Contextual Tall Buildings in India

Would you rather stand out or blend in?  We all have personal preferences on how we have dress, what we do for a living, what we say, and how we say it.  My sense is majority of us would say it depends.  It depends on what? It depends on the time. If everyone decided to speak at once we could not hear anybody. It also depends on place. We choose not to wear shorts and sandals to a formal event — the place for sandals is on the beach.  We are so mindful of time, place, custom, the context, for every fleeting moment yet we are so cavalier and tolerant of the buildings that we build or allow to be built in our cities.

Indian cities are traditionally low-rise cities.  Tall by its very nature wants to stand out. As a result, tall needs to be a deliberate and mindful exercise that is respectful to the vernacular ethos of the place and contribute to the vitality of street life.

Historic photograph of Kalbadevi Road, a uniquely Indian street shaped by contextual buildings designed for Indian climate, Indian people — and their customs and preferences.

The character and setting of Kalbadevi Road and buildings are specifically designed for the location.  The street is a shared space where pedestrian, trams, and other forms other forms of transportation coexist. The buildings and its openings are designed for the Indian climate, customs, and individual preferences.  Ground floor is commercial uses with residences above.  For residential uses at the street level there is a semi-public court or verandah in the front before you access the more private areas.  The windows extend from the floor to the ceilings. The openings in the facade offer a variety of permutations for personal comfort.  Indian families sit on the floor.  The bottom panel when opened allows cool breeze and views when the person is sitting on the floor.  The central panel has louvers for shade and privacy.  The top panel allows light into the deeper areas of the rooms and when opened ventilates the hot air out of the rooms.

Context gives us high-quality buildings and streets that work together in harmony to create a place that is open, inclusive, and has a unique identity.  Paying attention to the context of an area ensures that new development reinforces rather than undermines local community.

Tall Buildings Characteristics

A tall building reaching for the sky is the most potent and visible symbol of success. Just as well-designed tall buildings can be standalone landmarks, unattractive and badly designed tall buildings will not blend in easily and harm the image of the city.  Without public design review and decent development codes the risk of bad architecture is great.

Tall buildings in urban setting can be efficient use of land — they pack more people on less land and preserve open spaces and farms that supply local food to the cities. However, tall buildings can also perpetuate social segregation and isolation, much like a vertical gated community.

A common damaging aspect of the tall building is how it meets the streets — blank walls and security gates destroy the street life.

The simple strategy with tall buildings is to take maximum advantage of the benefits while addressing the concerns.

Indian Context: Average Population Density


The density in Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore is amongst the most populated cities in the world.  However, this density has largely been accommodated in low to mid-rise buildings. One reason for this is because Indian cities have the lowest floor space index (FSI), in the world. Besides being low, the FSI is also uniform.

Reform FSI

Ill-conceived FSI are a major hindrance to tall buildings.  The FSI should be a range, not an absolute number. To access the higher FSI range, developers should mitigate the impacts and provide needed amenities.

Rather than waiting for another 20 years for rail and metro that we need today, the FSI can be increased to 15-20 at transit stops with the developers contributing to the rail and metro network, while in other sensitive areas the increase may be a modest 1 to 2.5 FSI.

FSIs are also poor predictor of building form.  A FSI of 1 can produce a one story perimeter block building or a 12 story tall building.  FSI is a poor predictor of urban form and is a serious impediment to contextual development.

Contextual Tall Buildings.

Mediocre tall buildings that fail to connect with the context disillusion the public appetite for tall — less is better when it fails to make a positive contribution to the quality of life of the area.

There are five factors that make a tall building contextual.

1. Tall Building Strategy

To be contextual tall must be part of an overall tall building strategy.  The city’s skyline should be viewed as its topography.  A single tall building has high image value and is easier to insert at various locations in the city, the intensification from a single tall building is relatively low.  Clusters of tall buildings achieve more intensification but may be appropriate only in few areas. Each city needs a unique tall building strategy based on local context.

Recent tall buildings were threatening to replace the historic buildings in Old Town Foshan, China. Old town has the 900 year old temple and excellent examples of ling nan architecture.  The character defining features of this style are curved gables, stone walls, courtyards, and dense alleys. The height of buildings around the temple are limited — so when you are on the temple grounds you will not see the taller buildings.

The taller buildings are located along the transit line in clusters to minimize impact.  The master plan creates urban hill and valley forms. The temple and old town are the valley and the higher density development represents the hills that increase in height with increased distance from the historic area.  This layout provides sunlight and views for the new developments, while preserving the light and views for the historic areas.

2. Response to Climate Monsoon Window

Monsoon window detailing in Singapore (right) adapted from traditional home in Dyak (left). The window allows fresh air and keeps out rain and wind gusts. Images courtesy of WOHA Designs and Tim Griffith.

Vernacular architecture can teach us common sense solutions to climate. The Dyak Longhouses in Borneo have horizontal openings below projecting ledges, which allows the cool breeze to come in while keeping the monsoon rain out.  WOHA Architects adopted this vernacular response to climate into the high-rise form.  Designing buildings for local climate not only conserve energy but also give the building a unique identity.

To reduce heat gain, a perforated skin on the south facade fully shades the facade and conceals the air conditioning units, clothes drying area, and horizontal sun shading ledges.

3. Individual Preferences

People buy apartments as off the shelf products — with very limited opportunity to customize the space to individual preferences and needs. The window openings in the Kalbadevi Road buildings in Mumbai allow residents to customize the use of space to maximize comfort.

In Moulmein Rise, Singapore, the overhangs, planters, bay windows, sliding windows and sunscreens, can be rearranged to suit personal comfort of the residents. Image courtesy of WOHA Designs

Similarly, in tall building individuals should be allowed to customize and rearrange the overhangs, planters, bay windows, and sunscreen in myriad ways to suit individual preferences.  Designing tall buildings to respond to local preferences, customs, and needs makes the building contextual

4. Community Spaces & Nature

Indian cities have the lowest open space per person ratio in the world.  Tall buildings have a particularly important role to address this need because they add more people without adding to open spaces. Sky parks and landscaping adds visual cues of scale for residents in a tall building.  Sky parks also act as social spaces addressing alienation.

5. Street Level Impact


Left: Traditional mid-rise buildings line up to create a continuous street wall.  Center: Tall buildings sit as freestanding objects in a plaza or parking lot. Right: Preferred configuration where tall buildings are placed on a contextual base that preserves the street wall with publicly accessible activity at the street level.  Above the base, the tower can be individual creative expressions of design.  Images courtesy of Urban Advantage.

Traditional mid-rise buildings line up to create a continuous street wall that supports an active street life.

In contrast, tall buildings sit as freestanding objects in a plaza or parking lot.   The plazas are dark and desolated spaces that compromise street life.  In many cases, the street level walls, gates and guards provides a grim reminder of the exclusive nature.

A preferred configuration is where tall buildings are placed on a human scaled contextual base that preserves the street wall with publicly accessible activity at the street level.  Above the base, the tower can be individual creative expressions of design.

Public Sector

The public sector has limited resources to do it all by themselves.  They should partner with private sector, NGOs and citizens to develop a clear vision for growth, preservation and redevelopment.  The public sector should  reduce regulatory barriers and create a culture of growth.  Offering a streamlined development review and approval process saves time to do other the few and important things well.

Growth should pay for itself.  Tall buildings should be self-sustaining and not depend on taxpayer funds to provide affordable housing, infrastructure improvements, network of mobility options, public amenities and maintenance. The public sector has to determine needs for each area and set up a developer impact fee system to fund onsite improvements. Tax Increment Financing (TIF) can fund off-site improvements. In TIF, the developer up-fronts the cost of infrastructure and gets refunded from the increment in taxes generated from new development. Continued maintenance can be funded by the creation of public-private partnerships.

Form-based codes

The Form-Based Code include a Regulating Plan (a map of the streets and open spaces where different building envelope standards apply); Building Envelope Standards (regulations controlling the configuration, features, and functions of buildings that define and shape the public realm); Architectural Standards —including building materials and architectural detailing—that are important to the quality and character of a vibrant new downtown; and Street Type Standards (specifications for the elements within the public realm such as sidewalks, travel lanes, on-street parking, street trees, and street furniture).

Form-based codes (FBC) make the good easy to build. This type of development regulations produces predictable built results and a superior public realm by using physical form as the organizing principle. FBCs are graphic-based codes that allow the public to visualize in advance the form and location of the streets, buildings, and open spaces leading to a higher comfort level with taller buildings.  FBCs require far less discretionary review and process, which saves everyone time, money and effort.

Aim Higher

Indian cities have over 50% of its population living in substandard, illegal or unsafe housing. In addition, Indian cities are projected to add several million people. Taller buildings are going to be necessary. Where and how we grow are important considerations.

There is no need to build tall. Tall needs to be a deliberate and planned strategy that delivers more efficiency in land use and innovative contextual design.  Indian cities have rich and long history.  The existing buildings give the place an anchor and identity. India has for ages adapted to changes in a sustainable manner and can show the world how to integrate tall contextually.

While other places clamor to stand out, amongst this noise, India can stand out as an example of how to blend tall buildings into an existing context.

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