Foreign Architects in India

The profession and practise of architecture in India has undergone a complete transformation in this decade. The last eight years have been a boom time, not seen since the heady days of Post Indipendance India.

The booming economy and the burgeoning middle class has prompted developers to bring in foreign architects with foreign fees to design everything from airports to residential and office towers and bungalows and resorts.

Foreign architects bring in the tried and tested processes and function precision to bring about a complete turnaround in the way projects are designed and built. They pair up with Indian firms who have the expertise on the ground to get things done and built.

Foreign architects for the most part are bringing in foreign solutions and design principles which may not all work in India, but the public does not think a second before lapping it all up. We are literally bringing New York, Chicago, Tokyo or Shanghai to Bombay, Delhi, Calcutta, Madras and countless other towns and cities.

Only time will tell if this is successful in the long term. India is not the only place in the world where this is happening. China is way ahead of us in transplanting urban fabric from the West into their cities.

The TOI has an interesting article about the whole phenomenon of foreign architects coming to India.

Time was when there was only the occasional eruption of concrete. Today, India’s skyline is a work in progress. But while the towering new skyscrapers, sprawling IT parks, glitzy airports and swanky townships reflect desi aspirations, the blueprint, more often than not, is foreign.

Be it a slum redevelopment project in congested Mumbai or Kolkata’s new museum of modern art, the global imprint on the country’s fast-changing urban landscape is evident. Made in India but designed by a clutch of foreign architects looking to cash in on the country’s real estate boom. For Edinburgh-based RMJM, the company behind the distinctive Scottish Parliament, a foray into India four years ago has translated into business of £1 billion. That, the company says, is unprecedented for a UK architecture firm doing business in India. “There’s a cue here for UK business — we need to be in India in a very big way,” says RMJM CEO Peter Morrison. RMJM, which currently has 38 projects under way in India, is now looking to establish a permanent base in Mumbai.

Many others have taken the cue. Celebrated British architect Lord Norman Foster, who shaped London’s skyline with buildings such as the Gherkin and designed the Reichstag in Berlin, has entered India in a tie-up with a Mumbai real estate firm, the Neptune group. Other big UK names in India are Laing O’Rourke, Davis Langdon and Mott MacDonald. Not just UK, firms from Canada (Arcop) to Australia (Omiros One) have designs on India.

But does India really need foreign architects or is it just about getting a brand on the brochure? Most builders agree it’s as much about star power as it is about international quality. After all, well-heeled buyers respond to designers with international reputations as much as they respond to a luxury label like Gucci or Prada. “When people purchase an expensive apartment, a famous architect is extra validation they’re making a good choice,” says Kunal Banerji of Ansal API which signed up US firm Chelsea West to design Manhattan-style condos at its Aquapolis project in Ghaziabad.

The Mahindra group’s real estate arm Mahindra Lifespaces, which has roped in US-based architect and design firm HOK (of Dubai marina fame), says their reasons go much beyond the brand. “The selection of an international architect or planner is driven by the unique needs of the project. For instance, the 325-acre Mahindra World City project is one of the largest such developments under implementation and to that extent the width and depth of on-ground implementation experience is currently available only with international firms who have conceived and implemented such projects in different parts of the world,” says Anita Arjundas, COO of Mahindra Lifespaces.

Size does matter and with Indian developers going beyond stand-alone commercial blocks and residences to converting huge swathes of land into townships and IT parks, a ‘foreign hand’ does come in handy. “Foreign firms can visualise and handle massive scale. Also, their designs are very innovative. They create landmarks and not just buildings,” says Shantanu Malik, DGM-Architect, Unitech Ltd.

It’s a win-win for Indian architects as well. “Working with foreign firms gives us exposure to international standards. There is a lot to learn from their use of detailing and modern materials,” adds Malik.

Unitech often hires multiple design firms for a single project. For instance, it has 10 global architecture and design consultants for the $3 billion Unitech Grande, a super-luxury residential complex spread over 347 acres along the Noida expressway. This project draws on the expertise of US-based mall designer Callison, landscape artists SWA and EDAW, Britain’s RMJM for architecture and interiors and HOK for floor plans, besides a course designed by Australian golfer Greg Norman.

With so much demand, it isn’t surprising that Mark Igou, director in the US architectural firm Skidmore, Owings and Merrill Llp (SOM), has been shuttling between New York and India over the last three years. “I spend more than three months a year in India, familiarising myself with the ground situation.” And ground reality is what SOM — the firm which has designed the Burj Dubai, which will be the world’s tallest skyscraper when it is finished in 2009 — is faced with in Mumbai where it is designing homes for slum dwellers in Mumbai’s Santa Cruz as part of a masterplan for Unitech. “It’s a unique design challenge — recreating the same sense of community that exists in their current housing so that people don’t want to return to the slums they left,” says Igou. SOM is also using the services of sociologists and cultural anthropologists to get a sense of the social and cultural aspects of the lives of those being rehabilitated.

Whether it’s slum housing or a swanky township, India is essential to the design inputs. “Education and social interaction are both important to Indians so our designs will reflect these needs. So residential units would have schools nearby and public spaces for people to interact,” he says. Besides projects like the Jet Airways headquarters in Mumbai, SOM is also working in Tier-II cities like Ahmedabad and Nagpur.

Be it the Indian ethos or the vagaries of its climate, Uruguayan architect Carlos Ott keeps it in mind when he is on the drawing board. Ott, who has designed a technopark for Tata Consultancy Services at Siruseri, Chennai, in association with countryman Carlos Ponce de Leon, says, “I am constantly studying the history and traditions of India, hoping to integrate some of its characteristics in my buildings. And though my work is definitely contemporary, the clues from the past are integrated in a modern vocabulary.”

Ott is building on the work that earlier foreign architects have done in India. Apart from Lutyens and Le Corbusier, several other international architects have showcased their designs in India. Ahmedabad’s Indian Institute of Management reflects Louis Kahn’s trademark style of veering towards monolithic masses resembling ancient ruins. Christopher Charles Benninger designed the Mahindra United World College of India, near Pune. British-born Laurie Baker planned the Fishermen’s Village in Poonthura in Kerala, while American Joseph Stein gave shape to Delhi’s India International Centre.

Now, a new generation of foreign architects has designs on India. And their glittering computer-generated images look set to redefine the country’s skyline.

Original article