In early 2009, I went to the Morgan Library and Museum in New York to see an exhibition called On the Money. It showcased cartoons poking fun at Wall Street and the world of finance over the years. These cartoons had appeared in The New Yorker magazine. The museum was stately and elegant; the cartoons were witty. The building used to be the library of the financier Pierpont Morgan, built in the first decade of the last century, near his home on Madison Avenue.
In 1924, Pierpont Morgan’s son decided to bequeath the library—and the art works it contained—to the public. That generous act was in marked contrast to how the financiers behaved in the cartoons, which punctured their supersized egos through the ages. That they were shown in the library and museum that once belonged to a financier, underscored the irony well.
In a hundred years from now, will we see a similar museum commemorating Indian entrepreneurship, or Mumbai’s enterprise, in the house Mukesh Ambani has built for himself on Altamount Road? I’m not holding my breath. Its design, architecture, structure and layout don’t signify a museum. It is not meant to be a public space, but a private one, which is nonetheless visible, towering over other skyscrapers. People who haven’t been in it are convinced it offers a spectacular view of the city.
To be sure, how Ambani should spend his money is entirely his business. Unlike Mayawati’s zeal to build statues and memorials at taxpayers’ expense, Ambani is at least financing his edifice complex from his own wealth. True, that money could have been put to other uses. Like Bill Gates, Ambani could have donated a large chunk of his wealth to fight an utterly treatable disease in India, such as cholera or diarrhoea, both less glamorous than the ones that captivate aid agencies. Or like Warren Buffett, he could have continued to earn his billions while passing his wealth to the Gates Foundation. Like George Soros, he could have funded advocacy groups. Closer home, like the Tatas, he could have contributed towards the building of academic institutions or a centre for the performing arts.
Instead, Ambani bought a flat—one far bigger than the standard 2BHK. In fact, he built a castle masquerading as an apartment: an in-your-face structure that stared down at the bungalows of older captains of industry, who had earlier built their fortunes in the city—from textiles, automobiles, shipping, trade. Step-by-step, Dhirubhai Ambani had climbed over them in the city’s pecking order; now Mukesh Ambani can literally look down upon them.
And fly over them. When the city’s new flyovers were being built bypassing the congested roads near the old textile mills, my friend Naresh Fernandes, Time Out Mumbai’s editor, astutely observed that the city’s new elite loved these bridges, as they could stay in the booming suburbs and fly over the parts of the city they didn’t like, to reach Nariman Point and Apollo Bunder. With his helipad, Ambani will be able to hop across the city, avoiding traffic.
There have been expressions of outrage, that the building is arrogant, and that it looks down on the rest of the city. Ambani should not flaunt his wealth, but keep it understated. It is easy for those with no stake in his wealth to complain about alternative uses for that money: How many hundred families could have stayed in reasonably sized 2BHK apartments in Antilla; the hundreds of thousands of vaccines it could have paid for, and so on. Such comparisons are easy to make, but they are meaningless and irrelevant, because such a calculation hasn’t played a role in Ambani’s decision-making. Ambani’s idea of philanthropy for the city and the community in which he lives, we should remember, is to invest in Mumbai Indians, a cricket team of the Indian Premier League.
Ambani’s lego block personifies his philosophy—of being taller than the rest, but looks don’t matter. But there is hubris in such thinking. Andrew Lawrence, formerly an economist at the investment bank Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, had identified the uncanny correlation between the construction of tall buildings and impending economic doom. In a paper in 1999, he had shown how New York’s Singer Building was completed in 1908, when the panic of 1907 was under way. The race between 40 Wall Tower (1929), the Chrysler Building (1930) and Empire State Building (1931) coincided with the Great Depression. The World Trade Center emerged in the 1970s, along with the Sears Tower in Chicago, when the oil shock brought a global downturn. Petronas Towers in Malaysia got completed just as the Asian crisis unfolded. “Grandiose building projects,” Lawrence wrote, “often coincide with excessive optimism and over-achievement.”
The Ambani family has long been associated with the can-do spirit of optimism. Deployed properly, it can produce world-class industries. But this particular symbol of the city’s gilded age may end up being that family’s gilded cage.
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi