American architects have been busy in India during the past decade, but now face an economic slowdown and political uncertainty there.

Photo © Michal Ronnen Safdie
Khalsa Heritage Center, Punjab; Safdie Architects. Located on a 75-acre site in the holy town of Anandpur Sahib, not far from Chandigarh, this project serves as a museum of the Sikh people and includes a 400-seat auditorium and a library. Safdie’s design, with its swooping galleries and exterior walls clad in sand-colored stone, evoke the fortress architecture of the region. A series of dams in a ravine create a water garden, crossed by a pedestrian bridge.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, when Louis Kahn built the Institute for Management in Ahmedabad, American architects rarely worked in India. But the country's economic transformation, gaining momentum over the past decade, fueled a building boom, with design firms from abroad contributing conspicuously to the nation's bristling skylines—its new Western-style corporate campuses and glimmering air hubs. Just a couple of years ago, India seemed like the next China. But the tides have ebbed as the country contends with a deeply devalued rupee and an economic slowdown preceding its 2014 elections. While some ambitious projects continue without discernible setbacks, others have been pinched. In August, The New York Times described “cranes on Mumbai's skyline perch[ed] nearly immobilized as developers struggle for cash . . .” At the very least, questions hover about the challenges and opportunities ahead, about whether the change is transitory or more enduring.

“Working in India is complex and colorful, frustrating and exhilarating,” says Stephen Johnson, president of Cannon Design, an American firm with a Mumbai office. “We see this downturn as a passing phase, though nothing moves very quickly there, so we expect it will take some time after the national elections to rebuild momentum.” His team completed the Tata Medical Center in Kolkata in 2011 and a major phase of Kalinga Park (an IT campus in Bhubaneswar) in 2013. “But the economic climate is causing some reassessment across the industry,” Johnson reported last summer. “We've begun seeing projects delayed until after the elections.” Still, he emphasizes Cannon's commitment to stay in India “for its long-term potential as the world's largest democracy.”

Meanwhile, Frederic Schwartz, whose New York–based practice, Frederic Schwartz Architects (FSA), is finishing its fourth major airport in India, says his work there has seen “absolutely no effect” of the downturn. “The economy has cooled,” he concedes, “but the country still needs to build infrastructure in all sectors. There are ups and downs, as in China, but the train keeps rolling.”

During India's socialist era, preceding the country's economic liberalization in the 1990s, large-scale projects were the purview of government or public-sector architects. So no “big firm culture” developed, leaving India's architectural profession “ill prepared to produce the international corporate work so ardently patronized there today,” says Harvard professor and architect Rahul Mehrotra. In Indian Architecture Since 1990 (published in 2011), he identifies three major categories of architectural “imports” proliferating across the nation: 1. developer-commissioned IT campuses and mega-towers envisioned as international signifiers of competence and global status; 2. infrastructure (usually government-sponsored), ranging from airports to cultural centers; and 3. master plans for new cities, “90 percent of which,” he notes, “never break ground—they're mostly rackets to get around India's laws and convert agricultural sites into urban land.”

Not every foreign firm doing ambitious work in India is large. “If you have the skills and work it right,” says Schwartz, “you can open yourself to big projects that a 20-person firm like ours would never get to do in the U.S.”

With opportunity, however, comes hurdles. And the complexities of working on the subcontinent are not everyone's cup of Darjeeling.

Even with India's burgeoning middle class and a GDP that nearly quadrupled between 2000 and 2012, almost 30 percent of the population struggles below the poverty line. And systems of roads, transportation, water, sewage, and energy remain profoundly deficient. “Unlike China,” Mehrotra observes, “India did not take its investment in infrastructure seriously enough before opening the doors on its economic policies.” The result is an emerging global power with third-world underpinnings.

The Indian government's 12th Five-Year Plan committed to investing $1 trillion in infrastructure between 2012 and 2017, explicitly encouraging public-private partnerships and major public works such as airports.

Emerging global hubs—for information technology in places like Bangalore, Chennai, and Pune; pharmaceuticals in Hyderabad; and call centers in Delhi—have also reshaped urban identities, particularly along metropolitan outskirts. (This work, Mehrotra points out, “epitomizes the reversals of outsourcing.” Here, Indians hire Western architects to design buildings that will be convincing enough to market Indian goods and services back to Western countries.)

Projects in India—varying widely with building type, client, and regional culture and climate—have come to American architects via different avenues. Through international competition, FSA won its commissions for airports in Raipur, Vedodara, and Chennai, leading to an invitation to design another in Goa, all in partnership with Mumbai-based Creative Group, and with Gensler on all but Raipur.

But Tod Williams Billie Tsien & Associates (TWBTA) simply received a phone message in 2003 that “an Indian gentleman” wished to meet “regarding a very large project.” Instead of the scam it imagined, the gentleman was Ratan Tata, then head of the mega-conglomerate Tata Group, and the project—Tata Consultancy Services’ 23-acre campus in Mumbai—is now under construction with Somaya & Kalappa serving as local architects.

Though clients sometimes reach abroad for marquee names to design signature buildings, they often seek out foreign firms for specific expertise. For a mixed-use complex in Mumbai, the Indian developer Lodah Group chose Pei Cobb Freed & Partners (PCFP) for its experience with master planning and mega-towers. At 117 stories, the compound's World One building will be the tallest residential structure on earth. But even when providing outside knowledge, PCFP principal Jay Berman cautions against imposing entirely imported solutions on foreign cultures rather than adapting local approaches. (At World One, his team modified vernacular concrete techniques for extreme-height geometries.)

The long-range prospects for American architectural services in India convinced the United States Department of Commerce to cosponsor a trade mission there with the AIA, in 2012 (RECORD, November 2012). But the agency's Doing Business in India guide acknowledges the nation's abysmal World Bank ranking that year: “132 out of 183 economies—among the world's more difficult business climates and next to last in enforcing contracts.” The manual urges “due diligence” in researching client reliability. “Of the thousands of developers in India, we'd consider working with only about six,” says Nikki Sorg, who directs business development at Sorg and Associates, a Washington, D.C.–based architectural firm headed by Indian-born Suman Sorg. Practitioners cited in this article typically work on the subcontinent with a small number of repeat clients.

Since practice in India requires licensure by the country's Council of Architects, Americans usually partner with regional firms or, like San Francisco's EHDD, limit their services there to consultation on design or sustainability.

Teaming up with locals also helps foreigners work within the country's fee structures. “Labor and construction costs are so low,” says Schwartz, “that even their good fees are a third of ours. So, from a business standpoint, the only way to do these projects is with Indian partners paying their staffs by the standards of their own economy.”

Moshe Safdie—whose firm completed the Khalsa Heritage Centre in Punjab in 2011 and is building a housing complex in Bangalore—usually declines RFPs from India. “Inadequate fees make them impossible,” he says. “There needs to be recognition that they'll pay a premium to foreigners.”

Though architects from abroad sometimes encounter pressure in India, as in China, to deliver the concept and then leave its execution to locals, all the firms in this article decline such arrangements. But upholding design integrity often challenges quality control. “That's one reason we opened our Delhi office,” says Suman Sorg, who is now building a 900-unit residential compound there. “The expertise for producing the detailed drawings required in the U.S. isn't there. So builders get used to making decisions in the field, which means they need lots of oversight to prevent shortcuts and shoddy work.” Another complication is the tendency among Indian clients to change their minds often, even at late stages, viewing it as just “part of the process.”

Full-scale mock-ups produced by low-cost labor are more common in India than shop drawings. While recognizing these life-size prototypes as “indispensible to quality control, by communicating tangibly what needed to be done,” TWBTA principal Tod Williams recommends a “belt-and-suspenders” approach combining the most effective American practices with theirs.

Berman similarly stresses, “Successful projects in any foreign environment involve our humility and ability to leverage the best of their world and ours.” With India's long history of sustainable building—responding, by necessity, to monsoons, severe heat, unreliable power, and fundamental needs for conservation and recycling—regional solutions can be extremely valuable. “Remarkable village crafts also have let us explore, in affordable ways, techniques we could never consider back home, like tiny hand-tiled mosaic over large areas,” says TWBTA partner Paul Schulhof. While some clients welcome modern integration of regional tradition and materials, others eschew local means (and conventional wisdom) in favor of an international style. “We recommended against glass and steel for the airports,” says Schwartz. “But India is competing with Singapore and China, and our clients wanted a world image that's high-tech, with huge spans and cantilevers.” (So FSA worked to make these elements sustainable.)

A country of unexpected juxtapositions, India often defies generalization. Workers carrying pans of concrete on their heads sometimes swarm alongside state-of-the-art apparatus. “The industry in China is more sophisticated and mechanized,” says Safdie. “Both have lots of cheap labor, but, in India, the management end suffers, making it quite a different experience.”

Asked whether they would continue working in India, the architects interviewed here were split between enthusiasm and hesitancy. “We have currently chosen not to do additional work in India,” says Williams. “It's not a great way for us to make money. Though we'll treasure this incredible experience forever, we're not interested in making it a business.” Meanwhile, others are spurred on by the potential of a country expected to have the world's largest population by 2050.