Unable to find d "meaningful architecture" (sic!) in an age of rapid industrialisation, ... and "state indifferene", A. Srivatsan laments


The awarding of the capital complex design of Amaravati – the new capital city of Andhra Pradesh – is an example of the latter. Since it ceded the existing capital city to the newly created Telangana State last year, Andhra sought assistance from the Singapore government to create a new capital. Singapore design firm Surbana Jurong parachuted in a 217km2 masterplan. Architectural companies and consortia with an annual financial turnover of Rs 30 crores (US$4.5 million) were invited to bid for the design of the 1.2 million m2 complex. When 10 firms turned up, the state government, without much explanation, sidelined them. It then invited Norman Foster, Rem Koolhaas and Richard Rogers, and when Koolhaas declined, Frank Gehry. The final list of contenders consisted of Japanese firm Maki and Associates, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners and Vastu Shilpa led by BV Doshi. The jury, which included a Vastu consultant – an expert on traditional architectural principles that border astrology – awarded the design to Maki and Associates.

When the design presentations were uploaded to social media by the government, it triggered a protest. Architects launched an online petition against the design, also questioning why the state government didn’t invite more Indian designers to compete. This led to further debate on whether India had nurtured any recognisable talent over the past 60 years. It also rekindled the issue of whether the commissioning of foreign practices should be discouraged in India. Others claimed the new design was not Indian enough. All valid questions, however they ail to acknowledge the changing conditions of architectural practice in the country. Instead of looking at this new city, coming as it does 60 years after Chandigarh, as a significant opportunity to set new directions in planning and rejuvenate the public interest in architecture, the state settled on iconic names and forms.

This incident laid bare the paradoxes of practising in an increasingly networked economy and exposed new vulnerabilities, foremost that if architects are not vigilant they could invent new forms of parochialism. India has benefited from dovetailing into the global economy. It is one of the leading software exporters and its technically skilled workforce land good jobs around the world. Foreign investment in a variety of sectors has helped construction activities. International financial institutions such as the Japan Bank for International Cooperation have backed several projects, including Amaravati, on relatively favourable terms. It is only logical to expect that – along with capital – ideas and foreign firms would also flow in. The way to engage with these developments is not to seek protectionism. The issues at stake are the unreasonable entry barriers for young firms, a failure to seek wider participation, a lack of transparency in selection, and the unwillingness of the state to face public scrutiny. Debates have to steer clear of the traps of divisive politics played in the name of Indian identity. Instead, the concern should be about the choice of architecture that reinforces the overpowering state at a time when democratic values are under serious threat. Sidelined in this sentimental conversation is the fact that the state is squandering precious resources by acquiring fertile agricultural land when existing cities could have been upgraded to accommodate government facilities – a recommendation made by the central government-appointed expert committee.

‘When the design presentations were uploaded to social media by the government, it triggered a protest’
Another issue is the division of intellectual labour between foreign and local firms. Often the low scale of fees means foreign companies produce the concept and take a disproportionately large slice of the money pie. For them, the pay is insufficient to execute the project completely, so local firms end up dealing with the nuts and bolts for a relatively small fee. Firms are unwilling to discuss the financial arrangement on record, but off the record all is not well. Working with star firms may provide the opportunity to engage with new ideas, but do Indian companies want to remain an architectural back office or call centre forever? The way forward is to negotiate a mutually enriching collaboration between all partners.

Another challenge is to widen the constituency for good design. The best architectural talent is nurtured by the limited number of commissions for private homes and institutions. For most property developers, a building is a means to maximise profit; as such, it is not surprising that we are yet to see an elegant solution for vertical living.

With few exceptions, IT companies are the most disappointing clients. Some, in their rush to reduce overall operational cost, have settled for dignified sweat shops wrapped in glass. A few fancy corporate offices have built, to use Mehrotra’s description, an architecture of indulgence. The ignominious examples are the campuses of Infosys across India – spaceships or wannabe Disneylands, mostly designed by Hafeez Contractor, a Mumbai-based architect (see p33). Contractor has a prolific practice which has grown from a staff of three in 1982 to over 550 employees today. But his architecture resides in the few inches of building exterior and his work is a classic example of what Peter Scriver and Amit Srivastava describe as post-1990s architecture in India having ‘lost the capacity to engage sensibly and poetically articulate’.