A tall man in a well-pressed uniform opened the gleaning glass doors and bid us a good day. Right outside the modern, French-run business hotel we came face to face with the new India. Mercedes-Benzes, Toyotas, trucks, bicycles and animals were all jostling to dominate the road. Even in Pune, a city three hours from the financial capital, we could feel the pulse of India, a country anxious to rise.
We were on our way to meet with a prospective client, a property developer. As we weaved through traffic, we saw people hurriedly going about their business and passed many buildings under construction.
From the property developer’s high-floor office we could see the entire city. Being up there could change your perspective, and I wondered if people with power and wealth realised the impact of their work. Then again in business, issues that affect the identity of a people tend to take a back seat.
They brought us to different properties to understand the case better. We visited an Italian-inspired condominium, which was being built it seemed from the same mold as many other condominiums throughout Asia. Next we visited an industrial park, which had the capacity to house hundreds of companies and included a building modelled after the US Supreme Court. In one of the units row upon row of tables and chairs waited to be filled. The view was almost Orwellian.
Why is India, one of the cradles of human civilisation, rushing to install concrete boxes to look just like another state in the US rather than take the opportunity to design with purpose?
As Asia rises, property developers rush to fulfil demand. They seldom take time to ponder over the impact of these developments. They fail to realise that their work can influence society, change economic patterns and ultimately shape a new Asia.
All too often we miss the opportunity to use architecture and urban planning to design our future. One of the banes of modernisation in Asia is the proliferation of malls. Poorly designed in a mishmash of Western styles and badly run, many malls are white elephants instead of useful catalysts for social development.
Almost 80 percent of India’s 255 malls are ailing, half of them very seriously, according to research by Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL) India and Ernst & Young. Similarly many industrial parks in India fall short of their potential due to the lack of a business eco-system to support them, a pattern seen throughout Asia.
We must rebel against poorly designed developments, before Asia becomes a graveyard of soulless buildings. We propose the following ideas to develop properties that will contribute to a unique Asian identity:
1. Respect the locality and it will embrace the evolution
Before embarking on any development project, study the area’s demographics, the social evolution of the people and the locality’s place in history. We used this approach to develop a brand strategy for a mall called myVillage in Singapore. Before construction started, we launched a campaign to invite the community to write about what the place meant to them. Their stories gave us plenty of material and helped the project bond with the people.
2. Build not just a structure but a meaningful icon
You don’t need a big-name architect to create an icon. What is essential is to define what it means to have this development in this area and how it will affect generations to come. Banyan Tree Lijiang, which has won several international awards for design and sustainability, is an example of how the purposeful combination of business and design can make a difference. They have created a masterpiece that added cultural value to the area. Here is where I think Jonathan Ive’s quote will inspire:
“I think it’s a wonderful view that care was important – but I think you can make a one-off and not care and you can make a million of something and care. Whether you really care or not is not driven by how many of the products you’re going to make.”
3. Inspire a community and shape history
As architects, property developers or brand consultants, we need to be aware that we are stewards of our time. We share this privilege to work on ideas that once realised will change the lives of many. Respecting existing social norms while finding new ways to enhance the community is necessary, because we got here due to the work of earlier generations. Whenever I come home to Singapore and go past neat rows of greenery, well-kept parks and organised development, I feel grateful for the care and effort that went into them. It is time to pay it forward through our work, so an Asia that future generations can identify with and embrace will emerge.
Lawrence Chong is the CEO at Consulus.