The human factor: architect Dilawar Noorani's enduring legacy

Published: Mar 17, 2019, 07:10 IST | Meher Marfatia

The man behind Indias first skyscraper and revolving restaurant showed rare integrity of design in his 1960s buildings The city lost visionary architect Dilawar Noorani 50 years ago this week

The human factor: architect Dilawar Noorani's enduring legacy
Dilawar Noorani's family - wife Minnat with children Shama (seated), Ehsaan and Rayasha — outside the iconic Embassy Apartments at Nepean Sea Road. Touching the sea, with a sweeping view of Priyadarshini Park, the design of this complex posed problems due to a narrow site and the builder's requirements of a pair of two-to-five bedroom flats per floor in each wing. The architect's solution was an extended S-shaped plan accommodating all specifications while it "left the sea facing frontage open to fullest utilisation" as he explained. Pic/Sneha Kharabe

Meher MarfatiaHoward Roark really reminded me of my dad when I read The Fountainhead," says Shama Noorani. Comparing Ayn Rand's iconoclast hero with her architect father, the daughter of Dilawar Noorani adds, "He was brilliant, ahead of his time, conceiving some of Bombay's best buildings with revolutionary ideas in the 1960s."

A post-graduate alumnus of Loughborough College, London, Dilawar Karim Noorani brought a solidity and sensibility to his profession, strikingly evident in buildings like Usha Kiran on Carmichael Road, the country's first skyscraper, with 25 storeys and a swimming pool, in 1966. Executed by his father's firm, Karim Noorani & Co., Dilawar's designs freely reflected his conviction that function should decide form - in Embassy Apartments on Nepean Sea Road, Prabhu Kunj and Crystal on Pedder Road, Prabhu Kutir on Altamont Road, Dalamal Park at Cuffe Parade and Citadel on Malabar Hill. I happily figure that the company also designed the fan-out contours of my building, Peacock Palace at Breach Candy.

Dilawar Noorani's drawing for what was intended as India's first revolving restaurant atop a Mahalaxmi office tower. Pic Courtesy/DK Noorani, 'The Planning of Commercial Buildings - Its Ramifications and Its Rewards', Marg, Vol. 20 No. 3 (June), 1967
Dilawar Noorani's drawing for what was intended as India's first revolving restaurant atop a Mahalaxmi office tower. Pic Courtesy/DK Noorani, 'The Planning of Commercial Buildings - Its Ramifications and Its Rewards', Marg, Vol. 20 No. 3 (June), 1967

Dilawar's non-residential properties include Hotel Nataraj on Marine Drive, Nirmal Commercial at Nariman Point, Nirlon House and Indian Oil Corporation offices at Worli, and Hindi Vidya Bhavan behind Marine Drive. "Always looking to up the ante with his buildings, he would have designed entire cities like Le Corbusier," says Dilawar's music director son Ehsaan, of the celebrated Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy troika. "Even without reaching his zenith, he made a great impact on this city. I've heard about his maverick ways from friends and family."

Relying on others' memories is something Ehsaan and his sisters simply had to do. When their father died tragically young at 35, he was just over five years old, Shama, 8, and Rayasha, 2 - "Too little to realise anything more than that we missed him terribly," says Shama. "As the eldest, I've clearer memories. At his office, I fiddled on the big console the telephone operator sat behind." Ehsaan adds, "When the Noorani office was redesigned, I was fascinated with its ultra-modern interiors. His staff held him in huge esteem."

Minnat and Dilawar Noorani
Minnat and Dilawar Noorani

How did the architect shape modernist structures as stunning and lasting as his have proved? A seminal essay contributed to Marg magazine in June 1967, titled "The Planning of Commercial Buildings – Its Ramifications and its Rewards", reveals his strong humanism: "Until 10 years ago, any residential building which was to be exploited commercially, was planned literally for exploitation. The judicious use of blank wall spaces, the position of doors to ensure proper placement of furniture, the circulation inside flats, were mere platitudes to the builder. The modern generation of architects was finding it next to impossible to prove that economy and good planning were wedded. Deep-seated ideas had to be changed. This gave rise to a new breed of architects, who accepted the human element in planning as a challenge."

Of Usha Kiran's innovative pair of slim towers, each with a luxurious four-bedroom apartment per floor, he wrote, "The form was dictated by the view. Aesthetically, masses 48 feet wide, rising to a height of 250 feet give the effect of two slender towers with faces at regular offsets rising majestically into the sky! Whether one has succeeded in making the building unique, time alone will tell."

Dilawar (second from left in dark suit) holds up the initial proposal for Hotel President on site in Cuffe Parade
Dilawar (second from left in dark suit) holds up the initial proposal for Hotel President on site in Cuffe Parade

Time has indeed told a tale of continuing elegance and endurance. Ehsaan says, "Usha Kiran was iconic and is gorgeous even now. It was built to sway, not fall. The Koyna earthquake happened a year after its construction. We were at Mahableshwar's Raceview Hotel. Dad rushed to check on Usha Kiran, which stood tall, of course. Visiting the site as it was coming up, I cherished for quite a while a few colourful (turquoise and aqua blue) vitreous swimming pool tiles the contractor sweetly gave me to keep."

Dilawar's wife Minnat says, "On its completion, I wanted to see Bombay's beauty from Usha Kiran's height. I climbed the steps up the terrace tank and Dilawar pulled me away as I was pregnant with Rayasha." She laughs when I mention that waiting for her to pick up the phone is fun because I get to hear her son's hit tunes. The zingy Gallan goodiyaan number from Dil Dhadakne Do tinkles till its "Hello, hello" beat fills my head while I try to focus on her husband's drawings. "The children inherited Dilawar's creativity and sensitivity," Minnat says. Rayasha's talent is painting on ceramic. Shama is a grief and bereavement counsellor, besides being a travel expert for the disabled and senior citizens. An angel healer and medium as well, Shama says, "Channeling my father, I'm on the periphery of tears. None of us had closure after his sudden death from bronchial pneumonia." Ehsaan finds echoes of his father in himself - "Dad was dapper, a sharp dresser with a wardrobe full of suits, ties and shoes. I like good clothes and share his sense of humour. And I'd run to the door to hug him when he got home."

With no recollection of Dilawar playing the harmonica and singing, Ehsaan does recall, "He bought a tape recorder from Europe with cassettes of Xavier Cugat, Los Paraguayos, My Fair Lady - soundtracks that left an indelible stamp, pushing me to become a musician. Listening to Paul Mauriat's version of San Francisco as a child elated me and definitely opened a connection with music."

Ehsaan loves another individualistic favourite from his father's drawing board. "His original design for Meenakshi Chambers, presently Essar House at Mahalaxmi, was fabulous. Proposed as India's first revolving restaurant, it was intended to perch on top in a radical design. Nothing like that had ever been conceptualised in the country." Dilawar explained this bold project - "Crowned by a Revolving Restaurant, the offices in this building are oriented to afford a complete view of the racecourse and sea. A column-free office is provided on each floor. Revolving restaurants have been a great success in other countries. With the fascinating views afforded by Bombay, there is no reason why this should not be equally successful."

When not dreaming up epic dimensions, Dilawar undertook interesting smaller projects. The bar on board the historic INS Vikrant had a plaque at its entrance with his name engraved. Those who caught a poignant cinema hall version of the National Anthem paying tribute to navy patriots fighting from this carrier, might have noted the instrumental background score specially arranged by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. "I was lucky to see that bar on the Vikrant in the late 1970s," Ehsaan says, showing me a family treasure. The November 1968 letter in which Captain EC Kuruvilla extended Karim Noorani "… a very warm thank you for all the advice, assistance and drawings which Dilawar and his able team have given so willingly, to redecorate and refurnish the Anteroom and Wardroom of my ship."

Dilawar Noorani had an unerring knack for spotting talent and keeping it. He discovered architect Hiranmay Biswas, fresh from IIT Kharagpur. Bundling his drawings underarm, 21-year-old Biswas had jumped into a Calcutta to Bombay train. "Uppermost in my mind was his Marg article which I read as a final year student. I went to the Karim Noorani office in Mustafa Building on PM Road. My sketches were handed to Dilawar. He strode out of his cabin - flamboyant, articulate, impressive - telling his chief architect, 'I want the whole office to see these. Everything must match this standard.' Though an engineer by training, like his father Karim, he had remarkable propensity to predict potential.

"I hit work the next day, January 15, 1969. He expired on March 23rd. In less than three months with him I learnt a lot, from schematic drawings for President Hotel to site meetings at Dalamal Park. I worked directly under his father until he died in 1972, brokenhearted on losing a son in the prime of life. Dilawar's younger brother Munawar and I became business partners and close friends. Heading Biswas Consultants, I believe I'm yet part of Karim Noorani & Co."

The chief architect who handed Biswas' drawings to Dilawar was Narinder Singh. His wife Farida says, "He was indebted to Dilawar Noorani for believing in him. From Usha Kiran, a landmark for which he was part of the architectural team, one could see as far as Uran. In the case of Hotel President for the Nagpals, Mr Noorani sent him to London for design research."

The Nooranis lived at Belvedere Court in Churchgate, neighbours of the Singhs since 1942. "Minnat was Dilawar's pillar, caring for the family while he could concentrate on work. All the children imbibed their parents' humility and respectful nature." Farida joined the Nooranis as a stenographer and became Dilawar's personal assistant. "Polite and polished, he was an understanding boss but tolerated no nonsense. Being an architect made him meticulous, precise, organised."

Dilawar concludes the illuminating Marg piece voicing a concern we wish more architects today had: "Residential accommodation involves human beings. Planning has to incorporate the human element. This particular aspect of planning has its own reward - the appeasing of a conscience which says that even the minimum accommodation should and can mean a home."

Author-publisher Meher Marfatia writes fortnightly on everything that makes her love Mumbai and adore Bombay. You can reach her at mehermarfatia@gmail.com/www.mehermarfatia.com

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