Sunday, August 3, 2008

INFOSYS GEC: THINKING BIG, BUILDING BIG

Mukesh Ambani has been all over the net for building the world’s first billion dollar home in Mumbai. In modern India, his father, Dhirubhai Ambani, resurrected India’s long forgotten ‘think big’ attitude to build India’s biggest industrial empire, Reliance Industries, from a scratch.

Software giant Infosys, led by the great Narayana Murthy, is another name which has put India on the global map in its field in a very short period of time, by embodying essentially the same attitude which is necessary if an Indian company wants to become a major global player. Infosys is now dramatically emphasising that this ‘think big’ approach is not limited to software alone.

Come December and India’s biggest structure ‘that surpasses Rashtrapati Bhawan in size and equals it in grandeur’ will be ready on the Infosys campus in Mysore (The Hindu, July 30, 2008). This Hafeez Contractor designed second unit of the Global Education Centre(GEC) reflects various ancient Greek and Roman architectural styles, with similarities to the Colossuem of Rome. The GEC facility is reckoned to be the largest of its kind in the world.

A few statistics:
• A floor area of 9.6 lakh square ft as against the 2 lakh square feet of the Rashtrapati Bhawan
• More than 13,500 fully air conditioned and wi fi enabled residential rooms, making it the single largest residential unit in the world, surpassing The Venetian at Macau
• India’s biggest laundry with 175 individual washing machines
• The largest investment in India of Rs1,600 crores on education in a single location, including Rs350 crores on this unit of the GEC
• 50,000 students and professionals to be trained annually
• World’s second largest synthetic tent structure to function as a food court to serve 2000 people simultaneously.


There were some very persuasive arguments against the 27 storey ‘home’ that Mukesh Ambani is building for a family of six when the news first splashed the net. More than anything, it was the aesthetics that most found hard to reconcile to. And the megalomaniacal ‘waste’ of so much of money. In the case of the Infosys GEC, one would have thought that this magnificent and functional expression of the creative Infosys team would have found a lot of support. Unfortunately, there is more criticism than praise for an effort that is sure to be the first of many even bigger building projects in the future.

Due to centuries of colonial rule, Indians seem to have all but lost the ability to think big. The few who starting to do so are being discouraged rather than encouraged by some of us who remain trapped in that small mindset which is convinced that thinking and building big is the preserve of a few countries/races of the world.

That is possibly why the grandest modern structures all over the country are still those built by our colonial masters. The ‘Rashtrapati Bhawan’, for example, is actually the Lodge built for British Viceroys. After India became a republic, it was given its present name and became the official residence of the President. In Delhi, the British built many other grand structures , including the North and South Blocks and the imposing War Memorial, wrongly called India Gate, to honour Indian soldiers who died fighting for the British Empire. These grand buildings continue to create ‘shock and awe’ and attract visitors from far and wide even today.

What has independent India done in 61 years in its capital? The government has seamlessly moved into the office buildings built by the British and added some humiliating hutments right next to them to create additional office space. Then, displaying an unbelievable absence of a sense of architectural harmony, it has built one of the most hideous buildings in Lutyen’s Delhi right opposite the Parliament House across the Raj Path. Have a look at Sena Bhawan in this setting and you will be amazed at not just our inability to think big but also at the lack of elementary aesthetic sense.

The icing on this cake of utter mediocrity and more is what the nation has done to ‘dis’honour soldiers who died for free India. For a war memorial, all that it has been able to do is to put a helmet on top of a rifle in the bowels of the imposing British memorial.

There is to date, no value addition, no Indian structure to rival, forget better, the daily reminders of the power and majesty of the Raj. If you travel around the Delhi beyond the city that Lutyen built, you will find insipid and totally forgettable structures all over the city. Seeing them, you may well begin to think that they were built after India became free with the objective of highlighting the grandeur of past structures even more!

I don’t know how India’s President can sleep well in his/her erstwhile master's quarters when the view from his window shows not one building that the India of today can be proud of. Mysore may not be visible from that window, but I am glad that at least somewhere, someone has thought about bettering, and bettered, the Viceroy’s Lodge.

Infosys has begun the long overdue return of the almost dead ‘think big’ architectural tradition of India which produced outstanding and grand structures in its magnificent past. This development calls for some celebration. Soon, others in the corporate world should catch this welcome infection. If that happens, in the next couple of decades, the skyline of the new India that is beginning to grow rapidly will be transformed completely. Then, even if the government continues to put up bland match box type of structures which assault on our senses, that view will be greatly mitigated by structures that will be something else altogether.

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Readers will enjoy reading read this light post: The 'big war between Mukesh and Anil!