Innovation & Design

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 in association with Carlos Ponce de Leon Architects (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.

Click here for the slide show.

To see other Wonders of the World, click here.


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