Not so long ago New York City was the home for some of the tallest skyscrapers in the world but in the past few years that monopoly has ceased to exist; Middle East, Asia, and South East Asia have taken the lead boasting of taller and more efficient tall structures accommodating myriad amenities. Tall buildings have always projected being efficient mega structures with their iconic reputation and now they seem to be coming up in every part of the world. India too is picking up on this trend and is building a few tall structures of her own. In cities like Mumbai or Delhi which attract a high rate of migration tall structures seem inevitable as they offer high density and smaller building footprints.
That said, one cannot help but question the viability of such tall structures in Indian cities. There is an ongoing debate about the design and efficiency of the tall structures world over and especially in Mumbai.
How does having a tall structure help an Indian city like Mumbai? There are some obvious answers to this question like smaller building foot print, high density, augmented use of the urban resources and a possibility of use of height for producing alternative energy like wind, solar etc (though the idea is at an experimental stage). The arguments against tall structures are that they are known to be energy hoggers. High energy requirement for mechanical ventilation and conveyance required by tall structures seem difficult to meet when Indian cities are prone to power outages. Also the urban infrastructure in India needs to undergo a major revamp to support high densities and high floor space indices. With such opinions and some more I had the opportunity to have an open discussion with an Indian born Architect in New York. Mr. Sudhir Jambhekar, FAIA, RIBA, LEED AP, is a Senior Partner in FXFOWLE Architects, an International firm based in New York City, with additional offices in Washington, DC, and Dubai.
Mr Jambhekar heads the International studio at FXFOWLE and has been responsible for design and execution of quite a few tall structures around the world. His experience includes working with I.M.Pei, a partnership in Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF) and co-founding practise, Jambhekar Strauss, which later merged with FXFOWLE. Mr. Jambhekar has also been honoured as a Fellow by the American Institute of Architects, and as a Fellow of the Urban Design Institute of America.
The discussion that followed was a very intriguing one. I wanted to discuss and revisit some of the basics of tall building design and Mr. Jambhekar, with his experience of designing tall structures around the world, was the right person to have a conversation with. He had graciously agreed to meet with me and I will share a part of the discussion ‘as is’ with the readers.
Aditi: FXFOWLE has been working on tall structures in India, China and Middle East. You have been part of a few of them. How do you anticipate the effect of tall structures on urbanization of India? The urban infrastructure in India is already stressed; do you think the addition of tall structure to the urban fabric of city like Mumbai is feasible or there can be other solutions that we are not considering?
Jambhekar: I believe in density. Human beings are social animals and it is unnatural for them to be living out of the cities-in isolated areas. Also, when we promote living outside the city there is pressure on the land, urban resources and the environment. We must optimize the already existing urban infrastructure for more sustainable futures for us. In a Mumbai the tall buildings or the high density living is going to be the way forward. The relation between demand and supply in Mumbai’s real estate market is such that the city will have to think about accommodating high number of people on a smaller land mass. People are negatively opinionated on the viability of tall structures and the reason often given is that the infrastructure in Mumbai is not efficient enough to sustain them. It is a compelling logic to a certain extent but improvement in the infrastructure of Mumbai for it to become a prominent and successful city is inevitable. The world cities like London, New York and Beijing have one thing in common and that is efficient and workable infrastructure and more importantly excellent public transport system. Their systems efficiently transport large number of commuters from point A to point B without many delays, glitches or overcrowding. This allows dense cities to confidently grow further through high rise structures. Mumbai needs this type of confidence to address its need of space. Another concept that I think will help in developing and utilizing density to our advantage is high Floor Space Index (FSI). Today on an average Mumbai has an FSI of 1 to 2, where as if we look at Manhattan the Average FSI is 18 and with bonuses this FSI can go up to 21. If the FSI can be increased and higher average can be achieved in Mumbai, hopefully habitation requirements of Mumbai can be eased.
Aditi: If we talk about tall Mumbai, we cannot ignore that Floor Space Index (FSI) does form a very important design parameter .In my experience it promotes skewed thinking in designers as every developer wants to maximize the FSI. From an experienced designers perspective do you think there can be creative alternatives for FSI?
Jambhekar: I don’t think FSI is controlling factor in design. All it does it limits the building bulk, in terms of square footage. Other zoning regulations like set back lines or sky planes become more constrictive. For example, what is happening in Mumbai is that the authorities relentlessly demand that each building has to have setbacks on all sides, it does not matter how tall the proposed building is. Therefore each site becomes a box having an object within itself. Now if we compare the sites in Mumbai to sites in New York City, there is no such regulation in Manhattan and as the result the buildings are lined along the roads .They are connected and we have continuous retail store fronts like at Madison Avenue. Under present regulations there cannot be a Madison Avenue in Mumbai. For the liveability of a city we need public spaces where people can walk comfortably. These spaces create an environment of amenities, stores, colleges, and museums etc., which in turn contribute to the quality of life. Regulations like setbacks prohibit such public spaces. These regulations create building dots in the cityscape which are not connected and thus create spaces in between those building dots which are inhabitable. I am not saying every city should be like New York but you can borrow tried and tested ideas and design spaces adaptable to Mumbai. Around the world, like in London, New York, Shanghai etc. cities are pleasurable when they are walkable. In Mumbai itself the British designed walkable streets like D.N road and Ballard Pier but sadly these notions of urbanism have not been carried out in the newer parts of the city.
Aditi: The trendy modern tall structures we design have a contextual significance. As architects designing tall structures we try to create landmarks for commercial success of a building. In a city like Mumbai, high density is seen as the possible way to solve its rapid urbanization. In such a scenario, if all buildings become tall and iconic in Mumbai, how do you think we can control the aesthetics, do you think the iconic designs will matter then?
Jambhekar: A tough question; Girgaon area developed in the 19th century as trader settlements. Here future redevelopment is inevitable since the land value sky rocketed. It will be a great idea to create an overall vision for the area having some research based contextual constraints. Then the development for the whole or part of the area could be undertaken according to this vision. I wish this had been done for past redevelopments as well. In city planning if the designers and developers think about these visions, the developments can be more connected to the surroundings. I believe that any project, if has successfully merged with the fabric of the city, everyone involved in its design has succeeded. The owners succeeded because they have contributed to the city, the users succeeded because they can enjoy the development and the surroundings and society succeeded because their quality of life has improved. Ideally that’s what needs, to happen. In our office we quote a famous saying ‘If you think of a chair, think of the room , if you think of the room ,think of the house , if you think of the house think of the neighbourhood and if you think of the neighbourhood , think of the city’. This big picture thinking is needed for a Mumbai. On the note of aesthetics, I remember, in one of the lectures Mr. Balkrishna Doshi, upon showing a slide of slum asked the audience ‘who are we to judge if this is right or wrong?’ So point being made was that aesthetics can be very subjective and as designers and planners we have to allow for that.
Aditi: Have you designed buildings that are creating and using alternative energy and has height of tall structures been of any advantage for that?
Jambhekar: I don’t know if height helps in creating/ using alternative energy or not but we have certainly used these alternatives in our designs. LEED has these X- numbers of categories and the two most important categories are energy conservation and indoor air quality. When you deal with tall buildings most of them essentially need mechanical systems to regulate ventilation as opposed to the naturally ventilated buildings. So, by nature they demand more energy. In India if you are doing a housing project, there is no need for centrally conditioning the air. Depending upon where you are in the country, one can chose to use air conditioning in residences. It is different in the office buildings, there you need mechanical ventilation and so there you need to think of alternative ways of looking at either conserving or producing energy. At FXFOWLE we have done it in many ways like geo thermal, solar, wind etc. We also try to efficiently manage water like in Riyadh we have designed buildings for water conservation but in Mumbai rain water harvesting is important and we designed to address that .
Aditi: Growing up in Mumbai and living in New York, I have noticed that there is a distinct difference in tropical living and temperate living. Tropical living that is how we live in India; is more outward looking. We like to take a stroll in the evening all year long, know our neighbours and most of us live in some sort of community. We celebrate festivals like Ganpati, Navratri, Durga Pooja, and Diwali on our streets which transform them into public spaces. The temperate living on the other hand is more inward looking. In New York because of the harsh and extreme climate people don’t go out as much. After work, on weekdays people stay at home with their families and plan their outings only on weekends. The high rise designs typologies that are emerging work very well in temperate conditions. Don’t you think high rises will have a huge cultural impact on the way we live in India? Can you think of design solutions which can accommodate these cultural habits or nuances?
Jambhekar: There is surely a distinct difference in how we live in India as compared to elsewhere. I don’t think the cultural habits can change so easily though. Today the vertical transit systems are such that the travel time is not much. The new elevators can travel about 160 – 170 foot per second. The total time frame of travel even in tallest buildings is negligible, so people talking stroll will still go out as per their routine, but there is another way of dealing with these nuances. There is a trend of cluster development that is emerging. Steven Hall has recently designed high rise structure in China called Linked Hybrid. It plays on similar ideas and has created urban links in sky. Even with our work at FXFOWLE we have created common spaces within the tall buildings to deal with social isolation.
My take away from the discussion was that whichever stand we take, tall structures in high growth cities of India are rapidly becoming a reality. Though there are very rational and compelling reasons for us to build tall structures, we need to customize their designs according to our Indian sensibilities. To promote a tall structure or not is soon becoming just an academic dialogue while Indian cities are leaping forward with an ambition of becoming the next Shanghai. As designers developing proposals for this metamorphosis of our cities we have to make sure that we equip our tall structures for a sustainable future.