“in­di­ans are Ge­net­i­cally artis­tic”

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Bobby Mukherji , Founder & Prin­ci­pal ar­chi­tect Bobby Mukherji & as­so­ci­ates is one of the few in­dian ar­chi­tects to have an in­ter­na­tional port­fo­lio of work. speak­ing to Sapna Sri­vas­tava, he cred­its his suc­cess partly to his early work ex­pe­ri­ence in Usa, but mostly to his re­lent­less pur­suit of ex­pand­ing hori­zons for his de­sign firm.

the meet­ing at Bobby Mukher­jee’s of­fice in the posh sub­urbs of Mum­bai started on an en­gag­ing note de­lib­er­at­ing on why only a hand­ful of In­dian de­sign­ers are work­ing on in­ter­na­tional projects and con­versely why many In­dian firms hire for­eign de­sign­ers. Ac­cord­ing to Mukherji, de­sign is very taste ori­ented and de­pends on two things - Tal­ent and Ex­po­sure.

“Hav­ing an in­her­ent de­sign sen­si­bil­ity is one thing and giv­ing metic­u­lous doc­u­men­ta­tion to it is an­other. In­dian ar­chi­tec­tural ed­u­ca­tion doesn’t teach that. How you put your ideas in the form of a doc­u­ment re­quires a huge amount of skill. I learnt this dur­ing my work stint at the fa­mous in­te­rior de­sign firm, Gruen As­so­ci­ates in New York. I got most of my prac­ti­cal knowl­edge there.”

The big break for Mukher­jee came in 1998 when Gruen As­so­ci­ates won the master plan­ning of Am­bey Val­ley near Mum­bai. “As the Amer­i­can de­sign­ers were re­luc­tant to come to In­dia, I will­ingly took up the job for the master plan­ning of Am­bey Val­ley. I was young back then and work­ing on a 2 bil­lion worth project at that young age re­quires a good sup­port sys­tem. So I worked along with them and learnt a lot,” he added.

This was the start of Bobby Mukherji & As­so­ci­ates (BMA). One project led to an­other, such as ren­o­va­tion of Ho­tel Sa­hara Star, Club house for Kal­pataru Builders fol­lowed by pres­ti­gious projects with in­ter­na­tional hos­pi­tal­ity chains and the rest as they say is, his­tory. Self-ed­u­cat­ing and hand­ing down the knowl­edge that he had learnt across his team is the rea­son BMA is con­sid­ered at par with any global de­sign firm. “In­di­ans are fast learn­ers. I was able to trans­fer that knowl­edge of ba­sic re­quire­ments that’s needed in the form of pre­sen­ta­tions and de­sign doc­u­ments onto the rest of our team. So our doc­u­men­ta­tion skills are far su­pe­rior then what is go­ing on in the rest of the coun­try,” Mukherji ex­plained.

“there is enough tal­ent in in­dia but ex­po­sure to global stan­dards and prac­tices is not there.”

it’s not about an ego to work with in­ter­na­tional ar­chi­tects While, a lot of de­sign­ers feel that de­vel­op­ers are prej­u­diced to­wards in­ter­na­tional de­sign com­pa­nies, Mukherji con­sid­ers it a mat­ter of be­ing com­fort­able with who you work with. He clar­i­fied, “When a de­vel­oper is spend­ing 50 or 100 mil­lion dol­lars on a project, he would rather pay half a mil­lion dol­lar more in fees to work with a firm that is ex­pe­ri­enced in such projects rather than ex­per­i­ment­ing with an ar­chi­tec­tural firm that is yet to have ex­po­sure to such projects. Also, it’s as sim­ple as work­ing with your known part­ners and as­so­ci­ates due to the com­fort fac­tor and the past work syn­er­gies. For in­stance, if I had met Trump and done some work with him in the past then prob­a­bly he would have rec­om­mended me. How­ever, we have not had the op­por­tu­nity to work and he does not have the time to ex­per­i­ment.”

He also added that not many In­dian de­sign firms bid for world class projects as most, do not have the suf­fi­cient band­width. “There are so many projects where we are the only In­dian de­sign firm against 3-4 other for­eign de­sign firms. Many times we have won and many times we have lost. But, some of our big­gest de­sign projects were won against some of the most re­puted ar­chi­tec­tural firms of the world. Al­most 45% of our projects are in­ter­na­tional works in Mid­dle East, United King­dom, USA, In­done­sia, Bhutan, China, Caribbean Is­lands (Bri­tish West In­dies) and Nige­ria among oth­ers.”

Mukherji agrees that while, In­dian de­sign­ers need to ac­quire global ex­po­sure by work­ing on projects in other coun­tries, get­ting in­ter­na­tional jobs is not easy when the western mar­ket is flooded with ex­ces­sive de­sign­ers with lesser jobs. He sug­gests ex­plor­ing the route of work­ing for NRIS. “There are enough suc­cess­ful NRI en­trepreneurs in the rest of the world that would be happy to en­gage an In­dian ar­chi­tect or de­signer if they give them the con­fi­dence of de­liv­er­ing the same level of ex­per­tise and work out­put qual­ity as avail­able in their back­yard,” he said.

“In­dian ar­chi­tects should have the drive to go out there and con­test for world class projects. There’s a lot of risk in­volved and you have to be per­sis­tent. Ini­tially there might not be enough re­turns. It is a self-in­vest­ment but many de­sign firms are un­able to re­al­ize that and are more in­ter­ested in im­me­di­ate prof­itabil­ity in the work.”

do you think the real es­tate in­dus­try is chang­ing?

“We are a coun­try with huge po­ten­tial. The new gen­er­a­tion is well trav­elled, aware and ex­posed to in­ter­na­tional de­sign trends. They want to have same stan­dard of liv­ing in their own coun­try and are will­ing to pay a pre­mium for that. For in­stance, Hi­ranan­dani Town­ship in Mum­bai, DLF com­plex in Gu­ru­gram or Yoo Vil­las in Pune by Panchshil built to global de­sign and con­struc­tion stan­dards, com­mand a much higher price than projects in im­me­di­ate vicin­ity.”

Mukherji elab­o­rated that the mar­ket for pre­mium prod­ucts whether its real es­tate, car or fash­ion is there if as­sured of value for money. He gave an ex­am­ple of the lat­est trend of branded res­i­den­cies in In­dia. Ac­cord­ing to him the big ad­van­tage that comes with such projects is not the celebrity or the brand name tag but the qual­ity con­trol that these brands im­pose. “The project man­age­ment team con­trols the de­sign lan­guage, spec­i­fi­ca­tions and the small­est of the de­tails is mon­i­tored to con­form to the brand’s stan­dards. The de­vel­oper of the project might not know how to cre­ate that ex­pe­ri­ence on his own. So these guys do all the hand hold­ing which makes all the dif­fer­ence.”

Rais­ing the bar of ar­chi­tec­tural prac­tice in in­dia

Mukherji is of the view that In­dia had an ex­cel­lent ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem that sys­tem­at­i­cally de­te­ri­o­rated over the pe­riod of time es­pe­cially dur­ing Bri­tish colo­nial pe­riod. “Kings were the pa­trons of learn­ing, art and ar­chi­tec­ture.the guru was given the high­est sta­tus and taken care of by the state. In the pre-bri­tish era ar­chi­tec­ture col­leges were through­out the coun­try but dur­ing Bri­tish Raj there was only one, JJ School of Art in Mum­bai. Sadly, we are still in that mode and need to an­a­lyze the sit­u­a­tion to in­vest heav­ily in ed­u­ca­tion and make teach­ing the most highly paid pro­fes­sion. That’s go­ing to lead to a chain re­ac­tion of cre­at­ing a new breed of well-read and ed­u­cated de­sign­ers.”

should ar­chi­tects cre­ate sig­na­ture styles?

“At the end of the day you have to sat­isfy your client’s needs. As an ar­chi­tect you can­not dic­tate your ego on to a client’s needs. A de­vel­oper needs to make a profit so de­sign should be­come the busi­ness el­e­ment to cre­ate a bet­ter prod­uct, brand value and cus­tomer sat­is­fac­tion to help drive sales. There is not a sin­gle project of ours that you can see and say is a BMA project. We study the en­vi­ron­ment, end user, lo­ca­tion, bud­get, weather, cli­mate, etc. and then come up with a project de­sign that we think will re­ally sell. In fact, In­dia is like a con­ti­nent in it­self. Each city, Ben­galuru, Hy­der­abad, Jaipur or Delhi are dif­fer­ent. Even mi­cro mar­kets are not the same, so sig­na­ture styles can­not work well in all cir­cum­stances and may look over im­posed”

What are your fu­ture plans?

We have had a steady growth for the last 8-10 years. We are not madly am­bi­tious or aspire to have a huge tower as our of­fice build­ing. We just want to do qual­ity work. I have done work only where the client was dis­cern­ing and came to us be­cause they wanted some­thing spe­cial. Apart from the high end lux­ury and hos­pi­tal­ity projects, we are now work­ing on an af­ford­able hous­ing project near Mum­bai where our en­deavor is to give a good qual­ity lifestyle within 400 square feet at a cost of 60 lakhs. The de­sign is in­spired by the Ja­panese model of smart small homes.

Con­clud­ing the con­ver­sa­tion on a pos­i­tive note, Mukherji ex­pressed that it is the ar­chi­tects onus to re­search and put an ef­fort to give the most op­ti­mum de­sign whether an af­ford­able or a lux­ury project. A home­buyer only wants value for his in­vest­ment -small or big, The de­vel­op­ers too are now re­al­iz­ing the ef­fort that goes in giv­ing a well-re­searched de­sign and are will­ing to pay for it as they can see the re­sults in their higher sales and profit mar­gins.

“De­sign ed­u­ca­tion should only be ap­ti­tude based and not on marks scored in high school. To­day ar­chi­tec­tural col­leges are filled with stu­dents who have high per­cent­ages but zero cre­ative skills.”

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