“When I was in college I used to tell my friends, my office will be running in three shifts and everybody used to laugh”
Hafeez Contractor is clearly India’s best known architect. He has been the biggest force behind changing the skyline of Mumbai and Pune and has emerged as first marque name in modern Indian architecture. In a freewheeling chat with Sucheta Dalal and Debashis Basu he tells the gripping story of his passion, struggle and success
ML: Let's start with your background…your schooling, your interests and early etc.
HC: My dad had expired before I was born and I was brought up by my mother and my aunt. I was a very mischievous kid; so mischievous that I had to be finally packed off to a boarding school. I never used to study. But even when I was in the fourth or fifth standard, I was always drawing … I used to draw bikes and forts and guns. I had another friend called Behram Divecha. We both used to play at designing forts and place guns at appropriate locations or draw different kind of tanks. We did this all day and night. Otherwise we would run around, play and get into trouble. When I was in the fifth standard my teacher, Nergis Gupta (she is 85 now) said, "You are such a useless boy you are not studying or doing anything; but remember when you grow up become an architect, don't do anything else". She had a sense of what I was doing, which is designing. I thought I was only playing. But even then we used to draw elevations, cross-sections etc. but we did not know the technical terminology. My teacher probably knew its value. As we grew older, our designs got more complicated. Until I reached my SSC year, I used to fail in some subject or the other and would be re-examined after my vacations -- most schools have a system where borderline students are re-examined and promoted. So when I came home for my holidays, my aunt would make me study with a cane.
I used to be very good at sports. I won the junior championships several times. When I went for my first college admission I took a heap of certificates in athletics - 100 meters, 400 meters, 500 meters, long jump, high jump etc. I think the Jai Hind college Principal saw these certificates and admitted me.
On my first day in school, in my SSC year, the principal, Mr. Desai - called me and said "See son, don't think I don't know what you are doing. All this time I was in control of your destiny but from now on you have to take charge". He lectured me for 15 minutes and said, "If you don't study now what will you do later"? He had promoted me every year until then. He said, everyone comes with a certain destiny, you work right now or you work later but you will have to put in a certain amount of hard work if you have to succeed in life. We also had another teacher who would come in the morning and write on the board 'No work without hard work'. We made fun of him, but his words are embedded in my mind. So, from a boy who was only interested in sports and games, I started studying. I went back to my fifth standard books, went upwards until I could catch up with the SSC syllabus. I managed to get 50% marks and got out. That was the first turning point in my life. I had started studying. Then I wanted to join architecture but nobody would give me an entrance form with the kind of marks I got.
ML: What were the options then?
HC: JJ College was the one I knew. My next choice was to join the army. I had been chosen the best cadet in NCC (National Cadet Corps). I applied to the army but when I received an interview letter or something my aunt apparently tore it up without informing me. I got to know of it only later. I then decided to join the police. But neither my aunt nor my mother wanted me to do it. My aunt said first become a graduate and then join the police force. So I joined Jai Hind college. In college I had to choose a second language. I decided to take German. I didn't take French because I saw that all the Parsi boys could speak it fluently in the class - so I opted for German. But the German teacher died within a month or two. The college offered to return our fees or switch to French. My cousin's wife was good at French and offered to teach me in between her work. My cousin is an architect; he had a small office with one or two people. She did the typing and used to teach me when she had no work. When I was there one day, one of his assistants was drawing a section of a window. For an architect, a window section is quite an advanced drawing, but for me it was part of my daily diet. After all, I could draw sections of bikes.
ML: Had you continued with your drawing after school?
HC: Actually, I was very worried about my studies and missed out on drawing for one or two years, but you can't forget these things. I went to his drawing board and after watching for a while I said that window will not open. He stared at me and said "how the hell do you know? Of course it will open, you don't know anything". I said let's take a bet. Later, when my cousin came in I said, 'don't you think this window won't open'? He replied yes, because the detailing is wrong. He asked me how I knew that and I told him how I drew all the time. He asked me to draw some window details. Architecture has a language of its own. When you draw wood you draw it in a particular way and when you draw glass you draw it in a particular way, there is a complete language of communication through the drawing. In my case, the abbreviations were my own, but when he saw them, my cousin said my construction was absolutely right. Then he asked me to design a two-bedroom house. I drew it in a minute. Then he showed me an axonometric -- an axonometric is a three-dimension view from the top. It is on scale. He asked can you draw this? I said, sure, it is a view from the top, isn't it? He said yes, so I drew it. When my cousin saw that, he said, "do one thing, forget your French, forget everything and join architecture today. I said, Tehmasp nobody is giving me admission.
I have another cousin who is also an architect but practicing in America, my cousin called him up and he knew one Mr. Homi Dallas who was the president of the Indian Institute of Architecture at that time. My cousin spoke to him saying he wanted Hafeez to join architecture at any cost and if he could get me admission to any college. I was asked to meet Mr. Dallas who is a nice old Parsi gentleman who gave me a note to the Academy of Architecture. I never even knew about that college. When I went there, the Principal said they do not admit boys with such low marks but since Mr. Dallas had given me a note he would let me appear for the entrance exam. I got an A+ and entered college for a seven-year part time course. I would go to the college in the morning and work the whole day. In each of the seven years I stood first class first, only one year I got a second class but I was still first in the class. So going to my cousin's office and then Mr.Dallas giving me that letter was my second turning point and in fact the biggest turning point.
ML: Once you joined architecture, you obviously started studying a lot.
HC: It was a completely different ball game! I would go to the college in the morning and work the whole day. After office hours I would do my homework or study or read about architecture in the office and I would catch the last bus home after . I had never seen sunlight near my house for all 365 days. Be it Sundays, holidays, Christmas or Id - it was the same routine. Every New Year's eve my friends would come at around and honk from below to call me. I would then join them at which was a big concession for the New Year's party. I was working that hard and I was totally involved with architecture.
ML: Who were you working with at that time?
HC: I was working at P. Kharegat & Associates, with the same cousin who encouraged me to do architecture. I worked with him for 13 years. It was a very small office. So when the peon was not there I used to sweep and swab the floor in the mornings - really! We had a 60-year old peon named Dhondu who would be sick three days a week. When he was absent, I did the sweeping. When my cousin was not there I would be the boss and talk to clients. When my cousin's wife was not in office I would take down letters and get them typed. I did just about everything.
Finally, when I graduated, I got something like 194 or 196 out of 200 in design, which was very rare and is a record. The JJ College of Architecture, which was a rival college and our college got together and sponsored a one-man show at JehangirArtGallery (Mumbai). The entire gallery was booked and all my work over seven years was displayed. Even in class, if the 50 boys submitted drawings, they would take up the whole class to display their models and drawings but I would take up another entire classroom alone because my models would be 10 X 10 feet. I used to earn and spend my money on my work; I was also very fast. Often, we would be given four months to design a building and my design would be ready by the time I reached office. I was that fast and I am still very fast. If a client comes to me today and gives me his specifications, even while talking to him I draw out a plan for the building and the elevation. The client is surprised. I then pass it on to my associates to work on the detailed drawing. This is why we do more than a thousand buildings. Coming back to the third turning point, Mr. Dallas entered my life again at the exhibition. He appreciated my work and asked what I planned to do next. I was thinking of going abroad for further studies and had applied to Columbia. The fees were something like $15,000 in 1973, it was quite a huge amount in those days. I told him about my plan to go to Columbia. He asked me what my father was doing. I told him my father expired before I was born. He then asked who my guarantor was. I said nobody, so he said ‘come to my office I am your guarantor’. Until then I had spoken to several people who neither said yes or no. I needed a loan of Rs 2-3 lakhs, which was a lot those days and I was worried. I went to Mr. Dallas's office the next day. Like a fool I carried a form without filling in details like the name and amount. Mr. Dallas just wrote my name on top and signed below and returned the form. I said, ‘Sir I have not filled the amount’. He replied, ‘Don't worry fill up any amount’. So he came into my life a second time and helped me.
I went abroad and I was very clear in my mind that I am going there only for studies. When I went for my US visa the American Consulate guy said, 'how do I know you are coming back'? I said, 'Sir I can guarantee you I will. All I can say is that your country is very nice, but I love my country more. So I am going to come back'. Incidentally, I caught a flight to come back to India on the same day I graduated. I was very clear that if I stay for two or three days more I was never going to come back.
ML: Why is that?
HC: Because my cousin Dinyar Wadia who was a practicing architect in America was constantly asking me to join him. If I had worked with him for four-five days then I would have got involved. I would have said I am going to finish this one building and then go, and by the time finished that, another would come up and it would go on. This was in the late 70s.
ML: But working in India at that time… wasn't it disappointing in terms of infrastructure, opportunity and material?
HC: Completely disappointing! A lot of times I used to think, "I should have settled there. I would have been doing a whole lot of things". But one thing was very clear in my mind that I wanted to start my practice in Bombay. When I was in college I used to tell my friends, my office will be running in three shifts and everybody used to laugh. When they meet me now they say, it has indeed come true.
In fact, I left for the airport straight from the graduation dinner party. I reached Bombay in the morning and by afternoon I was in office. Then one fine day, after three or four years, my cousin and I disagreed on a colour scheme - not whether to use green and pink or blue and red but between using grey or black -- that was another turning point.
I would be in the office at and would leave at . He would come at around 11.30 am leave at 4.30 pm. Clients coming in after 6 in the evening would give me the jobs. I would sit the whole night, finish the design and submit drawings for municipal permissions in the morning. At that time we used to get municipal approvals in a day, so by afternoon the approval was on his table and my cousin would say 'when did you do this job'? I said 'last night'. Then one day, he saw the colour scheme and said 'you won't do this or that…' I said 'no Tehmasp I am going to be doing everything'. He said, 'in that case you won't be working here.' I said okay and I separated. That was another turning point. I had saved up a lakh of rupees and I thought I would be able to buy the world. That was at the end of 1981. I sought three months to find an office and move out.
ML: Were you in a profit-sharing arrangement with your cousin?
HC: Oh yes, I was an associate. When I started looking for an office I realised how expensive it was. Somebody showed me an office under the staircase at Hamam Street for Rs. 40,000 (in the crowded stock exchange area of Mumbai). That was steep, because in the first six months I would not be earning anything and will have to pay my staff. I was really very disappointed. Then one day a broker who I knew well came to office and said 'do you want an office?' I said yes. He took me to the place where I am right now. The building looked as if it had been bombed. It had not been used for year, it had broken windows, pigeons flying in and out and on the first floor there was a big room filled with old tyres and tubes. Worse, there was six inches of pigeon shit. He said, 'you can take as much space as you want'. I asked, who it belonged to and he said 'tell me if you like it'. I couldn't believe the space was available freely. I said yes. He told me to call up the owner Vijaybabu and ask for the space. You know who Vijaybabu was? He was the son of Haridas Mundra (who was indicted in India's first capital market scandal in 1957).
I called Vijaybabu about the office. He said that if I wanted it I could take it. This guy was like an angel to me. I told him that I did not need the entire space, just two windows of space. Vijaybabu knew I was starting on my own because I was doing one building for him. I asked him how much I had to pay him and he said, 'nothing'. The only condition was that I would vacate when he asked me to. I said, 'Mr. Mundra I want it only for a year'. But one year just flew away and I extended the stay for another year. I then said, Mr. Mundra if you want to sell won't you give me the first option to buy? He said yes. One year turned into three but he did not charge me a single rupee rent for all these three years.
ML: You must have done up the place?
HC: I just painted it and put a partition. I put a tarpaulin on the first floor to stop water from coming in. There was no phone those days. I applied for the phone but I had one dumb instrument on my table and gave my clients a number. In fact the phone was not connected. I used to go down to the Irani restaurant and call up my clients every hour to keep in touch with them and pretend the office phone is not working. Then Mr. Mundra sold me some space. From the original 150 sq.ft. space I now have more than 15,000 sq.ft. in the same building. I had to keep going back to add more space in that building and the next two inter-connected buildings.
ML: You actually work three shifts?
HC: All of my staff don't work three shifts but at least 30 to 40 of them do. Half of them work on commission. This means that if I earn Rs 100 then down the line my team will get Rs 25, Rs 10, Rs 5, Rs 2 etc. As soon as I see someone is very capable, I put him in charge of a separate group. I keep forming similar groups. A senior person has four to five groups under him. This ensures that everybody does his work well, is earning well and is happy.
ML: In terms of work, with liberalisation, the business kept changing. Will you take us through how your own work and career changed?
HC: In architecture, you need a patron. When I was working in Kharegat's office, I knew virtually all the builders of Bombay and everybody was fond of me but that was not enough. Those days I used to know a lot of brokers and I used to tell them come to me and I will get you clients. These brokers used to come with plots of land, which were in abundance those days and ask me how to fit a building in those plots. I showed them how - free of charge because I had few jobs and a lot of time. So one after the other I was doing designs and plans. The broker was able to show it to a client, say that the plan was ready and he could start sales the next day. That worked and people started knowing my name. Then came the real estate boom of 1984 or 1985 and every paanwala was becoming a builder. They would land up at my office and ask me to draw plans for them. I knew that none of them was ever going to make a building but I never refused anyone. I would take a deposit of Rs.5,000 or Rs. 10,000 and make a perspective. He would print the brochure and those went around all over India. I knew this guy would dupe me, but I told myself it was only publicity for me. Also, it always seemed like I had a queue of clients and designing was fun for me anyway. So I hardly did any buildings then, but earned a lot in deposits. We then began our first serious work in Pune. I used to go to Pune every third or fourth day and I virtually changed the skyline of Pune in 1982-93. Then Hiranandani called me. I did a building for them. An article in India Today was also a big help. I did the LakeCastle for Hiranandani at Powai and that was another turning point.
ML: By then you were well known, right?
HC: No, things haven't come that easily. There were a lot of very well established architects then. But I can say one thing, whatever I have done till now, I have done it with a purpose even if others thought it was foolish. When I did LakeCastle at Powai, nobody was looking at Powai. Hiranandani had already built the first phase, which was a series of bungalows. He gave me the last site right at the back, which was the most difficult because the lake area already had bungalows. I did a building of 22 floors which was very high those days and 900 feet long.
I wanted to put Powai on the real estate map. That building had two massive 70 X 70 feet cut outs which became the talk of the town. I did it because there was a hill at the back and while I wanted every flat to look at the lake, I didn't want to cover up the hills and wanted people to see the hills from the road. I am always conscious about that. Even the last presentation I gave to Narayana Murthy, I told him I will do the development but I will take care of the environment. It brought Powai on the real estate map and while the bungalows were selling slowly till then, the whole building sold in no time.
ML: Did you start getting all the Hiranandani work after that?
HC: No. I always bargain with my client and tell him to spend Rs 20 more in order to get Rs 200 extra in sales. When I proved myself and the sales started going up they let me do it. It is only when they (Hiranandanis) saw the potential in me they stopped giving work to others. Today 85% to 90% of the Hiranandani campus is done by me.
ML: What has been the difference in the quality of your work after liberalisation? You started doing hotels and larger projects?
HC: Well hotels are a great story. Whenever I said I wanted to do hotels, everyone said 'no, you can't do hotels'. As an architect, I feel I can design anything, but I have to get an opportunity. There were only one or two architects who were doing hotels in India, so I decided to get associated with a foreigner. At that time the Leela Group had appointed WATG to build the hotel near Mumbai airport. I approached them to do the design and they said no, they had already appointed WATG but they could appoint me as a local architect. It was like doing the kachra work for the foreigners, but I agreed. They wanted me to meet the foreign firm which would test my quality. I agreed. By then I had my first brochure ready and I showed him my work. Although he was from a very large firm, on an individual to an individual basis, I was showing my personal work while he stood for his firm. He asked, "why do you want to work under me" I told him my fundas are clear; nobody is letting me design hotels, so I will work with you and the next project I will get on my own. He liked my spirit and we worked together; but it is still not so easy. On Hyatt Regency hotel I worked with another guy but the Indian client saw my potential and removed the American architect. I took over, changed the design a little and got out 60 more rooms. So, that was a 50:50 effort. Even ITC wanted a foreigner for their airport hotel. I agreed but they also saw our potential and asked me to design the new one - ITC Grand Central on my own. But it is still not easy. I got to work on hotels because I was willing to work under a foreigner, that's how it is.
Even today, I am printing a 600-page brochure of my work. Why? Because the foreigners are coming and they have firms that are 40-50 years old. Really speaking what the hell does a firm do, it is the individual that matters. But since I am competing with them I have to print a brochure. Take town planning. Earlier we use to make a layout and leave it but today we are into Master Planning. Yet, some leading builders tell us that they need a foreigner for Master Planning and ask if it would it be okay for me to work with him? Again, I say no problem. I will do one project with them and then do things on my own.
ML: You mean for all the new mega projects and townships that are coming up, they all want foreigners?
HC: Yes…a lot of the time, most of the time. Let me quote another client - DLF. He told me, 'Hafeez you are the best architect in the world; if you have all the resources and scope anybody can make a great building; but the way you are doing it with little resources and tight constraints is amazing'. But now that they are working on a large project in Bombay they ask me which foreign architect should they employ? When I asked 'why do you need a foreigner', they said 'you will do most of the work anyway, but we need an international name'. They appointed Norman Foster.
ML: Doesn’t it upset you?
HC: I never look at it negatively. Look at it from the client's perspective. He is investing tons of money and he is going to want to get whatever leverage he can. If I were a client I would have done the same thing too. He is not wrong in doing this.
ML: What about the whole body of work you have done from smart buildings, office towers, hotels, convention centres etc.
HC: Actually it is not so simple. I will tell you another thing about DLF. In 1988 there was a time in India when there was nothing like an office building and nobody had designed an office building. Here is how we started designing office buildings. DLF decided to take a trip abroad and took me along to see all office buildings - we went to London, Dubai, Canary Warf, we went everywhere. DLF would call one or two architects from abroad to share information and pay them. So there is a lot of give and take. It is never a one-way street, especially when we are doing work of the kind that has never been done in India. For instance, if we are doing a Convention Centre, we had to take the help of a foreigner because they have done it before. I think we should not be afraid of doing that, but the next time we will do it ourselves.
ML: Do you ever get the feeling that you would have done much better if you had stayed abroad and come here later?
HC: No. The way business is done in India is completely different, the ethics are completely different. If you are working abroad the first thing the guy does is makes an agreement letter, sends it for confirmation and takes an advance before starting work. Here, when a guy comes and gives you a job you cannot talk about money, otherwise he thinks you are only interested in the fees and not the work. I just talk about work and after I have done the design one of my staff discusses the fees. So the work culture and ethics are different. And we are now doing work all over the world. We are working in Dubai, we are doing work in Shanghai and there is more in the pipeline.