Mumbai: Hafeez Contractor is probably India’s most commercially successful architect with his work spanning 100 cities in five nations, including skyscrapers such as the Imperial and Hiranandani Gardens in Mumbai, 23 Marina in Dubai and DLF Cybercity in Gurugram. Mumbai-based Contractor, 68, is known for his outspoken and controversial views, and has been a proponent of high-rise buildings. Going vertical, according to him, is the only way for cities to grow, a view that has been criticized by urban planners. In an interview, the Mumbai-based architect spoke on Mumbai’s new development plan (DP) and how projects are being designed these days. Edited excerpts:
What do you think of the new Mumbai Development Plan for 2034?
The new Mumbai DP tries to increase the FSI (floor space index) and to be frank, I have been saying that for years that Mumbai should increase its FSI because it’s simple logic. In a house, if there are only two beds and a guest is going to come, you would at least get a new bed and plan where he is going to sit or eat. We have a huge influx of people coming into Mumbai and we are not planning for it. Secondly, real estate here is beyond the average man’s earning capacity and that’s mainly because of the restrictive policies. But the big question or the sword hanging over the head is they have increased the buying of additional FSI. The premium (to buy additional FSI) has increased so much that it may become unaffordable. Our country has a population of 1.2 billion and Mumbai already has a population of around 14 million. The city has the lowest FAR (floor area ratio) or FSI compared to other metropolitan cities and unless we increase the FSI, we cannot make housing and offices affordable.
And increasing the FSI will address some of these concerns?
I would say it is still not enough. Everyone is saying increasing FSI from 1.3 to 3 is a big jump but we require more than that. Mumbai is just about 436 sq. km. Out of that a bulk of it is occupied by the national park, mangroves, and for railway and military purposes. If you deduct all that including the roads, only 150 sq. km is left for you . So we would need an FSI of 8 to house the people. So is it really a jump? It will still force people to live in slums.
Is going vertical the only way for Mumbai to grow?
Yes. India will be two billion people very soon. We should have condensed high-density cities so that you do not waste land. Having green buildings is not enough. Today the most important thing is how you are conserving land. Nobody can create land.
The way in which land has been opened up in Mumbai, is it unprecedented?
We should have done that long ago. We go to Singapore and love the city. The whole of Mumbai was formed by reclaimed land. Now reclamation was stopped at a time when there was a lot of corruption in reclaiming land and selling. Because of what happened 30-40 years back, people are suffering for it today. We have to increase our land quantum. We have to have condensed cities. Mumbai is one place where there is water. Everybody is talking about smart cities. The smartest way of building a smart city is where there is water. Mumbai has got water. You cannot keep relying on cars, you got to think of tubes, underground transport, fast transport. If you have a condensed city we can afford to do that. For instance, the Mumbai port authority. You can reclaim the land of all the ports. Why can’t you reclaim the whole port area and convert into a new business district? Every city in the world has done it. Canary Wharf, Downtown Manhattan, Singapore. We admire it but we don’t want to do it here.
What are some of the key challenges in implementing the DP?
There will be a lot of challenges. My worry is the premium. I hope they don’t become “holier than thou" and make open spaces very large. On the one side we admire old heritage zones with buildings touching each other. The same guys are saying for new areas, we want open spaces. They (government) are on the right track by opening up real estate everywhere. This government has talked about addressing the concerns of cities for the first time. Yes, farmland is more important, villages are important but for our economy to grow it can’t be just agriculture. In the next 30 years, we will be the third- largest economy in the world. If we have to reach there, we have to expand, grow and for that we need to have offices.
Everyone says Mumbai’s infrastructure is crumbling. Will the current infrastructure match the kind of real estate activity proposed?
In Dubai and other countries, they first make the roads, railways, tube and then, the development starts. They can afford to do that because they got bags full of money. Our’s is not a rich man’s country. These (real estate) developments will pay for it. What happened to aviation when it was opened up. We had fewer airports then, now we got so many new airports. We are not sitting on a pile of money where we say “I will do the infrastructure first and then develop." 20-25 years ago, Mumbai was at the forefront. Now Delhi has taken over. Cities like Hyderabad are catching up. We have gone back because nothing has happened in the last 25 years.
Has project design changed over the years? Has it changed the way we live?
Everything has changed, including project sizes. When I worked as an apprentice, designing a 10,000-15,000 sq. ft building was considered big, and a 40,000 sq. ft was even bigger. Today, 4-5 million sq. ft is run-of-the-mill. Sizes are blown apart. Buildings are becoming bigger and bigger. When I was in college, a 13-14 storey (building) was called a skyscraper. Today we are making so many buildings which are 80-90 storeyed. Structure has to be taken into account...new technology has to be taken into account. How to build efficiently, that has to be taken into account. There are a lot of challenges but these are good challenges. And on the horizon, I see lots and lots of high-rises where everyone will be sitting on their balconies, sipping, and not sitting on the pavement.
The real estate sector is undergoing a transformation. What’s the brief developers give you these days?
Money is getting very, very dear. Flats are getting smaller. The trend today is to make smaller flats and have common amenities, which are fabulously large. If you want to entertain a person, invite him to the common areas which has the best of bars, lounges so that you don’t have to entertain them in your house. I still wish that builders allocate more areas for clubhouses with various facilities like swimming pools so that kids and families can enjoy them. When we were small, we used to be lucky to go to a swimming pool. We crib we don’t get a gold medal for swimming. How the hell will we get when at 18 years, one jumps into the swimming pool for the first time?
Which projects of your own would you pick as favourites ?
The Imperial (skyscraper in south Mumbai), because that is a project which gave free houses to so many slum dwellers. We are doing several projects that I’m very proud of like DLF V (a township in Gurugram). I’m also very proud of the DLF Cybercity and Hiranandani Gardens.
Who do you admire among the contemporary architects?
I used to really like Charles Correa’s work. He is no more. And I also like so many other architects all over the world.
You are known as a workaholic. Any retirement plans?
People retire and play golf. I have been playing golf all my life. I enjoy designing. When I was a kid in the third standard, I used to design. Not that I was designing big stuff. But I was designing toys, bikes...so I would continue doing what I love.