Which city is going to be the next big travel destination? Hint: It is not in Europe. As a travel writer, one of my jobs is to keep track of global travel trends. I ask far-flung travel agents where their most savvy clients are heading; track tourism statistics; visit offbeat websites, such as 3quarksdaily, The Onion and Seed magazine; and pick the brains of well-travelled friends with quirky, somewhat eccentric, sensibilities. But my favourite method is to follow the architects. In my mind, cutting edge architecture is the one thing that can take an obscure location and turn it into an instant tourist destination. Consider: Had you heard of Bilbao before Frank Gehry put it on the map with his Guggenheim museum? Similarly, Cincinnati was hardly on the tourist circuit until the recent unveiling of the Rosenthal Museum—a tour de force by the staggeringly talented Iraqi architect, Zaha Hadid.
Using architecture as a tourist crowd-puller doesn’t always work. Kuala Lumpur, for instance, invested a lot when it hired Cesar Pelli to build what was then the tallest building in the world—or at least a contender. Even though Pelli inventively adapted the local minaret idiom in his Petronas Towers, KL never really became an architectural destination like Bilbao. In order to become a travel destination, the buildings have to have a certain insouciance, a certain star quality; and not all of them have that even if they were designed by world-class architects. Daniel Libeskind’s design for the World Trade Center memorial was perfectly respectable, even sincere, but it lacked the oomph factor that would elevate it from an important building into an icon. Similarly, in preparation for the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has commissioned the wonderfully futuristic CCTV building by Rem Koolhaas, one of the most important architects of his generation. Whether Koolhaas’ CCTV tower rises to the stature of its drawing-board image is anyone’s guess. But Beijing is betting big bucks that it will. For my purposes as a travel writer, however, Beijing is a tourism has-been. The next big thing in my world is, of all places, Abu Dhabi. This tiny city has hired four world-renowned architects to build its Saadiyat Island, a new cultural complex. Tadao Ando is building a maritime museum; Gehry is building the world’s largest Guggenheim; Jean Nouvel is building a classical museum which resembles an inverted moon landing. And Zaha Hadid is building a performing arts centre which looks like Brancusi’s Bird in Flight sculpture in its fluid elegance. My prediction is that in a few years, tourists from Tokyo, Berlin and San Francisco are going to throng Abu Dhabi simply to experience these buildings. What a master stroke! Coincidentally, local airline Etihaad is upping its service so that it can give Emirates a run for its airline clientele.
India has no dearth of talented architects. Vadodara’s Karan Grover mixes exuberant style with an eco-consciousness that secured one of India’s first LEED ratings for his CII-Godrej building. In my hometown, Bangalore, Chitra Viswanathan, Satya Prakash Varanshi, Ramu Katakam and Renu Mistry all espouse a back-to-basics rustic chic layered with a vernacular building idiom. Kerala architects, such as Jacob George, Benny Kuriakose, G. Shankar and N. Mahesh, all benefit from the state’s intrinsic aesthetic sense and respect for nature heightened by the long arm of the late Laurie Baker. Even though Mumbai’s Hafeez Contractor has become a one-man industry churning out a slew of mundane hotels and homes, flashes of his brilliance come through in his office structures, such as the Infosys Mysore campus. Older architects, such as B.V. Doshi and Anant Raje, endure with designs such as their IIM Ahmedabad campus.
Architects are (or can be) the barometers of a society’s aesthetic sensibilities. Good architecture can become a cultural and travel touchstone. After all, there are two ways for a city or country to get on the tourist map: You either have history or you make history. We, in India, are blessed with a 5,000-year-old architectural history that we perhaps take for granted. Unlike Dubai, which is building the “History Rising,” tower, we have history in spades. Our problem is how to channel all this into tourist income.
One way would be for the government to patronize and encourage architects to build important buildings. Brazilian architect Oscar Neimeyer, after all, made his name and won the Pritzker Prize by building mass housing in his native Rio. India has no dearth of builders, ranging from the Hiranandanis to the DLF Group. But without a single exception, most mass-market builders lack imagination. They loathe taking architectural risks and, as a result, the homes they build lack individuality. I should know; I live in one such flat. Corporations, thankfully, are donning the patron mantle and encouraging architects who think outside the box. TCS has hired Carlos Ott to build its eco-friendly Chennai campus. The Ananda Group uses Hong Kong-based Indian architect, Chandu Chadda, for all its properties, including its newly opened resort in Mauritius. Infosys, thankfully, has continued its patronage of Indian architects even for its projects overseas. It is through such patronage that young architects can think like Howard Roark and aspire to build structures that matter, that make a difference, a style statement even.
If all else fails, we still have the Taj Mahal. As for the next big architect, I have two words for you: David Adjaye. Check him out. He is Tanzanian by way of Britain—as we say in India, “deadly combination”.
(Shoba admires architects.Write to her at email@example.com. Read her previous columns on www.livemint.com/shoba-narayan)