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Aiming for the boundary

Francis Glare

The old Anglo-Indian relationship is about more than just cricket, says Francis Glare. It’s about helping to design a new society

As england levelled the Test series in Mumbai, honours were even in BDP’s New Delhi studio. Work could continue. 

India is, as everyone knows, a cricket-mad nation, and with the global success of the fast and furious Indian Premier League this shows no sign of diminishing. In the run up to the Test series there had been some concern, as there had in the UK , that interest in the extended Test format was diminishing. However, as the recent series has demonstrated, when the teams really get fired up, the quality is world-class and the excitement is infectious. 

Masterplanning and urban design can be a bit like that too. However good the individual players, unless both teams engage, the results can be mediocre. For BDP, one of the greatest risks in opening a studio in India was that we simply wouldn’t be able to connect – commercially, culturally, or in a common language of design. Even if we could establish such relationships, there was also a fear that we would just be pinned back in the crease by the legendary Indian bureaucracy (inherited from the British of course).

‘The surprising element is that, apart from some of the larger metropolitan authorities, there is no body to control the aesthetic integrity of the design – and that does not help the quality of the built environment’

Building regulations, for example, are broken down into two parts here. The first consists of getting approvals related to physical parameters such as areas, heights and setbacks of the built edges. In most cases, the only sane route through the process is the employment of an executive architect who knows the officials within the relevant authority. The second is the regulatory aspects of fire safety, acoustics, structures and so on which are all rolled into the National Building Code and are similar to the Approved Documents used in the UK. The surprising element is that, apart from some of the larger metropolitan authorities, there is no body to control the aesthetic integrity of the design – and that does not help the quality of the built environment.

Just the tonic

BDP opened its doors in Green Park, New Delhi, on 1 April 2010, although our first projects in India go back further. A far sighted landowner of a redundant family-owned manufacturing complex in Mumbai was unimpressed by the usual high rise offerings of the Hong Kong and Singapore based architects making early inroads into India, and turned them away in favour of something new. In this case a local environmental consultant put him in touch with BDP, and our masterplanning framework approach, with a strong emphasis on investment in a quality public realm to create a ‘place for people’, proved to be the tonic he needed. Nirlon IT Park (shown above) is the result – a high density, mid-rise urban business park that sits in delightful and animated contrast to the sleek towers rising from stockaded podiums in the new financial centres. 

India is a vast country and our initial reaction was to plan a network of offices. However, in practice, rapidly developing internal air networks mean New Delhi has proved to be a very good base. Inevitably travel has had its moments – 10 hours in a Volvo Semi Sleeper overnight bus to reach the site of a masterplan for the Indian Institute of Technology in the foothills of the Himalayas is an endurance test, as is crossing Mumbai at a snail’s pace, face to face with extremes of wealth and poverty. Mumbai is probably one of the most chaotic and exciting urban spaces on the planet, and is a dramatic (sometimes shocking) first impression of India. In many ways it encapsulates both the huge opportunity and challenge of the nation. New development, mostly of limited design quality, has been progressing at an enormous pace but with scant evidence of local or city scale planning. 

Gentler start

But yesterday’s hassle is forgotten as a beautiful autumnal morning brings a pleasant stroll through the streets of Haus Khaz (fortuitously the location of many Time-Out New Delhi recommended eateries and bars) and past various temples to the office. Unlike the UK journey to work, the walk here is a leisurely affair. A masala dosa or idli dipped in a spicy soup (sambar) spreads more good feeling about the day ahead. People deal with many of their domestic chores in the morning and it is 10.00 am before the office fills up. New Delhi has 17 million people and is growing – more than 23 million if the satellite cities such as Gurgaon and Noida are included – and like any metropolis all the cultures of the country are here, with their languages, foods and religions, so that our studio is a microcosm of India. 

It’s Eden Gardens, Kolkata. England go 2-1 up in the series. Much banter ensues. Akshay Khera, the studio leader, holds dual Indian and British citizenship and rises above it all. In truth the most rewarding part of opening an office in India has been the opportunity to work with a young, vocal and ambitious team of designers determined to shape one of the fastest urbanising and developing countries on the earth – their country. And that can only be described as a privilege.

Francis Glare is chair of BDP India and head of urbanism