Hafeez Contractor on all that he surveys | Mumbai news

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MUMBAI: He may be designing some of India’s tallest buildings, integrated business parks, townships and campuses of the biggest IT companies, and heads one of the biggest architectural firms, but Hafeez Contractor never moved out of the modest Sonawala Building, where he started his practice in 1982 with two others, into any shiny office building.

Hafeez Contractor on all that he surveys
Hafeez Contractor on all that he surveys

Read here: Who is Hafeez Contractor, architect hired by Adani Group for Dharavi Redevelopment Project?

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Located next to Jimmy Boy restaurant, the building looks like yet another functional Fort office building on Bank Street, Horniman Circle, surrounded by many landmarks. The steep wooden staircases lead you into a multi-level labyrinthine office that accommodates over 550 employees.

Contractor, 73, sits across an uncluttered table in an open area on second level where employees walk by and explains that he may be the most popular choice for Mumbai’s powerful developers, but social housing has driven his passion through the 55 years of his architectural practice.

Earlier this week, Dharavi Redevelopment Project Private Limited (DRPPL), the special purpose vehicle set up by Adani Group to execute the 20,000 crore Dharavi redevelopment project, named Contractor’s architecture firm — Architect Hafeez Contractor — to work on the project along with two global firms, Sasaki, a renowned American design firm, and Buro Happold, an international consultancy firm from the U K, who are experts in urban planning and infrastructure engineering.

Clearly, for Contractor, this is not only his biggest prestigious project that will redefine Mumbai’s real estate landscape, but a complex and challenging opportunity to express his social housing ideas.

Born in Mumbai, Contractor studied at Boy’s Town Boarding School, Nashik, and completed his architectural studies at the Academy of Architecture in Mumbai. But, young Contractor wanted to enroll in the Army or the police force. “But my mother insisted that I first complete my graduation. Drawing and designing was a hobby and I was learning French from my cousin’s wife while completing my Arts degree. One day I saw a guy drawing a window detail wrong, and I corrected the mistakes. My cousin noticed that and insisted that I must take up architecture. But, my marks were not good enough for an architecture college, and the college was not even ready to give me a form. With some influence, I managed to appear for the entrance exam. The college officials said if I did well in the entrance exam, they may give me a chance. Once I joined architecture, I earned a First Class First,” said Contractor, who assisted his architect uncle T Khareghat from 1968. He then graduated from Columbia University in New York, in 1976-77.

“When I went for the visa interview to the American consulate, the officer looked at me and said I would not return. I told the gentleman: ‘Sir, I know your country is beautiful and rich, but I love my country more than I love your country. I graduated from Columbia university in the afternoon and I caught a flight to India that night,” he said, showing his visiting card that has his name and address printed in Hindi, on the reverse side. “I did that soon after starting my practice in 1982. Those days except the government firms, nobody was using Hindi. So, I am a nationalist.”

Over the years, Contractor has designed some of the biggest projects in India including the Hiranandani Gardens at Powai, the DLF Cyber City in Gurgaon, the Infosys campus, Bengaluru, and DY Patil stadium in Navi Mumbai. He designed 23 Marina, the tallest residential building in Dubai in 2012, the Imperial Twin Towers in Tardeo, then the tallest, and his project Lokhandwala Minerva, 300.6 m high from the lobby level, has been recently certified as the tallest completed building in Mumbai by the Council for Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat (CTBUH). His firm now has over 2,500 clients and 7.2 billion sq ft of ongoing projects in 100 cities and five countries.

So, what has been Contractor’s secret sauce for success? A noted urban planner pointed to him catering to “Disneyworld of aspirations”.

“Probably they wanted the same for Dharavi. It is a profit making venture, and not really one for ecology and affordable in the true sense. Hafeez has capacities for doing large projects and there is no one in Mumbai who can execute such large projects. But one hopes he does it while incorporating the potters and kolis and diverse communities in Dharavi. You look at Kachenjunga and think of Charles Correa or IIT Mumbai and say this is Achyut Kanvinde or IIM Bangalore and say this is BV Doshi; one can’t say the same about Hafeez,” said the senior town planner.

Contractor claimed the first slum rehabilitation scheme launched by Shiv Sena chief Balasaheb Thackeray was proposed by him. “I approached then housing minister Sureshdada Jain in chief minister Manohar Joshi’s cabinet and showed him the scheme that could eradicate slums. Jain arranged a meeting with Balasaheb at Airport Centaur hotel at which several top political leaders of the time were present. I made a presentation, but the political leaders told Balasaheb not to take up the scheme. But Balasaheb liked the scheme and announced it. That’s how Imperial Towers came up on slum land. But, months later, they went into elections and the Shiv Sena-BJP government lost power,” he recalled.

Contractor said the government policy of restricting FSI was one of the reasons why Mumbai rapidly turned into ‘Slumbai’.

“In Mumbai, 50% or every second person lives in a slum. I have been batting for an increase in FSI for many years. It’s simple, if the land is limited and size of the population is growing, where will they go? We have slums because we had the warped policy of not increasing FSI,” he said, adding that there may be many reasons for not increasing FSI, including manipulative builders, “but that is the side story”.

“One of the key reasons was that the government had no money to even create the infrastructure if they increased the FSI. But that did not stop people from migrating to Mumbai for employment – they had no option but to live in slums,” he said.

The man, who also had mooted the Coastal Road long before the Sena-BJP government began implementing it, said social housing is even more relevant at a time when India has set the goal of expanding its economy to $5 trillion.

Contractor threw light on several presentations he had made to different BJP leaders, when the party came to power in 2014 on the theme of ‘A house for every Indian.’ In April last year, he wrote to prime minister Narendra Modi and subsequently made a presentation before the PM. “Of India’s population of 1.3 billion, 35% live in slums. I told him this section was not able to work at its optimum because of the housing problem. It’s a reality juxtaposed to the dream of becoming a super power.”

He pointed to tracts of government land lying vacant which could be used for social housing and eradicating slums not just in Mumbai but across the country. “If you have 100 acres of slum, I can house it in 30 acres. There are financiers, foreign funds who want to do this. I can give 35% back to the owner, another 30% can be sold at market rate and the financier’s money can be returned. Another portion can be used for future social housing as the migration for employment in the cities is not going to stop,” recalled Contractor from his presentation to the PM.

Read here: Int’l planners, designers to prepare master plan for Dharavi project

Soon after the meeting, Contractor’s team received a call from Gujarat government and from the railway minister two days later. “We are working with Gujarat and constructing staff quarters for government servants above Surat metro line,” he said.

He was guarded about specifics on Dharavi, as the project faced strong political opposition at the early stages. “I am not a client. I am an architect, and I suggest solutions. I want to ensure that each house in Dharavi gets sunlight. The density is high and in homes where density is high, I want to propose two toilets. Since the rehab buildings will be highrises, I want to propose pneumatic water-less toilets and pneumatic garbage disposal system. The Adanis have not yet agreed, but I am proposing this. We want to make a model of social housing and show it to the world,” said Contractor. “I want to give them large open spaces and gardens. I want people to say I wish I was living in Dharavi. If that happens, I would say have succeeded.”

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