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Designing in the slowdown

Designing in the slowdown
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First Published: Thu, Apr 16 2009. 12 11 AM IST

Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Updated: Mon, May 18 2009. 04 02 PM IST
A full-page advertisement for luxury apartments that appeared in a newspaper not so long ago showed a young couple lounging under beach umbrellas at a poolside, sipping cocktails. The image, which could well have been shot in Rio or on the Riviera, seemed to project a “successful” couple for whom luxury was not a long-term hope but a routine expectation.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
The apartment that they were endorsing was a five-bedroom condominium set in a 12-storey structure in suburban Bangalore, with an apartment each to a floor, an open plan, a jacuzzi, bar, two kitchens, two servant quarters, a separate service entrance, heated terrace pool, barbecue, solarium, central air conditioning and complete service backup—all for Rs5 crore.
So it came as no surprise to learn that in the India of 9% growth, five of the 12 apartments had already been booked. Insisting on the exclusiveness of his venture, the developer had added a rider to the ad: “By invitation only”. In a country where shades of caste and status add premium to any idea, this could only work in his favour. By conducting interviews for admission, he had elevated the project from a mere apartment to a fancy club.
Since the conception of these luxury homes, there has been an economic slowdown. Some of the early investors have withdrawn, the troubled developer has dropped the “By invitation only” clause and the price by a whopping Rs2 crore. Putting the construction on hold has, however, not dampened his entrepreneurial spirit; he is now focusing on leather bags, a family business.
Many essays on architecture have, in times of plenty, been directed towards excess: fanciful space, new material, structural assemblies that seem to defy gravity, an attraction for the loud and supercilious. In many ways, the slowdown has been a much-needed corrective of that goal, a turn from instant and aspirational ideals to long-term and value-based ones, for both builder and buyer. And the demise of some of these credit-culture excesses—in architecture at least—has resulted in an increased awareness of our surroundings, our neighbours, the climate; increasing our capacity to assimilate and be an integral part of the landscape once again.
To see the slowdown as a breakdown is, therefore, a perverse sort of pessimism. Certainly it is the expected response when mortgage payments are due, when excessive debt for luxuries rears its ugly head and leaves us fearful and restless. Yet resilience in times of crisis has often been an effective antidote. And many of the intelligent builders who didn’t have the backing of a family business have farmed out into more inventive architectural territories. It is hard not to be impressed by their resilience, just as it was easy to be repulsed by their earlier greed.
The headlines and glossy spreads in architecture magazines don’t tell the real story. But there are many new and inspiring ones, among them a low-cost house in suburban Lucknow that is powered entirely by solar energy, a textile factory in Gujarat that uses desert wind to power its looms, a low-budget hotel in Rajasthan where guests sleep in underground courtyards, a riverside retreat built with stone walls but with a tent as a roof—a light device that rolls away on pleasant spring nights.
Even in the hills, the building of individual vacation cottages is now viewed as wasteful and uneconomical. For the occasional summer retreat, an enterprising builder has created The Verandah House (beyond Ranikhet, on the way to Almora), where private apartments are built around a common verandah used as a shared living room. In many instances, the absence of conventional luxury has been replaced by the attractions of design innovation and economy.
Is it then possible to redefine Indian lifestyle in the context of lower budgets and a slowing economy? To find that luxury exists not in excessive air conditioning but in lying in a courtyard looking at the stars. Or in sharing a verandah with friends. In the search for relevant Indian solutions, is it too much to hope that the slowdown could prove to be a transition to a more inclusive and comprehensive way of living—a way few could imagine during the fiction of Incredible India?
CONNECT
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ADMIRE
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First Published: Thu, Apr 16 2009. 12 11 AM IST
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