I was born in Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania in April 1951, to parents of Indian origin. After finishing my primary schooling there, I moved to London to complete my secondary education. In 1969, I joined Cambridge University to study engineering sciences and graduated in 1972. I fell in love with the town of Cambridge and decided to start my professional life there.
Early Work in the United Kingdom
In 1972, I joined Peter Dann & Partners, a firm of consulting structural engineers. Until my departure from England in 1982, I stayed with the same firm except for interludes of practical experience in site construction and soil investigations. From 1978 to 1982, I was given the charge of setting up and running a new branch office for the same practice in Bristol.
At Peter Dann, I found an unusually sensitive and sympathetic structural engineering teacher. He taught me to see structural design not as an isolated component of a building design but as a symbiotic process with other professionals that took into account issues of aesthetics and function. He taught me to approach each problem freshly and be guided by my own experience but not be shackled by it. These attitudes necessitated a very close working relationship with the architects and the users.
During my stay in the United Kingdom, I worked on several hundred large and small projects, almost always in the company of architects. This gave me an exposure to many architects—some doyens in their field and others who perhaps were not so well known, but no less creative. The work covered a wide range of residential, institutional, commercial, industrial, and agricultural buildings.
I developed a special liking for quiet buildings, which blend sympathetically with their environment and exude warmth and welcome. Obviously, it is not necessary that these buildings call for a greater structural challenge, but they certainly evoke a deeper sense of fulfillment.
During my stay in the United Kingdom, I became increasingly aware that the need for technical expertise and professional know-how was more pressingly required in a country such as India, which is poised on a technological awakening. For reasons both personal and professional, I decided to go back to India, the country of my origin. Professionally, the idea of being in the midst of this metamorphism in which one could influence events rather than follow the stream was most appealing. On arrival in India, I started a structural consultancy in Ahmedabad.
In the early days of my practice in India it became clear that professionally the most rewarding area for a structural engineer was to work on mass housing, particularly at the low-cost end of the spectrum. This area is often neglected by professional architects and engineers. I felt that this task need not be “pedestrian” and that there was room to introduce the most advanced design methods and technologies of the West, albeit, altered to suit the contextual scene. However, to effectively attain the goal, it was imperative to break out from the normal mold of a structural engineer and be involved in the wider issues of site planning, infrastructure design, materials and technologies, affordability, and the social and cultural requirements.
The opportunity to work on some suitable projects came from B. V. Doshi who, as an architect-planner, consciously embraced the field of low-cost mass housing. He offered me the chance to be in charge of a new township in Indore, which he had been invited to design. The project involved the provision of basic core-housing and infrastructure for a population of 65,000 and was funded by the World Bank.
Another World Bank project I was involved with entailed formulating an upgrade program for 100,000 slum dwellings in Ahmedabad comprising structural improvements, sanitary and health facilities, physical infrastructure such as roads, water, drainage, electricity, and landscaping and, no less important, the setting up of a legal and management structure for realizing the work.
The mainstream structural practice also generated interesting work, particularly in the design of community facilities such as schools and hospitals.
Lessons from Recent Exposure
What is emerging from these experiences is that the need for rational and quantitative approach in mass housing is even more relevant in a developing nation where the resource constraints are more acute. To create economies of significant scale without compromising the aesthetic or functional standards, state-of-the-art planning and design methods have to be used. This is in tune with the new awareness in India that the age of the computer has at last dawned in the country.
An interesting aspect of habitat planning is that whilst each subdiscipline can be optimized, the synthesis of such decisions may not necessarily emerge as the most optimal solution. The numerous permutations of the interconnected disciplines lead to levels of analysis beyond those possible by mere experience or intuition and require the assistance of computer methods.
Proposal for Traveling Fellowship
My objective in applying for the Fazlur Khan International Fellowship is to acquaint myself with new trends and approaches in low-cost mass housing and, in particular, to the computer methodologies evolved to deal with their planning and design. This science is yet in its infancy, and I wish to develop it further so that it has meaningful application in India and other countries at the similar development stage.
I am not entirely a novice to the use of computers and have developed a full range of structural analysis and design software for a leading computer company in the United States. The transition to the development of a more complex model that takes into account the structural and architectural aspects, land pricing, infrastructure design, population densities, cost and affordability, cross-subsidies, interest repayments, etc. is, therefore, a natural progression.
The three broad activities proposed are:
- Visit agencies and individuals with expertise in computer related planning such as HUDCO, India; Intermediate Technology Centre, UK; Minimum Cost Housing Centre, McGill University, Canada; Christopher Alexander; Alain Bertaud, World Bank, Washington, DC; Professor Caminos, MIT, US; and Dr. Livesley, Cambridge University, UK.
- Explore the latest developments in computer software and hardware related to this field. This would largely involve visiting the computer centers in the West Coast of the United States.
- Visit outstanding examples of successful low-cost mass housing in the developing countries. The guidance for these will come from the World Bank and other agencies in the field but I am already aware of excellent work to observe in Bangkok, Singapore and, of course, in India.
The full program I intend to pursue will take several years. The fellowship can at least give an opportunity for collecting the initial data for program formulation. In addition, the regimen of the Fellowship will help me detach myself from the day to day rigors of my practice.