Gurgaon: From half-blinking hotel signs to glass towers and brand names in neon, smooth curves to sharp angles, the ultra-modern to the neoclassical, welcome to the jarring sight that is Gurgaon.
It is unlike other cities where the government-guided development, as in Noida, or where companies set the tone with office parks and man-made lakes and lawns, as in Bangalore. Modern-day Gurgaon followed a different path: One driven by real estate developers.
Instead of building around how people work, how people live and how they go between those two places, developers asked: “How much can I build, how much can I lease, and how much money comes in?” confesses Rajeev Trehan, a senior associate with well-known architect Hafeez Contractor, whose buildings dominate the Gurgaon skyline.
Yet, even as the city’s residents gripe about the bumper-to-bumper traffic and the lack of infrastructure, they cite the look of its corporate buildings as something of an inspiration — and aspiration. Rajiv Bari, a showroom manager in the city, pronounces Gurgaon as a “future Delhi. It looks of good business and employment”.
Step outside and the realities are harsh: multi-storey buildings next to bungalows, commercial mixed with residential every which way, narrow bylanes off massive expressways — an urban nightmare. Understandably, among residents, the admiration frequently turns to frustration, the lack of planning into disaster.
Last month, as rains battered the city and residents of a high-rise gated community, Belvedere Park, faced waist-deep floods of rain water and sewage, Gurgaon’s infrastructure problems were on display. The residential complex sits on a low-lying plot next to a water source, and is prone to flooding and sewage overflows during any storm.
To some extent, many buildings in Gurgaon, especially the older ones, are copies of buildings outside India — even as the city had more space, but less infrastructure than its inspirations. “They wanted to go for grade-A building, so they went to Singapore and Hong Kong, and tweaked to suit height restrictions,” says P. Sahel, managing director of north India for real estate consultancy Jones Lang LaSalle Meghraj.
The more important factor, he says, was always how much a client is willing to spend. The architect provided a concept, and the developer figured out if it was marketable, he adds.
Present-day Gurgaon traces back to 1993, when developer DLF Ltd first moved to the city and started building Corporate Park, a series of low-rise, box-like structures. “No one was really sure what the markets would ask for,” says Trehan. It was one of the first buildings in the area to use glass exteriors. The reason for switching from brick might not have been the most practical, but it set the tone for future development in the city.”
“Most clients were international companies, so we had to build to international standards,” says Sunil Koul, chief architect for DLF Commercial Developers Ltd. They mostly came “from cold countries, and want a lot of light to come in”.
As Corporate Park sat on what would be the city’s main thoroughfare, M.G. Road, DLF’s next project, Plaza Tower, began inside. The tower’s two main tenants, British Airways and Bank of America, asked for structurally different sizes, so the architects worked around it, according to Trehan. “We kept reducing the building as we went up,” he says. Features such as a false pyramid on top and a rooftop swimming pool, Koul says, were added to give the building visibility and attract tenants.
The architects soon started experimenting with angular structures, since clients wanted to be quirky and iconic in an area that was relatively barren. DLF Gateway Tower, sometimes referred to as the “ship” building, or the “eye” building, was the next structure to come up.
“It was a small site, bang on the highway,” says Trehan, “and virtually speaking, it was the entry to DLF.” They tried out different shapes and sizes, but settled on an oval with a slanted top — “a big blob from the highway”, he adds.
Architects and developers all say they’ve seen the original elsewhere, but can’t agree on where — Germany, Malaysia, or the US. They do agree that it has big brand value.
Branding stayed an important theme in Gurgaon’s development. Nestle India Ltd was one of the first companies to move its entire operations from New Delhi’s Connaught Place to the city, so it wanted something a little different.
After Nestle House was built, Trehan says, development was driven by one factor: every company needed more space, and needed it fast.
“We were thinking small floor plate, because there was so much already,” says Trehan, describing the next project, that Convergys Corp.’s local unit eventually leased. First 12,000 sq. ft was too big, then 24,000, then 40,000, he says. Convergys came in for a few floors, then took it all. More clients were waiting, and DLF needed shorter buildings, so they could get them done as quickly as possible.
The design of the buildings became relatively standard: “Most are absolute blocks, with unique atriums,” Trehan adds.
The Ericsson building, which stands near “the ship”, was the first structure to come up in the area known as Cyber City. The floor plate and number of floors asked for lent themselves to the standard box look, Trehan says, but they tried to do something a little different. “Mobiles were new in India, so we wanted a building to connote that,” he says.
Concerns, developers say, have moved in a more functional direction, and clients ask more about how efficient a building is with space, and what environment-friendly features it might have, rather than the look of a building.
“Before, they would think for a year before construction,” Sahel says. In a reflection of changing times and more focus on planning, “a developer might be building the first building in a complex, but already ordering for the seventh”.