Misguided attempts to ape the West have robbed Gurgaon of local aesthetics or any individual character.
Whatever happened to cities with a character? Delhi has a character, Mumbai definitely has one, so does Kolkata. Gurgaon looks nothing like a normal Indian city, at least not in the way its buildings look (everything else, infrastructure, drainage, power, water, cattle on the road, is just the same).
Whichever side you enter Gurgaon from (M G Road or NH 8), you experience deja vu: have I seen this before? Buildings with a glass facade line the road as you enter from NH 8, almost all somewhat similar. Of course, there are some that stand out but, more or less, they're the same, even as you go into the interiors.
Akshat Bhatt, principal architect at Architecture Discipline, explains that there is a state of global homogeneity/universal generic space that is emerging within our cities and buildings.
"Basically, all are similar but for something that will make it unique to its own context -- say, the way spaces are treated or used," says Bhatt.
Real contextual design can be achieved but that requires a persevering and sensitive design method. "Cutting edge architecture does not necessarily mean it has to be expensive," he adds.
He thinks most of what is happening or has happened in Gurgaon is inappropriate. "It is not a very healthy trend," he says.
He goes to the extreme of saying, "Most of it should be bombed. It's not just about the way a building looks, you cannot ignore planning, building codes and mechanical engineering. We should learn from our past mistakes and start with a clean slate."
What provokes such extreme statements is not just the look of the buildings but also that many of them are not sincere. The use of materials (glass and steel) in most buildings is not proper and neither are they well planned.
In fact, Vivek Dahiya, director at real estate advisor DTZ, feels that Gurgaon has become more a learning ground for architects and developers, and that most buildings are not viable in terms of functionality. "There is no character in the city. It is all just glass," he says.
Why this has happened to Gurgaon is not too difficult to guess. When development in Gurgaon started in the mid-nineties, the buildings that DLF and other developers established were of a quality to attract tenants, and they still stand out.
Once Gurgaon became a destination and there was increasing demand and tenant pressure, developers started building very quickly and sidelined aesthetics and even quality in several cases. And then, obviously, the herd mentality followed.
An aesthetically designed quality building with use of the proper kind of glass might be about 15 per cent more expensive to build and the occupier will benefit in the long run. The extra cost is obviously borne by the developer, a good reason why buildings today are not in the least energy efficient.
"The maintenence cost of such buildings is higher by at least Rs 3-4 per sq ft a month, which translates into a lot of money," says architect Vidur Bhardwaj of Design and Development.
He emphasises that buildings need smarter
In such buildings, even if one person walks into his office, he is forced to switch on all 40 tonnes of airconditioning as there are no glass panels that open out, so it gets much too stuff inside (without the AC on).
Bhatt blames both architects and planners for this. "It is the job of the architect to expose and convince the developer to build a better building. We are the ones who were unethical," he says.
Bhardwaj feels that, in Gurgaon, developers have just aped the West to use glass indiscriminately -- which is hardly good given north Indian climatic conditions.
Prodipta Sen, vice president, marketing and corporate affairs, Alpha Buildtech, feels that this kind of design is more an aspirational thing which most builders have been cashing in on with its easy-to-build structures. But he is confident that some buildings might evolve in the future where developers are in for a longer term.
Dahiya also points out that in buildings where quality has been compromised, age starts to show in just five years. Compared to those, some of the older buildings in Gurgaon look fresher.
Architect Hafeez Contractor who has many projects in Gurgaon, has a contrary view on the issue. He suggests that Gurgaon has a style of its own -- one that he says represents modern India. "Modern India is changing and boundaries are converging," he figures.
According to him, in today's global world, it is difficult to define the purely Indian metaphor. When the Mughals came to India, Indian styles fused with their influences. There was a time when such influences occurred over periods of a half-century, but these are now coming in faster, maybe every 10-15 years, says Contractor.
In the midst of the many badly designed buildings with absolutely no individual character, there are some better designed ones as well. These quality buildings stand out in the skyline.
Take a look at the DLF Corporate Park or the Plaza Towers in Phase 1, which were among the first major buildings to come up in Gurgaon. More recent examples can be the Wipro and the ITC green buildings.
Bhardwaj was the architect for the new Wipro Technologies Development Centre in Gurgaon. The building is designed according to the Indian haveli concept, with a courtyard in the centre (which also has a water body in it).
The inward looking plan performs varied functions -- forming a light well, it acts as a micro-climate generator, thus reducing energy consumption; mutual shading of the courtyard walls keeps them cooler than outside walls; a big waterbody and vegetation in the middle of the courtyard reduces its temperature by evaporative cooling.
The idea to "bomb" the city and remake it might not be a feasible or even a practical one but surely are other ways to improve the looks of Gurgaon. Apathy by developers needs to be addressed, for sure, and maybe stricter guidelines by the government need to be put into place.