The future of architecture in India

Our Hong Kong-based columnist is Chairman, CEO and Chief Cybertect of James Law Cybertecture

By: James Law

This article is a way for me to share with you my thoughts about the ongoing forces at play in the profession in India now and in the future.

But before I start, I would like to pay homage to Charles Correa, a true legend of Indian architecture. Charles was without doubt the most important Indian architect of the modern generation. His unique talent to blend the essence of modern space with the Indian context gave rise to a new architecture that was truly his and truly Indian of the 20th century. We mourn the passing away of a great master, and I regret never having looked him up in person.

It is so evident that there is great legacy of architecture in India. Just like any country with a history as long and as rich as India’s, its architecture has been its marker in the long road of time. Indian culture and history are preserved in the traces of this architecture. The emblems of the soul that makes the Indian landscape, towns and cities are very much the same as the stories and legends within the images of traditional Indian architecture.

From the eyes of a foreign architect like myself, who has been privileged to have been invited to India to design architecture, I am forever sensitive to these as someone who comes from a different culture and seeing things always with a different set of values. Yet, I have come to understand more and more each day of the eight years I have had the privilege to be here what it is that is Indian architecture and about its future.

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If the philosophies of Marco Polo are true, then the traveller brings the catalyst of change to the places he journeys to. He brings with him different knowledge and different skills and wares. More importantly he brings a new set of eyes and new set of sensibilities which can be the moment when
a new architecture can be implanted to splice with the traditional.

I have been playing this role with much gratefulness during the last eight years here. And today, I would like to share with you my thoughts about the future of Indian architecture from someone who has come to love India like a second home, made many dear friends and learnt many
valuable lessons about life and what is my place in this world as an architect.

My advantage is that I have had the chance to understand first hand some of the complexities of Indian society. I would not say I understand it in totality. Yet as an architect, it is my responsibility to assimilate the complexity and try to find a position from which a new Indian architecture may be found through the buildings I design in India.

I see Indian society is an ocean but with great disparities in society: of classes, between the rich and the poor, of castes,geographic location, politics, between young and old. In fact
I would simply say that Indian culture for me is a dichotomy of realities, where the complexity is in fact the richness of Indian culture.

Inward foreign investment drives the design of ever more modern commercial structures to cater to the influx of foreign enterprises into the country. A city like Mumbai will certainly evolve over time like London and New York, in the sense that they became very much the epicentres of
globalised trade and commerce. In fact my first project in India is for an office building at the Bandra-Kurla Complex in Mumbai, which when I first visited the empty site, was described to me as the future “Manhattan” of India.

The rise of the middle classes has also driven an architecture of aspirations-for a better life. Modern residential complexes built with better quality, planning, amenities and architecture is now the reachable dream for a lot of middle class families in India. The migration of older less well built structures to modern high rise residential living is of course evident in many districts of the major cities in India.

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The large lower income classes must also not be neglected as they form the largest proportion of Indian society. To design architecture that is affordable, decent, safe and inspirational for them will not only be the moral thing to do, but will be the greatest investment in the future of the country.

The need to build more is not only due to economic growth but also due to population growth and redistribution. Urbanisation is particularly strong in developing countries like China and India. We see the surge of inward migration of people from the countryside into the urban areas of India in order to find better livelihood. The challenge is to channel this urbanisation pressure through good planning and long term housing strategy for all strata of the population.

The government of India has a long term vision to build smart cities. Therefore future Indian architecture must be smart too, in how it will form the pixels that make up the fabric of these smart cities.

The need for infrastructure to link these new urbanised areas will require well designed architecture for airports,roads, railways and utilities. A smart infrastructure will be very much part of the future Indian architecture. Smart grids, smart networks and smart planning will be integral to the new architecture.

Architecture itself has a major part to play in this. And architects like me have a great responsibility to help shape the built environment of India now and in the future. Architecture represents both the dreams and the progress of India. Society is often made proud by how it has built itself,organised itself and continues to empower itself through new architecture. Public architecture can importantly bring pride to the population and proudly shows the level of ambition and achievement of design, engineering and construction of India at any time.

With an ever more complex and modern Indian society,the breadth of architecture will also increase in India. New building types will be created to cater for new industries, new entertainment, new retail and new green spaces. The vocabulary of future Indian architecture will become more inventive and more colourful in form and materials, space and planning, type and identity.

Like China, India has the opportunity not only to catch up but to overtake in how well it designs and builds its structures. I believe that this epoch we are living in is an opportunity for all of us to design and build a better world collectively. India is a late bloomer like China, and as such we should be more ambitious about what can be achieved through our architecture.

I believe that the potential of a country must be based on an optimistic vision of what is possible. The optimism from government to private sector, from architect to engineer, from industry to consumer, must be high so that we can drive ever more positively to better designs.

I believe in the future. In fact I believe it so much that I think architecture will itself evolve in this century into a Cybertecture of sorts, where much of what we have discussed will in fact manifest in the merging of architecture, nature and technology. We will soon be designing our Indian Cybertecture like we design computers and space stations. I believe that future buildings we design in India will be every bit as smart, intelligent, advanced and
appropriate for India to become a leading nation.

The role of this future Indian Cybertecture will be to set the stage for a 21st century that is truly modern and a 22nd century that India can truly lead the world. The role of future Indian Cybertecture will be to be guardians of the great values of Indian culture, its beliefs,its history and its traditions, yet evolve into a duality with modernity.

The challenge for modern Indian Cybertecture will be to find the duality that will encapsulate both its past and its future, balancing nature with man, technology with heritage and modernity with values.

But most importantly the ultimate goal for a modern Indian Cybertecture should be the alleviation of suffering for all in India.

I am forever humbled and in gratitude for all my Indian friends and partners who have welcomed me with open arms, and graced me with the chance to design for your beautiful people, place and culture. I will continue to work hard to contribute my designs of Cybertecture to a truly
wonderful India. I hope we can work together on this.

God bless.

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