Architecturally lagging: India

A little while ago, I had posted a series of images of some of the latest architecture in China. Beijing and Shanghai have seen a sort of architectural renaissance, only seen once in a century. Every world class architect is present in China and producing great work. Of course this does not mean that the average level of Chinese architecture and urban scape heads for the better.

However, comparing India’s so called building activity on par with China, is by far a long shot. Business Week does exactly that in this article. Reena Jana, the author of the article is based in New York and remote-writing is very evident in the article.

I also don’t understand why Business Week would not get an architectural critic to write an article on architecture. I don’t think Reena Jana is an architect, and if she is, it does not show in her writing.

She says

While its glassy, futuristic design might evoke corporate buildings in Silicon Valley, the campus also features an Indian touch: a cricket pitch.

What she is actually referring to is curtain wall buildings. Now even in Silicon Valley, most curtain wall buildings are considered energy guzzlers. And that is when the buildings need heating half the year. Can you imagine what happens when you put these same glass boxes in hot humid climates like those of New Delhi, Bombay, Bangalore et al.

She does identify one of the major underlying problems that face foreign firms that design in cultures that are ancient

such as SOM’s Jin Mao tower in Shanghai, completed in 1999 and known for its pagoda-like details, as an earlier example of too-obvious, recognizably “Asian” architecture.

I have not had an opportunity to see detailed drawings or renderings of the said design…

Williams and Tsien’s jali is more angular and contemporary and less florid than screens of the past. But it serves as a nod to Indian architectural history as well as providing an eco-friendly way to keep offices cool using natural shade and ventilation.

But I don’t know how the author can say that it serves as a not to Indian architectural history.

All along we were taught about the various elements of Indian design. Be it the pergola, the jali, the courtyard, the chhaja….and so on. In the earlier years in school, one had to have at least some of these in their design to make it look “cool” and authentically Indian.

The author reflects to that same syndrome. However as one matures as an architect, you realize that all these are mere devices that were architectural responses to conditions….climatic, social and others.

Indian architecture is not just that. Sadly, besides a few Indian architects, most are blindly aping the west. The band leader of the latter is none other than Hafeez Contractor.

In a recent interview that he gave to a very good friend Rahul Bhatia, Contractor was asked

“When you look across the Mumbai skyline, there’s a kind of sameness, nothing that catches the eye.”

and his response was

“When you have a residential building, it consists of a living room, bedroom, hall, and kitchen. It’s only when you have something different, like a museum, or a hotel, that things are different.”

I am baffled by such comments. What he is trying to imply is that residential buildings all look the same. How wrong can he be. Residential buildings the world over offer an amazing variety of design. He does not even have to look so far. Kanchenjunga, at Kemps Corner is one of the best examples of residential high rises. Sadly not one of the hundreds of Hafeez buildings can even aspire to come close to that.

Coming back to the article. I disagree strongly with the whole premise of the article. China brought in a lot of international architects and that has brought about an architectural renaissance. We in India need more of the same.

Gurcharan Das in a recent article wrote about how it was time for Indian business to bring in some international names to spice things up. I completely attest to that hypothesis. Its not that the Indian architects are not good. Its that there are too few of the good ones. And the people with the money, do not have the larger vision and land up going to the not so good ones. And we live in the same average architectural standard that has come to be our urban landscape.

If you look at the slide show that accompanies the article, you will realize the same. Most of the renderings look like design projects of third year B. Arch students. Not even final year. And to think that these are renderings that clients commit so much of their money to.

Sadly, India still lacks the big push towards better architecture. And from the contents of the article, may I add, that it lacks architectural writers and critics too.

Read the article after the fold.

India’s Modern Architectural Wonders

The country’s forthcoming wave of slick contemporary architecture is a potent symbol of its rocketing economy

The latest available statistics from the World Bank indicate that India’s gross domestic product has seen annual growth of 8.5%–more than doubling the 4% of 2000. Reflecting this growth and the country’s increasing presence on the international stage as an IT and economic powerhouse, the nation’s leading companies, including Wipro (WIT ), Infosys (INFY ), and Tata Consultancy Services are constructing new corporate campuses.

Similar to China’s architectural boom (see BusinessWeek.com, 12/23/2005, “China’s New Architectural Wonders”)”, India’s forthcoming wave of slick contemporary architecture, even beyond offices, symbolizes the Asian nation’s rocketing economy, which first began to open up 15 years ago. Via a series of superlative skyscrapers, shopping centers, and residences that are the tallest, the largest, the “greenest,” or the first of their kind, the country is quickly presenting itself as a 21st century global power.

In 2005, for example, Infosys Technologies opened its $65.4 million Global Education Center in Mysore. Located on a 270-acre, $119 million campus, the facility is the largest IT training center in the world, accommodating 4,500 trainees at any given time and hosting up to 15,000 per year. The center is being expanded to handle double the number of employees. While its glassy, futuristic design might evoke corporate buildings in Silicon Valley, the campus also features an Indian touch: a cricket pitch.

A MODERN TOUCH. Software, engineering, and management-consulting giant Wipro commissioned Indian architect Vidur Bhardwaj to design an office in Gurgaon based on the traditional structure, the haveli (a house built around an open-air courtyard). Meanwhile, Tata Consultancy Services, a division of mega-conglomerate Tata Group, will soon see a sprawling, $200 million campus in Chennai designed by noted Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott (a nod to Tata’s expansion into Latin America).

Buildings will feature a step-like structure recalling those found in centuries-old South Indian temples–only these are rendered in ultra-contemporary glass. It’s scheduled to be completed next year and will boast the tallest tower in Southern India.

“By proposing to build their offices referencing Indian architectural design in this age of globalization, Indian companies are sending several messages,” observes Islamabad (Pakistan)-based Saeed Shafqat, who teaches courses on South Asia at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs, in an e-mail interview.

“They’re saying India has a heritage that is coming of age. And that Indians are taking genuine pride in their history, culture, and architectural contributions even in the modern era,” Shafqat continues. “Finally, they are saying that Indian multinationals are a force to be reckoned with. [The new architecture] suggests economic self-confidence and strong national identity.”

PROCEEDING WITH CARE. But some experts believe architects and corporations should proceed with caution when planning structures with obvious Indian references. Plans for brand-building via recognizably Indian design motifs could seem simplistic or theme-park-like in their approach.

“Culturally specific motif application is not new. To some extent, it is an easy way to refer to the notion of cultural context,” observes Vishakha Desai, President of the Asia Society, the nonprofit organization founded 50 years ago by John D. Rockefeller III to foster deeper understanding between Asian nations and the U.S.

She points to structures such as SOM’s Jin Mao tower in Shanghai, completed in 1999 and known for its pagoda-like details, as an earlier example of too-obvious, recognizably “Asian” architecture.

MOVING BEYOND MOTIFS. “The real challenge for contemporary Indian architects is to understand the historical principles of Indian architecture and design, as well as the specific materials used traditionally and appropriately in the climate,” says Desai, who holds a doctorate in Indian art history. “They need to think beyond the quick, knee-jerk reaction of simply adding an ‘Indian’ motif.”

Some architects commissioned to design projects to be completed within the next 10 years are doing exactly what Desai suggests. New York architects Tod Williams and Billie Tsien, for example, have designed a new Bombay campus for Tata Consultancy Services (to be completed by 2010) that incorporates elements such as a jali, a traditional carved screen used for centuries as both sunshade and ventilated wall.

Williams and Tsien’s jali is more angular and contemporary and less florid than screens of the past. But it serves as a nod to Indian architectural history as well as providing an eco-friendly way to keep offices cool using natural shade and ventilation.

Sustainability is now a real consideration within Indian architecture. The country, which is highly dependent on coal for energy, is widely known to be one of the world’s most polluted.

A study published in June, 2006, by the Community Environmental Monitors (CEM), an independent environmental health agency, indicated that millions of Indians in both urban and rural environments were exposed to up to 32,000 times more than the globally accepted standards for 45 harmful chemicals and 13 carcinogens.

As if to combat such disturbing images of India’s polluted landscape, Indian and international architects commissioned to design edifices in India are increasingly producing “green,” or eco-friendly architecture.

ENERGY SAVERS. Projects such as Williams and Tsien’s design for Tata make use of natural light and ventilation, cutting down on energy consumption that contributes to air pollution. Vidur Bhardwaj’s haveli design for Wipro is not only an homage to traditional Indian buildings, but also provides cost-effective cooling–via the open-air public courtyard — that’s necessary for hot Indian days.

Carlos Ott’s forthcoming Chennai campus for Tata Consultancy Services uses these ideas and also recycles waste water to conserve resources, following the lead of the 2003 CII–Sohrabji Godrej Green Business Center in Hyderabad. This 20,000-square-foot minimalist office building became the only structure outside of the U.S. to receive the LEED (Leadership in Energy & Environment Design) Platinum ranking when it opened.

Will the new forms of Indian architecture endure as long as the spectacular Elephanta rock-cut temples (built circa 600 A.D.) or the elegant Taj Mahal (a wonder of the world dating back to the 17th-century Mughal era)? Only time will tell. India’s architectural past is certainly long, rich, and deep. But the newest additions to the continuum that is India’s architectural timeline appropriately reflect the latest chapters in the South Asian nation’s economic history.

5 Comments

  1. Sunil September 19, 2006

    Very good points Arzan.

    Usually, I find the sameness of glass buildings that are sprouting all over most cities in India (for most offices) rather annoying. Not to mention the absolute inefficiency of the buildings (for a typically hot “spring”, summer and “fall”). Energy costs must be horribly high here.

    It also seems like the worst material to use when a strike can break out at any time, and some stones WILL be thrown :-))

    Always look forward to your posts on architecture (though I don’t visit as often as i’d like).

  2. Soham October 10, 2006

    India just doesn’t have good architects (bad shcools? small fragmented consultants?). And despite all the criticism, Hafeez is probably the best one around currently along with a couple more like Raja Aederi or Khareghat. Correa is overrated – maybe he is such a big name that people get overawed. Just go to City Centre Kolkata and you realize that the good man has lost it.

    BTW what Hafeez is saying is pretty much true when it comes to residential buildings. Show us a city with residential highrises each of which looks unique or stands out in a sea of highrises. Take a close look at Manhattan’s new apartments or Miami’s new ones. They are in no way any better than the current Mumbai crop.
    A city’s unique skyline usually comes from commercial highrises.

    Unfortunately Mumbai or any other Indian city will not have commercial skyscrapers dotting the skyline in the near future. Kolkata New Town may be a surprise in the future with some commercial skyscrapers in the pipeline (funding – market etc being the issues now). Gurgaon has some unique buildings but they make no impression on the total skyline because of lack of density. Bangalore has a paltry two skyscrapers in the pipeline. UBcity is a ripoff but doesn’t look too bad – kind of the NewYork NewYork hotel in Las Vegas. Mumbai has no future – but it will get hundreds of new residential scrapers. Navi Mumbai may give us a Pudong if Ambanis manage to deliver whatthey promise and today’s half informed Indian environmentalists (yesterday’s sloganeering socialists) succesfully stall it. Chennai is still in the mid scale. Hyderabad’s lanco heights is just plain..

  3. Tarun Choppra July 24, 2007

    I am anguished to see a country like ours, which has world’s greatest architectural heritage, is blindly going through the glass malls syndrome.
    The fact is more glaring in the city of Jaipur. Every effort should have been taken to make sure all new construction blended with the architectural heritage of the city/ country

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