Looking Westward for Design Talent?

Over the last decade, India has undergone change like no other period in its 60+ years of Independence. Besides the lifestyle changes, the transformation of the physical realm is going ahead at a shocking pace. Metros as becoming megalopolii and small mofussil towns are now competing for the title of regional hubs.

Infrastructure has not kept pace with this development in the way we would want it. A two hour commute from Gurgaon to NOIDA or Goregaon to Churchgate are the classic examples. However there seems to be a sense of urgency that is now creeping up….maybe a decade too late, to get things in order. Case in point, the new airport terminals in Bangalore, Hyderabad and New Delhi all opening in the span of 12 months.

Gautam Bhatia, a very well know architect and writer talks about this event in his recent article in the Times of India and touches upon a very “touchy” topic. Why does India invite foreign architects, planners, and designers to conceptualize things for them. Where is the homegrown talent and the pride in the same.

His reasoning for the most part follows a very predictable arguement that has been tossed around for a few years. However from whatever I have gathered, there is a dearth of the technical expertise to somehow figure out the logistical and programming challenges that come with mega projects. And with the need to get them built as of yesterday; there is a very small margin of error for experimentation and a trial  error exercise.

It is only a matter of time, if not already in place; that Indian firms will have the expertise that they have picked up working side by side with these foreign firms to have the confidence to deal with megastructures and projects. Till then there is no shortcut out. Or at least one without risks.

Continue reading Gautam Bhatia’s article

Pride of India ?

By Gautam Bhatia / Times of India

When questioned about the cultural and technological stagnation that came with socialism, a bureaucrat in Nehru’s time once remarked that all the best work had already been done in the West, and we merely had to pick ideas for our own use. At a time when Indian inventiveness and productivity were state-controlled and highly suspect, borrowing made a lot of sense.

Sadly, even in today’s era of open economic borders, we still remain unconvinced that the Indian mind is capable of producing anything of real value. The new Terminal 3 at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport is cited as the eighth-largest in the world, and comes loaded with other enthralling statistics: a floor area of over six million square feet, the equivalent of 20 malls, 92 automatic walkways, 78 aerobridges and 168 check-in counters. In every respect, the building showcases all the high-tech skills of construction and automation, and all the customer satisfying conveniences that say that the building belongs to the new century.

Certainly, the successful completion of a large and complex structure like an airport is to be commended. But is the satisfaction of statistical demands the only way to go?

What makes London’s Heathrow airport a traveller’s nightmare is the unfortunate mile after mile of mind-numbing anonymity that goes with the experience of moving 40 million people annually. Jakarta airport may not be in the same league, but its thoughtful, extremely Indonesian layout provides precisely the opposite experience. You move past courtyards of plantations that induce a quiet intimacy and a background of such calm that the trials of long distance travel are subdued and annulled.

But Jakarta and London are specific to the identities of the two very different places. Unfortunately the grand design of infrastructure in India is still based on the bureaucrat’s belief that the best work has already happened in the West. Terminal 3, though built in Delhi, was designed by American architects, and managed by MGF, a Dubai-based construction consortium. It uses tempered glass, a steel frame, and aluminum cladding all shipped from abroad. However, as a concession to India, Indian labour was employed in its erection. World class it is, because it’s conceived and built by the world.

The various venues for the upcoming Commonwealth Games reveal a similar story. Peddle Thorp, an Australian architecture firm, has designed the indoor stadium for badminton and squash; the new, aquatic centre is the brainchild of a foreign company that specialises in water sports facilities; the refurbishment of Jawaharlal Nehru stadium, which now looks like a space ship, was carried out by the German engineering firm of Schlaich Bergermann and Partners. The food concessions at the Games Village are being handled by another Australian company. In almost all facilities, the foreign hand can be felt from conception to realisation, catering to management. Enthralled by the scale of the endeavours, the shine and sparkle of steel and glass, as Indians we have stood by proudly to watch from the sidelines.

Foreign technology and inventiveness on Indian soil is certainly not new, especially in a country that has had a long history of direct imitation and mimicry. In the 1970s, it was a matter of Punjabi pride that the world’s most successful innovations could be copied in Ludhiana. Grimy workshops filled with labour were kept busy producing German machine parts, American denim, and other sundry items picked up in European markets. Indian businessmen travelled abroad to European industrial fairs and American specialty stores merely to buy items that could be duplicated in India at a fifth of the cost. Today, things remain much the same, only the scale of the borrowing has changed; as an open society we need no longer secretly copy and produce, but invite the original inventors to participate in a global bid.

By comparison, the 1982 Asian Games were a wholly indigenous effort. Local architects and construction firms built modestly, with brick and plaster, whitewashing the buildings before the foreigners arrived. The athletes were garlanded at an airport where the fused tube lights were quickly changed and the staff instructed to smile and take fewer tea breaks. Everyone stayed at a games village constructed by the PWD and travelled around in a bus service quite similar to the ordinary commuter’s. By all counts, the city and its services put up an entirely Indian and reasonably successful show.

While many of the new projects for the Commonwealth Games airports, stadiums and metro stations provide sparkle to the ramshackle grime of the Indian city, they remain foreign implants, silent spaceships sent by self-absorbed cultures. Faced with situations and conditions that are uniquely Indian, none among the new buildings seek Indian resolutions. Designed neither for the unforgiving landscape nor the general misuse of public facilities expected in India, their long-term usefulness is suspect.

Hard-pressed though we are to find symbols of the new India, the new terminal, with its import of foreign designs, foreign materials and construction technology, does little to promote India and Indian ideas. If the prime minister is proud of the airport as the gateway to a new global India, as he said at its inauguration, he is only crediting the many international companies now working in the country, thanking them for making India appear more efficient, more competent, more capable…more, well, like everyone else.

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4 thoughts on “Looking Westward for Design Talent?

  1. There is a certain truth to Gautam Bhatia’s article. However, left to their own means, Indian architects have not ‘done’ that much, in the recent past, at least on the public scale. We need to ‘learn’ quite a lot from others.

  2. Regardless, the foreign architects need to register with the Council Of Architecture in India to practice architecture in India.
    There are some other statutory requirements to be fulfilled before any foreign architect starts working in India as an Architect.

  3. I don’t see a point in getting so patriotic, if I may call it. China for long has been dependent on foreign expertise for development, and even now. The result is much obvious, they have succeeded. At present they have all the technology and ability to do things by them self. From a designers perspective what is more important that the place offers the users all the comfort it needs to function properly. My question is if we question that foreign companies have opened offices in India and doing business, then can we list how many DESIGN firms have opened offices abroad?
    Let me clear one thing India is what Indians have built; by just pointing at one or two projects done by foreign firms doesn’t mean we are loosing contextuality in India. What about the great works by Charles Correa, Doshi, etc?

  4. the article by Gautam ji is totally right. it evokes a point that we are still much dependent on the foreign concepts for the management of our cities. India has many good architects who are way creative and they should be given a chance to show that.

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