The chawl and its predecessor, the gaothan house, were community-based housing where people shared space and facilities and were dependent on one another. The decline of these in the mid-twentieth century and the ascendance of the apartment block reflected a major shift in the way people lived in Bombay. Apartments give people privacy, sometimes a feeling of security, and always an anonymity that helps them shed their caste or community identity and the restrictions that these often entail. Unlike the chawl and the gaothan, which seemed to fit the needs of a particular time, the apartment has continually changed and evolved…
Apartments After RCC
As technology improved, the apartment building changed. The introduction of RCC technology in the 1930s changed the building structure, while improved plumbing and sanitation technology also had its influence on design. Individual flats in some localities became larger and layouts changed. Toilets were no longer placed at one end of the apartment – they could now be anywhere within the flat, provided they abutted an external wall and were stacked over one another in the building.
RCC floors were more waterproof than the earlier joist-and-stone floors, which made it possible to attach toilets to bedrooms. The use of sweepers to clean toilets reduced although spiral staircases were sometimes still provided for domestic servants and tradesmen to access a flat from the rear of the building.
The apartment block by definition is generic: standardised dwelling units stacked next to and over one another, with each apartment layout varying slightly. The principal differences lie in the design of the entrance, stair and lift hall and verandah or balcony fronts. Despite the limitations of the apartment template, some architects like Claude Batley and G B Mhatre were creative and unique in their apartment designs, especially in the way their buildings were sited, proportioned and detailed.
Batley’s apartments suited a western style of living, although he remained faithful to traditional Indian elements like verandahs, chhajjas and mouldings. Like Walter George, the Delhi-based British architect who was part of the team that designed New Delhi, he believed that flush surfaces (large unbroken plastered surfaces of walls) were best avoided since every building material moved and cracked in the Indian climate. Cracks, caused mainly by shrinkage, could be contained if large areas were broken by courses that reduced the area of a single surface. Batley also felt that stone was a better material for external walls than brick and plaster since it weathered better. Invariably, he crowned his buildings with pitched or sloping roofs, which, he insisted, were the best protection against Bombay’s heavy monsoon.
Batley believed that building typologies should emerge from understanding a client’s way of living, and he followed that principle in his own practice. In the house he built for well-known Indian industrialist Kasturbhai Lalbhai on Carmichael Road, he located the kitchen at a level lower than the living and dining room to accommodate Lalbhai’s traditional lifestyle in which the kitchen was not supposed to be next to the dining area. The decision to accommodate this belief by locating the kitchen at a lower level was shaped by the fact that construction techniques had already advanced considerably.
Mhatre was known for his Art Deco buildings at the Oval and Marine Drive but those are not necessarily the best examples of his work. His later buildings, Marble Arch on Pedder Road and Sanghi House on Nepean Sea Road, were outstanding when they were built in the 1940s and remain so today. Both buildings are especially interesting in their site placement and entry way. Marble Arch is curved so that both sides are seen as you approach it from Pedder Road. The building is not set back from the road uniformly. The logic of its orientation becomes clearer when you see that Marble Arch was part of a group of buildings set around an open space. The adjoining buildings, KumKum, Ark Royal and Windcliff, also designed by Mhatre, were part of the ensemble. Marble Arch was modern in the layout of its rooms and their proportions and details, though the rounded end of the living room shows a trace of Art Deco.
Sanghi House, earlier known simply as 94 Nepean Sea Road, was designed to have its front edge parallel to the road – however, this feature had to be discarded when an abandoned well was discovered on the plot. The owner, a Parsi lady, insisted that the building could not be constructed over a well even though the well was not in use. So Mhatre cut out the corner and curved the front end. Sanghi House is modern in concept, and yet some of its details are Art Deco.
However interesting these buildings might be, Mhatre did not make any fundamental change in the typology of the apartment. Nor did any other architect of that time attempt to find an alternative to the conventional apartment block. Claude Batley deviated slightly from the standard apartment layout when he made duplex units – in the manner of London terrace houses – in buildings like Gold Croft and White House on Gamadia Road. In White House, all the flats were on two levels connected by an internal staircase. Batley did this because the footprint of the building was small, and two large flats on one level were not possible. But duplex apartments remained rare and buildings which had both conventional flats as well as duplexes were even rarer until Darshan Apartments was built in the early 1950s.
Darshan Apartments on Mount Pleasant Road designed by Gautam and Gira Sarabhai was one of the early modern buildings in the city. As students, we were taken to see its construction and were shown the plans. This was the first building in Bombay to be raised on stilts – an idea initiated by Le Corbusier.
‘The free plan’, as it was known, advocated the separation of the building’s walls and its supporting structure, and left the ground space for car parking – though we learnt much later that the area under Le Corbusier’s buildings was seldom used for parking cars. The ‘pilotis’, as he called those spaces, was used to visually connect the building to the spaces around it.
In Darshan Apartments, the ground level was used as a play area and extended to a deck over a car park. The upper floors contained an ingenious mix of one- and two-level flats. The interlock of apartments was skilfully done and was not seen on the facade. The kitchens and servants’ rooms on the south were arranged for efficient and economical utility lines and were on the less private side of the site. The main rooms on the north opened on to a landscaped garden. The arrangement and proportion of spaces were functional and rational, and so were the choice and use of materials, which were inexpensive.
Darshan Apartments reflected some of the ideas of the modern movement. It was the first building to have concrete surfaces that were exposed and not covered with plaster (a feature seen later in Stanvac House and the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Bombay as well as buildings designed by Le Corbusier at Chandigarh). Its floors were paved with broken stone or tile laid in an uneven pattern, a concept popularly known as crazy-paving. Lift wells were faced with rough stone slabs laid one over the other.
There was a noticeable absence of chhajjas or other weather-protecting devices on some of the facades – a deviation from conventional design practice in India and a point of debate in our architecture school. The argument in favour of this deviation was that the building was oriented with its longer sides facing north and south, and the main rooms facing north would not suffer from the rigours of the climate. Hence, on the north side, rooms were fully glazed with large folding and sliding windows. The south side, which bears the brunt of the monsoons and heat in summer, had the service and utility areas of the apartment. On this side, there were verandahs and louvres.
Darshan Apartments is minimalistic in its details. For students like us, who were outgrowing the Beaux Arts system of education in our school of architecture, it was a good example of the ideas of the modern movement. It showed that a good building comes not from facade-making but from clarity in identifying the requirements and the design solution that follows. Darshan Apartments set a new trend in apartment design, though its imitations did not always achieve the same level of finesse or quality.
Till Kanchanjunga was built in the 1970s, the only deviation from the generic plan of apartment buildings and the arrangement of rooms within the flat was the two-level duplex apartment. The design is not the result of the usual ‘problem-solving’ approach taken in most projects. The idea underlying the design of the building is expressed in a diagrammatic section showing dwelling units interlocked one above the other. It is a continuation of ideas developed from observation of previous practices in dealing with the climate. The ideas used in the design of the building were, possibly, incubated in the architect’s mind long before he was commissioned for the project.
The building is positioned such that two of its sides are visible when one approaches it from either end of Pedder Road. The building, square on plan and four times as high as its footprint, was the first tower block containing multi-level three- and four-bedroom apartments to which a fifth or even sixth bedroom could be added. A central stair and lift core provides access to two apartments on a floor.
Though its footprint is small, a skilful use of levels accommodates the large area of the flat. A conventional flat for the same area would need a larger footprint and the arrangement of rooms within the envelope invariably requires corridors. Flats in Kanchanjunga are compact, circulation spaces being restricted to the internal staircase connecting the different levels.
The clarity in the structural design, also visible, helps articulate the spaces within the envelope. The structural plan is a cross, at the centre of which is a staircase and lift core that was built first using a ‘slip form’ method of construction. On the north and south ends of the building are shear walls while theeast and west ends have columns.
The shear walls and columns along with the core leave the corners free. These are cantilevered and house either rooms with step-out balconies or covered terraces. The terraces are like large outdoor living spaces on to which rooms on the upper level of the flat overlook. The ingenious use of levels make the facade different from the usual one of the generic apartment building which has projecting balconies repeated floor over floor like half-open drawers in a chest. The tower with residential apartments rises above a base containing shops and other amenities. Kanchanjunga, because of its design, is a landmark in the city.
Excerpted with permission from Boombay: From Precincts to Sprawl, Kamu Iyer, Popular Prakashan
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