“Indians are Genetically Artistic”
Bobby Mukherji , Founder & Principal Architect Bobby Mukherji& Associates is one of the few Indian architects to have an international portfolio of work. Speaking to SapnaSrivastava, he credits his success partly to his early work experience in USA, but mostly to his relentless pursuit of expanding horizons for his design firm.
The meeting at Bobby Mukherjee office in posh suburbs of Mumbai started on an engaging note deliberating on why only a handful of Indian designers are working on international projects and conversely why many Indian firms hire foreign designers. According to Mukherji, design is very taste oriented and depends on two things – Talent and Exposure.
“Having an inherent design sensibility is one thing and giving meticulous documentation to it is another. Indian architectural education doesn’t teach that. How you put your ideas in the form of a documentrequires a huge amount of skill. I learnt this during my work stint at the famous interior design firm, Gruen Associates in New York. I got most of my practical knowledge there.”
The big break for Mukherjee came in 1998 when Gruen Associates won the master planning of Ambey Valley near Mumbai. “As the American designers were reluctant to come to India, I willingly took up the job for the master planning of Ambey Valley. I was young back then and working on a 2 billion worth project at that young age requires a good support system. So I worked along with them and learnt a lot,” he added.
This was the start of BobbyMukherji& Associates (BMA). One project led to another, such as renovation of Hotel Sahara Star, Club house for Kalpataru Builders followed by prestigious projects with international hospitality chains and the rest as they say is, history. Self-educating and handing down the knowledge that he had learnt across his team is the reason BMA is considered at par with any global design firm. “Indians are fast learners. I was able to transfer that knowledge of basic requirements that’s needed in the form of presentations and design documents onto the rest of our team. So our documentation skills are far superior then what is going on in the rest of the country,” Mukherji explained.
“There is enough talent in India but exposure to global standards and practices is not there.”
It’s not about an ego to work with international architects
While, a lot of designers feel that developers are prejudiced towards international design companies, Mukherji considers it a matter of being comfortable with who you work with. He clarified, “When a developer is spending 50 or 100 million dollars on a project, he would rather pay half a million dollar more in fees to work with a firm that is experienced in such projects rather than experimenting with an architectural firm that is yet to have exposure to such projects. Also, it’s as simple as working with your known partners and associates due to the comfort factor and the past work synergies. For instance, if I had met Trump and done some work with him in the past then probably he would have recommended me. However, we have not had the opportunity to work and he does not have the time to experiment.”
He also added that not many Indian design firms bid for world class projects as most, do not have the sufficient bandwidth. “There are so many projects where we are the only Indian design firm against 3-4 other foreign design firms. Many times we have won and many times we have lost. But, some of our biggest design projects were won against some of the most reputed architectural firms of the world. Almost 45% of our projects are international works in Middle East, United Kingdom, USA, Indonesia, Bhutan, China, Caribbean Islands (British West Indies) and Nigeria among others.”
Mukherji agrees that while, Indian designers need to acquire global exposure by working on projects in other countries,getting international jobs is not easy when the western market is flooded with excessive designers with lesser jobs. He suggests exploring the route of working for NRIs. “There are enough successful NRI entrepreneurs in the rest of the world that would be happy to engage and Indian architect or designer if they give them the confidence of delivering the same level of expertise and work output quality as available in their backyard,” he said.
“Indian architects should have the drive to go out there and contestfor world class projects. There’s a lot of risk involved and you have to be persistent. Initially there might not be enough returns. It is a self-investment but many design firms are unable to realize that and are more interested in immediate profitability in the work.”
Do you think the real estate industry is changing?
“We are a country with huge potential. The new generation is will traveled, aware and exposed to international design trends. They want to have same standard of living in their own country and are willing to pay a premium for that. For instance, Hiranandani Township in Mumbai, DLF complex in Gurugramor Yoo Villas in Pune by Panchshilbuilt to global design and construction standards, command a much higher price than projects in immediate vicinity.”
Mukherji elaborated that the market for premium products whether its real estate, car or fashion is there if assured of value for money. He gave an example of the latest trend of branded residencies in India. According to him the big advantage that comes with such projects is not the celebrity or the brand name tag but the quality control that these brands impose. “The project management team controls the design language, specifications and the smallest of the details is monitored to conform to the brand’s standards. The developer of the project might not know how to create that experience on his own. So these guys do all the hand holding which makes all the difference.”
Raising the bar of architectural practice in India
Mukherji is of the view that India had an excellent education system that systematically deteriorated over the period of time especially during British colonial period. “Kings were the patrons of learning, art and architecture.The guru was given the highest status and taken care of by the state. In the pre-British era architecture colleges were throughout the country but during British Raj there was only one, JJ School of Art in Mumbai. Sadly, we are still in that mode and need to analyze the situation to invest heavily in education and make teaching the most highly paid profession. That’s going to lead to a chain reaction of creating a new breed of well-read and educated designers.”
“Design education should only be aptitude based and not on marks scored in high school. Today architectural colleges are filled with students who have high percentages but zero creative skills.”
Should architects create signature styles?
“At the end of the day you have to satisfy your client’s needs. As an architect you cannot dictate your ego on to a client’s needs. A developer needs to make a profit so design should become the business element to create a better product, brand value and customer satisfaction to help drive sales. There is not a single project of ours that you can see and say is a BMA project. We study the environment, end user, location, budget, weather, climate, etc. and then come up with a project design that we think will really sell. In fact, India is like a continent in itself. Each city, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Jaipur or Delhi are different. Even micro markets are not the same, so signature styles cannot work well in all circumstances and may look over imposed”
What are your future plans?
We have had a steady growthfor the last 8-10 years. We are not madly ambitious or aspire to have a huge tower as our office building. We just want to do quality work. I have done work only where the client was discerning and came to us because they wanted something special. Apart from the high end luxury and hospitality projects, we are nowworking on anaffordable housing project near Mumbai where our endeavor is to give a good quality lifestyle within 400 square feet at a cost of 60 lakhs. The design is inspired by the Japanese model of smart small homes.
Concluding the conversation on a positive note, Mukherji expressed that it is the architects onus to research and put an effort to give the most optimum design whether an affordable or a luxury project. A homebuyer only wants value for his investment -small or big, The developers too are now realizing the effort that goes in giving a well-researched design and are willing to pay for it as they can see the results in their higher sales and profit margins.