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How Mohit Gujral changed India's skyline
Kishore Singh
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October 07, 2005

Mohit Gujral, recently turned 46, has lost some weight. His hair is a silver mane that would do an actor proud. And the slight hint of a stammer is now history. The 21st century has been kind to painter Satish Gujral's son even though he's been keeping a lower profile than usual.

"I've been consciously staying away from page three parties," he says.
"They promote a kind of image that you're" -- the Mayoite hesitates --"superficial."

It's the last thing Gujral Jr wants to be saddled with, not least because he's being touted as the hottest architect on the block. Not the most talented, nor the most innovative, nor even the most energy conscious, but at last count, Gujral's firm, Design Plus, was putting its imprint on a little less than 20 million sq ft of space, on projects that total approximately Rs 2,000 crore (Rs 20 billion). ("We'll add another Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion) to our scale of operations in the next two or three months," Gujral cannot keep the excitement out of his voice.)

Still, there's nothing wrong with celebrity, you tell him; it comes with the Gujral surname. Besides his father, he's had an uncle who has been the country's prime minister, however briefly, a wife who, though a former model, would give most of the current crop competition on the ramp even today, and sisters who have their own identities as interior and jewellery designers.

"It costs us clients," frets Gujral, "because of misperceptions that I'm inaccessible, or too busy, maybe even expensive."

Frankly though, he shouldn't be worrying. The mobile phone buzzes with clients who want to sign him on. In the office, visitors sometimes wait patiently for hours hoping they can use his name to promote their projects.

A Mohit Gujral building today has the same collateral that Hafeez Contractor enjoys, but with a greater sense of involvement, a more driven passion. "It's true," he sighs, "one doesn't have the time to look for any more business; one should have the time to deliver on projects."

It wasn't always like this. A decade ago, there were differences, however discreet, between Mohit and his father Satish Gujral who, in the maverick manner of all geniuses, had established Design Plus even though he wasn't an architect himself.

It wasn't his bread and butter but for an artist, muralist and sculptor, the spaces of a large project were manna, and he fed his imagination with flamboyance. The Belgian embassy in the capital, on which Satish Gujral shaped his precocious talent, could so easily have gone wrong. Instead, it won him international awards, got him reams of press coverage and the Order of the Crown from the Belgian government.

This is when Mohit Gujral had joined the practice. Later, Satish Gujral would step away from the firm, but for some years he was involved with creating dramatic spaces, announcing to his bemused clients the kind of public/private chambers they should have, creating brilliant architecture.

The trouble was, a practice couldn't be run on such trimmings. The two Gujrals had worked together on the Belgian Embassy, the Goa University campus, the CMC complex in Hyderabad, the Tehri Dam township, the Mexx (five farms in one) project in Delhi and a palace in Riyadh, but Mohit, who was itching to do more contemporary work, increasingly differed from his father.

"There was tension between them," recollects an architect with the firm who has worked with both, "it was a difficult time." Sensibly, Satish Gujral decided to let his son live out his dreams. "He stepped away at the right time," says Mohit, "he let me grow."

Architecturally, the two couldn't have been more different. Where Satish Gujral designed domes, brick walls, enclosed courtyards and seamless spaces that flowed into one another, Mohit concerned himself with a new language using glass, steel and granite, bringing in a global feel to interiors and facades.

He cut his teeth on the Great Eastern Centre in Delhi's disastrous Nehru Place and immediately established his own style, earning himself a great deal of press and, for the first time, an independent identity. He was no longer the heir-apparent, he had simply stepped in and created his own opportunity.

Despite the huge success of the building, it would be a while before Mohit Gujral would become the darling that he is today, in part because he simply ceased to do homes for rich clients, in part because the Indian economy was in a downslide.

Therefore, he picked up interior projects, such as designing Dominos takeaways ("It was great for learning systems," he says) and the restaurants at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. "They would eventually lead us to our hospitality ventures," he says, but at that time they were simply imperative, part of what he laughs about today and calls his "survival strategy".

A sweeping change came via the telecom and BPO revolution -- suddenly, Mohit Gujral was in the right place at the right time. The first to fall into his bag was GE Capital, Hyderabad (which led to all GE projects in India), won against global competition -- Mohit would later celebrate by pampering himself with a Mercedes -- and there has been no looking back since.

Today, in just a short span, Mohit Gujral has developed a professional relationship with developers DLF, for whom he's doing malls and signing on for townships. The DLF Cyber Greens Technology Park, all one million sq ft of it, has just been completed, he's established Delanco (Delhi Land Company, in case you're wondering) as his own real estate venture, and some of the country's most-talked about ventures are part of his current portfolio.

For instance, next month, marketing will begin for the first phase of Indian Express's 20-acre, mixed usage complex on Chennai's Mount Road which when complete will have 750,000 sq ft of retail space, a 250-room hotel, service apartments, an office block and residential towers.

Or, for instance, the John Jerde mall development in Noida's prestigious Sector 18, which brings together high street and town centre values over 2 million sq ft.

Or, again, Promenade and Emporio, probably India's most-awaited experiment in luxury retail space, which he's promising to deliver by Diwali 2006. "It combines two products," he says of the complex on which work has begun in Vasant Kunj, New Delhi.

"The first is luxury," and even though no clients have been signed yet, it has everyone from Chopard to Louis Vuitton management flying down to vet its progress, "and the other is high-end."

The spaces in between will be in the manner of an "invigorating city centre with piazzas and a seamless bond between the two. We want to create an environment of stimulation, to turn a visit into an experience rather than just shopping," Mohit says in his office with its five Jittish Kallats slightly askew and a dancing bamboo shedding over the sideboard.

"Retail," he tries to explain, "is like a movie. Its context has to be constantly redefined." He believes that retail spaces will change rapidly, demanding newer configurations sooner rather than later.

"Which is why we build in a flexibility of design so that concepts can be rejigged again. The architectural challenge," he says, making himself comfortable in his chair, "is about experiences, about making spaces dynamic, about building multifaceted interaction."

It is the language of the polished artist as architect. He's got his craft down to an essential skill, and not all of it lies at the tap of the keyboard; a large part of it is oratory. "I," he continues, "like to break down the intimation of large spaces."

There's the essential architect-speak of typologies and constants, of land usage and FSAs, of tie-ups with international consultants and lack of egos, of other prestigious projects in the bag (IT Park, Chandigarh, recently inaugurated by Dr Manmohan Singh; the Aman resort in the capital, where he's "merely" the local resource; of the Park Centra housing project in Gurgaon; of the Walmart-style mega Big chain of stores in Thane, Bangalore and Karnal with developer Alpha Buildtech), but underneath it all is the lurking suspicion that his father might not have been happy with the kind of work he's doing.

"Of every 10 projects we do, eight are for the scale, two for the soul," says Mohit.

Still, is Gujral Sr happy with his work?

"We talk about it," Mohit says. "He tells me I should be more concerned with context. I understand his anxiety, I even try to localise some projects, but we're talking of global experiences, international working spaces." He pauses, "Truly, I think my father doesn't understand these dynamics, they're of a different age."

Having tasted success that's pitted him against Hafeez Contractor in scale and in terms of opportunities -- though Contractor, because he's been around longer and because his name sells, is several times larger than Gujral -- Mohit is already planning his future.

While his current concern is with sharing knowledge across projects and is measured in deliverables, he's setting himself a target that will see him morph into a developer rather than work within the tight frame of an architect. "I'm creating land banks," he admits of Delanco, which has so far created a highly successful plotted development in Kasauli.

There's more on the cards. "Do I want to be a niche player, or do things on a large scale?" he asks himself. The answer isn't long in coming. "I see myself managing an architectural corporation." For this, besides DLF, he's open to partnering with other developers for a slice of luxury development -- whether residential, retail, resort or gated communities -- in Himachal, Goa, Punjab and Uttaranchal.

Interestingly, Design Plus is entering the township model with developers where Mohit's role is confined to that of an architect. "These will be on a large scale," he says, "each project between 500 and 2,500 acres, and we intend to develop them on the integrated SEZ model with commercial, industrial, residential and infrastructural inputs."

"But I've had to prove myself all the way," he says, "things haven't come easy just because of the Gujral brand name." He points to his growing partnership with DLF. "I've been friends with Rajiv Singh," he says, "but I did my first mall with someone else, my first residential complex with someone else, my first office complex with someone else." So he's keeping his options open: "People want to partner on real estate," he says, "and in six months I will have signed all the projects I want to do."

Certainly, the DLF projects must have been hard-won, for Hafeez Contractor had created a symbiotic relationship with the group over many years.

"Hafeez's office is bigger and stronger so he gets more work," says Rajiv Singh, vice chairman, DLF, "but both architects are very good at what they do individually." That he has a soft corner for Mohit, though, comes through: "He's talented and also willing to update his skill sets," Singh says, "and he's one of our principal architects. We're very satisfied with him."

Satisfied enough to move a very large chunk of their retail and office buildings Mohit's way. Besides the DLF Cyber Greens Technology Park in Gurgaon, the roster includes an Information Technology Park in Chandigarh, a DLF-Gujral partnership for malls, multiplexes and hotels in Delhi, Chandigarh, Ludhiana, Jalandhar, Cochin and Jaipur (and still counting), and -- as a final vote of confidence -- even the residence for Rajiv Singh.

Speak to architects and they'll tell you that it isn't surprising Gujral is bagging so many projects. "When you do soulless buildings, all glass, no character, no rootedness, where's the design sensibility?" they question.

It's a pertinent point. Contractor's buildings are immediately identifiable by their facades (if nothing else); senior architects like Charles Correa and Raj Rewal have left behind a very strong architectural stamp. Gujral Sr's work cannot be mistaken for anyone else's. A Mohit Gujral building -- well, what's that? "An architect's role is to marry a customer's expectations with context," says Mohit. "I bring in an eclecticism without forcing it," he qualifies. "I marry that design sensibility with a business sense; it makes a decent package."

What, you ask him, would he consider his major strength?

There are four qualities he wishes to highlight, he says.

"First, I have a very good business sense, which I bring to a project."

And? "I bring together different components of a project -- land, financiers -- my networking is my value addition to a project."

More? "I've a team that's focused on costs and deliverables. We're open minded enough to bring in outside resources, we're not ego-driven to find solutions ourselves."

And finally? "We," laughs Mohit, "have reasonable design sensibilities."

It's interesting he should come to that last. Perhaps it's what global architecture has whittled down to.

So, what does architecture represent to him?

Once again his answer is threefold: "One," he says, "is delivery." You can't get anything late, not by a day, not by an hour -- the penalties would be crippling. "Two," he smiles, "it's about youth, about their energy." It's one reason he's in such shape physically. "Three," he adds, "it's about the ability to coexist and collaborate."

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