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The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Photo: iStockphoto
The Guggenheim Museum Bilbao in Spain. Photo: iStockphoto

Calling for the Bilbao effect

Architects like Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid have put cities like Dubai and Bilbao on the global map with their larger than life designs. Could Indian cities do with some starchitecture too?

You just have to look at the cranes dotting the skyline to realize that there is frantic building activity going on in Dubai and neighbouring Abu Dhabi. But what I did not realize until last week—when I attended an excellent talk by the art historian Rose Balston–was just how big a role starchitects are playing in reshaping the landscape and skyline of the broader Middle East region, and indeed, with several structures popping out to sea, the shoreline too. The late Zaha Hadid, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, I.M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas, Santiago Calatrava, Jean Nouvel—pretty much the whole galaxy of starchitects is shining brightly here.

What is the impact of starchitects in a young, up-and-coming region? Could they do for the Middle East what Frank Gehry did for the Spanish city of Bilbao when he built the Guggenheim there in 1997? Will similar economic benefits follow?

If you look back to India’s early post-independence years, there was a similar reaching out to the best design minds in the world, to the “starchitects" if you will, although the term hadn’t been coined then. Le Corbusier came and did Chandigarh. Louis Kahn designed the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A). Charles and Ray Eames wrote “The India Report" (1958) that defined the design philosophy on which the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad was based. I am not sure if Joseph Stein was a starchitect when he came to India, but he sure became one with the remarkable line-up of buildings he made in Lodhi Estate, Delhi, and indeed elsewhere.

I believe these early starchitects had a lasting impact, not only in terms of creating iconic places of unique character and beauty, but—and I may be going out on a limb here—also places that shape human experience and behaviour. Take, for example, Chandigarh—I was in the city a week ago, and I constantly caught myself gasping in amazement at how clean and organized it is compared to other Indian cities. Could it be that Le Corbusier’s design has nudged the people of Chandigarh to behave differently from other Indians? To be more civic-minded? Or take IIM-A—I am convinced that Louis Kahn’s masterly structures do as much to mould young minds as the academic programme does.

Much like Chandigarh, two other cities that have come up pretty much from scratch, are Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and starchitects and iconic buildings have been a vital part of their game plan. For instance, the Burj Khalifa, designed by Adrian Smith, became an instant icon for the city—but its benefits go far beyond that. As the tallest building in the world, it instantly signals that Dubai is futuristic, visionary, competent. What’s more, Dubai understands design and sophisticated aesthetic codes—for this is a heart-stoppingly beautiful building, a massive structure that manages to look slim, elegant and nimble. Needless to say, it is the star attraction for tourists, and nearly 15 million of them trooped into Dubai in 2016. From a real-estate standpoint, it has added enormous value to the surrounding area—just having a view of the Burj Khalifa, or even being in the vicinity, jacks up the property price. It is the anchor around which the whole Downtown district thrives.

If tourism and commerce are the raison d’etre for the Burj Khalifa, a big shot of culture is the driving force for Abu Dhabi’s starchitect binge on Saadiyat Island. If one Frank Gehry-designed museum changed the fortunes of the little Spanish town of Bilbao, think what three jaw-droppers will achieve. For that is the vision—populate the once barren island with the Louvre designed by Jean Nouvel, the Guggenheim by Frank Gehry, and the Zayed National Museum by Norman Foster. Designs have been finalized for a while, but the one nearing completion is the Louvre, which is scheduled to open its doors to the public later this year.

Like an alien spaceship hovering over Earth, you can see the massive roof of the Louvre (180m in diameter) afloat in the distance as you drive into Saadiyat Island. The Louvre’s dazzle lies in its ingeniously designed roof, a complex, multilayered, latticed structure that allows random streams of light to filter through, creating a playful “rain of light". The effect is arresting. Under it, galleries hosting artworks will be laid out as in an old Arab city—think Lord Krishna holding up the mountain to protect the Brajwasis.

In sharp contrast to the statement pieces coming up at Saadiyat Island, the Rem Koolhaas-designed Concrete—an exhibition space which opened recently at the trendy Alserkal Avenue art district in Dubai—is quiet, brooding, almost blending into the rows of warehouses on either side. Its beauty lies in its versatility—the entire front side of the building can open up if needed, summoning up the outside courtyard into service.

Should India engage starchitects again? After our initial post-independence enthusiasm, we have been saying “no, thank you" to them for decades, and barring the occasional foreigner—the Lotus Temple designed by the Iranian Fariborz Sahba, comes to mind—we have stuck to our own. We have built some glorious buildings—the recently erased Hall of Nations in Delhi’s Pragati Maidan has tugged at my heart—but for the large part, there have been few iconic buildings in the last 50 years.

The writing is on the wall—go get them. The best design minds in the world—whether Indian or not—will add much needed beauty and purpose to our chaotic cities.

Radha Chadha is one of Asia’s leading marketing and consumer insight experts. She is the author of the best-selling book The Cult Of The Luxury Brand: Inside Asia’s Love Affair With Luxury.

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