House of Mukesh Ambani, richest person in India

I’ve written the odd bit about architecture and design before (see here) but I always intended to write more. I’d especially like to review buildings, but it’s hard to get any hard information on how buildings perform for their owners and users – that’s one reason why so much architectural writing is either self-serving or vacuous.

So this interesting piece by Indian economist, Ajay Shah, offers another way to approach the subject of architecture. He poses the question: “when and where do great feats of architecture come about?…… Why do some places achieve great feats of architecture, while others routinely opt for merely functional structures?”.

He says that he is instinctively unsatisfied with the claim that the USA lacks great architecture because Americans have poor taste. Instead, he offers the following five explanations for “great feats of architecture”:

Surplus — To go beyond merely functional structures requires resources to spare. At low levels of income, people are likely to merely try to get some land and brick and stone together. In these things, we have nonlinear Engel curves. Pratapgarh looks picayune because Shivaji lacked surplus

The desire to make a statement and to impress — Ozymandius wanted to make a point: He wanted ye Mighty to look at his works and despair. I have often felt this was one of the motivations for the structures on Raisina Hill or the Taj Mahal

Arms races — There may also be an element of an arms race in these things. Perhaps the chaps who built the Qutub Minar (1193-1368) in Delhi set off an arms race, where each new potentate who came along was keen to outdo the achievement of the predecessor. I used to think that the Taj Mahal (1632-1648) was so perfect, that it could not be matched, and thus it put an end to this arms race. But then I saw the Badshahi Mosque in Lahore (1671-1673), and I had to revise my opinion……

Transparency — You only need to impress someone when there is asymmetric information, where that someone does not know how great you are. Shah Jahan needed to build big because the targets of his attention did not know the GDP of his dominion and his tax/GDP ratio. In this age of Forbes league tables, Mukesh Ambani does not need to build a fabulous structure for you to know he’s the richest guy in India. A merely functional house suffices; a great feat of architecture is not undertaken

Accountability — The incremental expense of going from a merely functional structure to a great feat of architecture is generally hard to justify. Hence, one might expect to see more interesting architecture from autocratic places+periods, where decision makers wield discretionary power with weak checks and balances. As an example, I think that Britain had the greatest empire, but the architecture of the European continent is superior: this may have to do with the early flowering of democracy in the UK.

He applies these criteria to China and India. China hosts some amazing “feats of architecture”, funded by its booming economy. It’s also undemocratic, so it’s anxious to impress in order to bolster its legitimacy. On the other hand, he says, India’s greater political transparency and accountability result in fewer “feats”.

I think he uses the phrase ‘great architecture’ a bit loosely. He’s really talking about showpiece architecture, not good architecture. Grandiose buildings are probably over-represented in the ranks of good buildings, but extravagance and flamboyance are neither a sufficient nor necessary condition for good architecture. I agree Mukesh Ambani’s house isn’t “fabulous” but I wouldn’t describe it as “a merely functional house”. It looks like it was meant to impress by its size rather than its architecture.

It’s interesting to contemplate how something like Southern Cross Station fits with Ajay’s schema. Why was a considerable sum of public money spent on creating an interesting and arresting roofscape when functionally something more utilitarian and conventional would’ve sufficed? I think Ajay’s explanations all work to some extent here, but I think there are at least two others worth considering. One is the view that grandiose and spectacular buildings – qualities which are often seen as synonymous with ‘good design’ – make good economic sense. For example, they are thought to market cities better. I think there might also be a taste explanation – the elite group who make these sorts of decisions are increasingly the sort of people who really do value good design.