters like heritage conservation, FSI, high-rise development, land reclamation, etc…


Hafeez Contractor: I have always said that heritage is very important, but I differ in the way I look at it. I love old buildings, but I don’t say that we should only preserve old buildings and not make new buildings. A lot of people say just this. This is where I differ. I have always said that there has to be a balance of the old and the new. This is what I did with Buckley Court – I kept the heritage building, and after nine floors, I did my development work. The Heritage Committee of Mumbai was of the opinion that I should not touch the old building and build only a six-storeyed building next to it.


I think that when you have to deal with the complex question of housing 20 million people, the solutions have to be many. There should not be only one single way of doing things. I believe that while sensitive areas like forests have to be protected, people also need to be housed. I feel that some people look at things from only a single perspective.


Prasad Shetty: You have called the people attacking you ‘conservative’, ‘anti-development’, and ‘elitist’. I am interested in the connection you make between being anti-development and being elitist.


Hafeez Contractor: I feel that we are becoming more and more selfish – we want everything, but not in our backyard. If any development happens in our backyard, we become environmentalists and we object. If the original people of Mumbai were selfish, nobody would have been able to stay in Mumbai. I stay in the Parsi Colony at Dadar. An old woman from the colony told me that when her mother was a child, the place had bungalows and orchards. Then, when her mother grew up, plotted development came and two- and three-storeyed buildings started getting built. Her mother did not like it. When her mother became old, the two- and three-storeyed buildings started getting replaced with six- and seven-storeyed buildings. I stay in a seven-storeyed building myself – she thinks that tall buildings are bad. The other day, my wife told me that all the women in the neighbourhood were getting together and objecting to an eighteen-storeyed building that was coming up. I asked her – “Why do you object? If our old neighbour, staying in a three-storeyed building had objected, we wouldn’t have been here. Now, we are suddenly ‘becoming aware’ and think that our area is getting spoilt. It is not your area alone – the city belongs to everybody. Everyone can come and live”. The trouble is that most city elders think like this. This will lead to the downfall of the city. People think that they should lead a life that is nice and peaceful – they don’t care about others.


Prasad Shetty: Your practice has grown by leaps and bounds – from being a small initiative to being a large firm employing more than 300 persons. Are all the designs that come out of your office, Hafeez Contractor’s designs? Are there small independent project teams? What happens to the office after Hafeez Contractor retires?


Hafeez Contractor: Every project is a Hafeez Contractor project in degrees. If I have faith in one associate, then my intervention will be little; with others, it will be different. I am involved in every project. The way the firm is structured, I think it will continue to be there even after I leave. But I don’t want to speculate about the future too much; I want to work in the present.


Prasad Shetty: How do you respond to the perception that your architectural practice is a handmaiden of the market, that it is an aggressive practice with the primary concern of creating iconic images or ‘look at me’ buildings?


Hafeez Contractor: To me, my work is fun. I enjoy it. People listen to music or read a book to unwind; I do a good project instead. I am not a vocal person attending seminars and talking about my work. I work 365 days a year – I make iconic structures when needed, I do construction in mud and stone when needed, I do construction at Rs. 50 per square feet and also at Rs. 50,000 per square feet. I do small buildings, I do skyscrapers. I do hospitals, residences, commercial buildings. When people make disparaging statements about my architecture, they make them simply because they are not well-informed. The new question today is – how fast and how efficiently can you work so that buildings can be completed on time? Buildings should be efficiently executed, well-designed, and cheap.