Bombay was his blueprint
City architects, professors and urban chroniclers mourn the death of Kamu Iyer, whose work shaped nearly six decades of the Maximum City
Kamu Sir would refuse to speak to students from a dais; instead, he mingled with the architecture batch who would sit around him, holding on to his every word," recalls Swapna Joshi, architect and former principal at AIKTC, New Panvel. She, like most of Mumbai's architecture and urban planning fraternity are still coming to terms with the news of Kamu Iyer's death. The octogenarian architect, author and teacher, who was a guide to thousands, panning generations, passed away yesterday. He graduated from Sir JJ School of Architecture in 1957. As a practitioner since 1960 with Architects' Combine, a highly-respected firm where he was a partner, his practice covered educational, institutional and low-cost housing. As a teacher, he taught across architecture campuses, and wrote books and essays on the subject.
The architecture stream in AIKTC shares a link with Iyer because of the Kamu Iyer Design Competition (KIDC). It was instituted in his honour in 2014 to encourage architecture students in Navi Mumbai who until then didn't have a platform to showcase their talent. Joshi, who was part of the faculty when the contest was initiated, recalls when they approached him with the idea: "He asked us, 'Why me?' Such was his humility. He always had positive feedback to share with our students. It's why the students had a close bond with him despite the age gap. He loved the informality they brought along." Despite being in his 80s, he'd make the trek from Mahim to New Panvel until 2018.
"He did so many things—built buildings, was a chronicler, critically looked at city happenings, wrote about it, lectured about it; so his reach was across audiences," says Professor Mustansir Dalvi, of Sir JJ School of Architecture. Dalvi had collaborated with Iyer on several projects. "Iyer had worked with the great GB Mhatre [one of 20th century Bombay's most visionary architects], and was also his student while at Sir JJ School, and so the influence was there," he shares. "Architects' Combine was almost like a JJ School alumnus; even I had interned there. It was the breeding ground for significant architecture from our city, and had set an example for Bombay's architects at the time."
Iyer's contribution and the firm came in for praise from conservation architect Vikas Dilawari too: "It acted as the bridge between the old and new schools of architecture. With his passing, we've lost the last of his generation who were practising architects as well as teachers. His generation saw the blooming of 20th century. Slowly, we are losing these living connections who designed buildings that we continue to admire."
Iyer's legacy hopefully will stay alive and be adhered to thanks to the many books he wrote. Two come in for praise —Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl offers a fabulous walkthrough of the entire city panning nearly a century. "If you want to know Bombay as a physical form, that's the book to refer to," Dalvi maintains. The second is Buildings that shaped Bombay, a monograph on GB Mhatre that Atul Kumar, founder trustee of Art Deco Mumbai regards as a seminal, lone tribute, to the works of the architect that defined many city neighbourhoods, adding, "It strikes a fine balance between architectural descriptions, social history and urban development of the city through a narrative on Mhatre's properties." Dalvi, who worked with Iyer on this book, swears by its invaluable research and believes it will hold every architecture student in good stead.
"He was a learner till the end," Dalvi reminds us, adding "…who was always open to sharing his wisdom across age groups." Bombay will miss a great teacher.
Note: The term Bombay has been used to follow historic continuity of the subject.
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