Bobby Mukherji & Associates (BMA) is India’s leading architectural and design firm since 1993 recognized internationally for its fine design and landmark projects.
Bobby Mukherji & Associates (BMA) is India’s leading architectural and design firm since 1993 recognized internationally for its fine design and landmark projects. Bobby Mukherji is the founder and Principal Architect of BMA known for his wizardry in designing some of the finest hospitality design landmarks in India like the Le Meridien New Delhi, The Marriot Jaipur and the Indian version of America’s Beverly Hills, The Amby Valley City of Sahara Pariwar in Mumbai. With 15 years of experience, Bobby strongly believes in bringing an International standard to his architecture and design in India and has been instrumental in giving a noteworthy facelift to the Indian hospitality industry with chic, elegant and never-seen-before designs.
India Hospitality Review caught up with the star-architect at Hi Aim summit to better understand the architectural landscape of India, challenges that confront it today and how the future looks like. We also learn why Bobby, known for designing hi-end luxurious hotels, is shifting his focus to budget hotels in the coming years.
What strikes you when you see the architectural landscape of India?
I see that we are way behind the West and our neighbours. Very few players in this industry have got their acts together and created awe-inspiring styles. This is so because of the lack of proper training and international exposure. Those who have excelled in this field have done it primarily through self-learning than training in schools. Anyway, there are hardly any good design schools in India; perhaps one or two in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore. By and large, they train very little on the interior design aspect even in five year courses. So when the students enter the field they lack the practical skills and knowledge required to bring the industry at par with the world’s best. The supply of competent talentpool remains inadequate compared to the demand due to personal and professional reasons and as a result the attrition is very high in this industry.
Compare the scenario with the developed countries – the West, Singapore, Hong kong and Bangkok. They have abundant design schools that supply abundant talented and creative design professionals possessing great deal of international exposure partly due to the inspiration they derive from the great architecture of their own country. This gigantic pool of designers is able to run big design firms that deliver terrific designs that many of our Indian design firms are neither able to do nor conceive. This is especially for designs with international appeal.
Many of the Indian designers still find gaudy old Hindi film set designs boasting huge staircases, wide balustrades, chequered floors and heavy lighting as classy. This however is not internationally acceptable and has a very limited audience. The understanding of this fact comes only through proper exposure to global practices. Thankfully, with all the big international hotels coming up in our market, the level of design and architecture is gradually going up and designers are trying to do superior and universally acceptable designs. However it would take a long while for India to be in a competitive stead.
Are we not too much in the awe of West? Would not this blind fad for international practices shadow our native sense of aesthetics?
No. A good design inspires everyone. It inspires you to enhance your own sense of aesthetics, not discard them! It is not just us who get inspired from western designs. Some of the many Indian looking hotels in India have been designed by western designers who admire our sense of aesthetics. These designers came to India, studied our culture, extracted the relevant details from the client and produced a spectacular rendition of the same. Ntably, there have also been international designers who did just the opposite. They imposed their western design sensibilities on Indian clients and totally misinterpreted Indianness as some gaudy classic Bollywood movie set. The projects turned-out shallow and disagreeable even to Indians!
What is a good design according to you?
It is a kaleidoscope of various inspirations arranged in a proper order and balance. It must neither upset guests’ known ways of living nor bore them with usualness. It should take them to the next generation of style with ease and comfort. And one must remember that design standards and styles are dynamic; they change with changing guest profile, their tastes and preferences. Therefore, it is paramount for designers to evolve with the trends and bring something delightfully new to the table.
Who in your view tend to over-speck the designs – Indian designers or International ones?
Both can do it. The problem with the Indian designers however is rather of finesse than over-specking. You may over-speck provided you strike the right balance between design elements and produce a nice looking product. Most Indian designers end up emulating international masterpieces to be on the safer side. And understand very little about western design techniques and philosophy, they many a times do a hotchpotch job. A client who is spending big bucks on his project would not like to hand over his project to such designers and would rather pay extra to an international design firm with better exposure and experience. This overall scenario scapegoats some really talented young Indian designers in the industry with brilliant ideas but little experience. They don’t get opportunities to work on big projects as stakes are too high and no one wants to take the risk. Over time I hope situation improves and more and more native players greet the industry with internationally acceptable designs. So far I believe we are the only designers in the five-star and above category with clients like Starwood, Marriot and Carlson. There are quite a few in three – four star category.
Is there a common thread that binds all your projects together other than an international outlook?
Modernism and a strong sense of luxury even in budget projects! Having said that, designing is like writing a novel. No two novels are same despite being written by the same author. His choice of words and way of writing may be similar; the story would always be different. Old ideas would evolve, new ones would develop; none of them however would ever conform to the bygone ideas. Design language is likewise different for each of our projects. We plan a story in our minds on how a property would enfold to the guest as he or she would walk right through the entrance to the gallery to the last standing corner of the hotel. This script changes from hotel to hotel.
Any hotel you admire the most for its design sensibilities?
I quite appreciate the Armani Hotels. They are spectacular crazy projects with very high sense of style that have yet not been attempted in India. They are a dark architecture. I don’t see any of my operators relating to it. They are unsure whether such a style would work in India. They don’t want to take the risk. I personally feel there is enough of an evolved market in India now that can appreciate and look forward to such styles.
Are you doing such similar crazy projects?
Yes. The mega property of Sahara coming up in 2013 in Mumbai. It is their flagship property which will be the mother of all hotels. It is spread over 1.2 million sqft which is Unprecedented! We are doing some really unconventional styles there that are going to startle everyone. I don’t want to spill the beans at the moment. Just wait and watch!
What projects have you done recently?
We have finished three hotels: The Marriot in Jaipur – the second most successful Marriot hotel after JW Marriot in Mumbai – and two new Radisson Blus in Paschim Vihar and Dwarka. The Paschim Vihar hotel has very interesting story. The location chosen by the client did not make any sense for corporate or leisure segment. There was neither any commercial activity nor any tourism whatsoever. We had to carefully study the location and decide the hotel’s guest profile. We came to know that that area had a lot of niche traders with big spending power. They went to posh restaurants in five-star hotels for dinners and parties, chose five-star banqueting facilities for their daughters’ weddings and could spend Rs 2000 or above per plate. We decided to sell the Radisson Blu Paschim Vihar hotel as a grand wedding banqueting facility. We did a neo-gothic style and devoted 50,000 sqft space to banqueting only. The property today stands a great hit and is doing a rocking business!
What other brands are you working on?
We are currently doing few Courtyards and Fairfields by Marriott, Renaissance, The Lalit and, ofcourse, the Sahara Star.
What do you feel is more challenging – a budget brand or a luxury one?
I find budget hotels far more challenging. Everything in your design has to be worked out meticulously within a tight budget of say, Rs 25 lac per key. And considering the fact that in the times to come, budget segment is going to rein the market, we would also like to go with the flow. Today luxury projects involve very high costs and reasonably long tenures to achieve the desirable ROIs. It is the reverse in case of budget projects. Two-three years down the line, we expect 70 per cent of our business to come from this segment and rest from five star deluxe category. I think it is only wise to do 20 budget hotels than four five-stars and keep the activity going.
What key steps do you take before starting on a project?
We begin with studying the location, the market and the customer base. Following this, we see the logistics; project feasibility, deadline and client’s budget. Budget as I said earlier remains the major deciding factor for any project.
How would you club the problems being faced by this industry?
1. There is lack of required international exposure among designers.
2. Poor education system which is out of sync with global trends.
3. Skewed balance between design aesthetics and design techniques in design schools
Seemingly, we lost the Golden era of design and architecture centuries ago. Producing some of the best architectural marvels of the world, we today are at a loss of awe-inspiring ideas and designs. I hope that golden era comes back soon in the future and training schools that existed in those days, schools that inspired structures such as Khajuraho temple, reincarnate themselves profusely across the country.
What India-specific challenges do you face doing such high-stake projects?
The biggest challenge I fear is of the project running out of money. This is because sometimes the clients are over-ambitious and wish to do a five-star hotel in a three-star budget. By any means, a minimum of Rs 5000/sqft is required for such massive projects; clients think Rs. 2000 sqft is enough. They believe they can squeeze the project within that budget and end up squeezing everybody and everything including product quality. Nearing the end of the project, we see the clients borrowing, selling and rigging alongside which the project is also getting compromised with. There are no short-cuts for quality work!
In India there are only handful contractors who understand how to build a five-star hotel; what a quality finish is and how important it is to get the right person for the job. Many a times they get their local carpenters with no background in hotel projects, leave aside a five-star one. They are forced into the project and end up making a mess of it despite the best of raw material. This has happened with a large chunk of projects; the clients tried to save big bucks, bought cheap material, cheap labour and landed in perpetual rough weathers. To give an example, recently a hotel of mine opened where we had specified a certain lighting material. The client however sourced it cheap from an anonymous vendor and the very first day his hotel opened, he incurred an expense of Rs 3.5 lacs just buying new bulbs. This was only the beginning for him. He would live with such sporadic damages for the rest of his life. Had he listened to us and invested in the right material, he would have saved himself from this lasting crisis.
Many a times, clients do not follow the specified brand standards and dilute the whole design philosophy for petty sakes. Their only concern is with the brand name that is sure to bring them elite customers. They hardly bother to execute the project to the standards the brand is known for.
Now, all this happens because we are not a much evolved market. Many of the players are just first-timers who had big bucks and wanted to invest in this fine-looking business. When they do so without any philosophy or heart behind it, the property speaks of his apathy.
How critical is the role of client in product design?
It is extremely critical. A lot depends on his vision clarity and its paraphrasing in the design brief. He has to be evolved and involved enough with the project to get a spectacular product. To give you an example, The Leela in New Delhi, of late running under severe criticism for its extravagance, is an extremely superior property. It speaks of the love and dedication of the client and the designer. They extracted the best out of each other and created a world-class product sans the least bit of compromise. Yes, as of now the property seems over-ambitious but once the market is hot, it will make the biggest kill and the client will be rewarded big-time!
In view of Leela’s poor timings, you think Sahara’s mega project would be well-timed?
I hope so.
How would the recent budget impact you as a designer?
My budget is going to lessen. I would have to challenge myself harder to do a good product within a limited budget; would have to be more creative and flexible. And that would be very tough.
The breathing room for creativity you enjoyed for luxury projects would also shrink…?
Absolutely! Matter of fact is it has been shrinking by the years. Earlier, we used to depend heavily on the European markets for sourcing design materials. We cannot do that anymore. We are looking for newer options close by like Indonesian, China, Thailand, etc. Are you hopeful for brighter days ahead?Not for the next five years.
Where do we stand vis-a-vis our neighbours in terms of the design and architecture?
Currently, there is no comparison. We are way behind in terms of the quantum of projects, their sophistication and finesse. I think we are one-fifth of what our neighbours are at any given time. They have over a 1000 hotels coming up right now while we just have 200 that too on paper; on execution it would just be 50-60.
When will there be a comparison?
Not in my lifetime, I think.
Is it not a great deal of pessimism?
See, I say so not because there is lack of talent in India but because of the political system which is very disappointing. We cannot be optimistic seeing the progress of some of our cosmopolitans; they constitute a very small percentage of the entire country. Tier 2 and 3 cities lag way behind. By the way, even metros are deteriorating due to civic neglect. The political will to do anything better than the best doesn’t exist. Whatever good happens, happens in microcosms primarily from the private sector and the moment you step out of such microcosms, you are again greeted by slums! The roads, the infrastructure, basic amenities all are pathetic! One praise-worthy initiative was the privatization of the aviation sector by Mr Praful Patel. He did a great service to the Nation. We need a similar will in other sectors. I don’t see that happening anytime soon. Our neighbours have the will and a clear and focussed agenda. Here in India no one cares. But I hope, by the time our grandchildren enter the world, there will be enough mindful people in our system who would transform the system for the better. The moment we’d have the right people in the right place, good things will happen.
At the moment Tourism and Hospitality industry is at the back burner of Indian government?
True. Government needs to invest in it heavily. It is a highly rewarding sector which will give amazing returns on investment. I assure you, we will beat any tourism destination of the world if we take tourism seriously. Countries having hardly anything to show have got ten times more tourists than us because they invested in building their tourism potential and marketing the same smartly. Such countries had the political will required for such feats. We neither have the will nor the infrastructure to show to the tourists. There are no proper staying facilities for corporate travellers, forget leisure. A small city like Bangkok has more number of rooms than whole of India put together. In view of such disappointments, I believe it would take years for things to turnaround.