Why Building In India Is A Challenge
Journalist Shekhar Gupta once said the desperation to create more space had led to some of the world's most unaesthetic modern architecture coming up in India, even in premium apartments. India's most financially successful architect Hafeez Contractor, he added, should be credited with some of these.
Gupta thinks architecture is the least evolved profession in India; many others share this opinion. After visiting Shanghai, novelist Manu Joseph wrote: “The city has a surprisingly large number of cheap high-rises that try to mitigate their ugliness through exotic domes and roofs — it is as if Hafeez Contractor was here, too.”
Even if India's residential projects are not the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement, is the criticism fair? Perhaps not. Rarely do people outside an extremely challenging field recognise that aesthetic merit depends a lot on freedom. For example, more experimentation happens in literature than in movies, because making a movie is far more expensive than writing poetry. You need the cooperation of many people, and that cooperation is not always forthcoming.
Indian architects and real estate developers work against enormous constraints. When you look at such buildings, it may not seem much of an achievement. But you could be wrong. Architects are compelled to make housing as affordable as possible. They are compelled to find innovative ways to cut costs and to offer more floor space – India is a developing country and there is only so much one can do. The media blames developers for their obsession with profits, for rising housing prices, and for aesthetically unappealing buildings. Many of these criticisms cancel each other out.
Even in the developed West, it is a common argument that architecture of the modern age does not match the grandeur of the past. Why? Unlike kings and aristocrats of the past, real estate developers have limited budgets. They cannot exceed it without making units more expensive. The riches of an Indian home buyers, however wealthy he may be, do not match the wealth of kings and aristocrats of the past.
Wealthy Indian home buyers are not as wealthy as the government, either. They are accountable – creativity and accountability do not go very well together. So, a real estate developer building a premium residential project cannot offer an architect the same amount of freedom as that given in a vanity project of the government. When they build for masses, developers are also forced to play it safe, and not build anything that would shock the masses. It is hard to blame developers and architects alone.
Hafeez Contractor says that in the mid-1990s, when real estate markets were sluggish, one of India's leading real estate developers asked him to cut costs by half. This was almost impossible, but he managed to do this. If he had not, these apartments would have cost twice as much.
As Daniel Brook points out in the New York Times, this is not a one-off case: “Contractor recalled how the Mumbai developer Kirti Kedia approached him and demanded apartments that included 10-by-14 bedrooms and 20-by-20 living rooms, straining the limits of the regulations before even considering necessities like hallways and bathrooms. “I said, 'Come on, Kirti, I can't beat arithmetic,'” Contractor recalled. “Kirti said, 'Raja'… he calls me Raja — raja means king — 'that is why I have come to you.'” Contractor took out his red felt-tip pen and legal pad and showed me how he did it. Starting with the living room, Contractor drew a 20-by-20 square — 400 square feet. Turning the height of the square into the diameter of a circle, a bit like Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man, Contractor shaved off the top two corners. This little move cut some 40 square feet off the room. He applied the same trick to the rectangular bedrooms. “And I got it. I beat the arithmetic. I showed him the plan the next day… This was the rage of that time!” Contractor had outsmarted the regulations by literally cutting corners.”
It is not fair to judge an architect's creativity by the appearance of his buildings alone. It takes great creativity to meet the needs of masses at the lowest cost possible, in a city where an average person consumes only 48 square feet of space. It takes great creativity to create space when space is luxury.
To the extent that there is some merit in these criticisms, it is because real estate markets in India have not gone through important regulatory reforms in the past twenty-five years. This may explain why architecture does not seem as evolved as other professions in the country. In almost every industry, prices fall and quality rises, year after years. But, as land-use policy and zoning regulations do not change as easily, this does not happen as much in the real estate sector. We should place the blame where it belongs.
For regular updates on real estate, click here