PRACTICES CHASE STAR OF INDIA
British architects have built big in India before. During the days of the Empire, Edwin Lutyens, Herbert Baker and Arthur Gordon Shoosmith all left their mark on the country.
Many of their colonial buildings still stand, even though the world around them has changed beyond recognition since the collapse of the Raj.
Now the British are back.
RMJM, Llewelyn Davies Yeang and Ryder HKS are just a few of the big-name British practices who have been asked to come and work on the sub-continent.
India's economy is on the up, the middle classes are growing and the potential for architects is huge.
Understandably, there is a temptation to label the country as 'the next Dubai', but India is not the new Middle East.
Neither, at this moment, is it the new China.
It is, however, a chance for designers to get involved in something enormous.
'India is the next big opportunity, ' says David Roberts, a director at Aedas.
Roberts is masterminding the opening of the company's new office in Mumbai and is flying out to interview staff next week.
'The country is becoming a focus for the practice on a longer-term basis, ' he added.
'There is a thirst and appetite in India for what we can provide.' Aedas had already got its foot in the door, having designed 10 stations for the Delhi Metro in the late '90s.
Since then the government has changed, the tax regime has tilted in favour of the developer, and Aedas is starting to reel in the work.
The colossal new Atlas Mills housing complex (pictured) and the proposed headquarters for Sheth Developers are expected to be just the first in a long line of Indian projects for the practice.
Roberts admits this new foothold is somewhat lucky. He and a colleague decided to pop into Mumbai on the way back from Dubai to find out what all the fuss was about. The team ended up coming away with two commissions. He says:
'The developers we met were so interested in the schemes we tabled, both made immediate arrangements to see us in Hong Kong. It was refreshing.' The Indian practices with which they have collaborated to deliver the schemes have, according to Roberts, been equally enthusiastic to embrace the outsider's design ethos.
'Working with local architects, there is an appreciation of what we are bringing to the table and a respect for international practice - and best practice, ' he says. 'And they are very, very keen to learn.' Compared to China, Roberts says working in India has another bonus for UK fi rms.
'In China the cultural and linguistic issues for practices straight out of the UK can be very challenging. However it is wonderful being in meetings in India and understanding everything that is happening.
The heritage is more familiar and it is an easier transition for UK practices.' Of course there are dangers. David Pringle, RMJM's managing director for Asia, says: 'The area of real concern is the ability to control the quality of completed buildings, most particularly the management of construction.
'Government bureaucracy plays an important part in frustrating the process of design and the construction process.' There are other pitfalls for architects. Some practices have had projects cancelled because of poorly defined briefs and unsecured funding. Others have had to pull out of schemes because of onerous contract conditions such as lump-sum fees or an ambiguous brief.
Even so, RMJM has managed to land a couple of key jobs in India, including a 40,000m 2 information technology and office park in Kolkata (Calcutta).
Pringle believes it is unlikely India will fall into the same trap as the Middle East and China, where concerns are growing over the sustainability of the property explosion.
He says: 'We foresee that the 'boom' in India is a sustained, planned growth that will continue progressively.
'The bureaucracy in India and China is similar, as are the scale and project requirements for commercial and residential development.
'But the differences in culture, climate and geography determine a very different outlook on sustainability.' Another practice with its eye on India is Llewelyn Davies Yeang, which has worked in China for over a decade.
Richard Nelson, the practice's business development director, feels that India still needs to sort out its transport networks before external investment at the level seen in the Middle East can take hold.
He says: 'A major drawback for India, but an opportunity for architects, is that their infrastructure is not as well developed as China, so they require a high investment in communications.' Despite the risks, there is no doubt British architects are increasingly keen to take their talent overseas. The value of this export trade is now worth an incredible £3.7 billion to the UK every year.
So, with all the delights on offer around the world, when should adventurous architects take the plunge with India?
The last word must go to Roberts, who says: 'Right now the market is suited to middleand large-sized practices.
'Longer term, there could be a niche for the specialist architect to get involved.
But perhaps not right now.'