Benoy: Height of progress
Editor, Global Trader magazine
Post date: Thursday, 19th July 2012
When it comes to forging links with India, British architects Benoy are raising the bar in spectacular fashion, and director John Dawes tells Eric Jackson how they’ve done it.
Many have tried and failed, some spectacularly. Creating a building that comes to symbolise a country takes more than a slide rule and a big budget.
But Eiffel did it with his tower in Paris, as did Sir Charles Barry with the Houses of Parliament in London. In 17th century Agra, Persian architect Isa Khan created the Taj Mahal, which not only became the iconic structure of the sub-continent but also inspired the titles of thousands of Indian restaurants.
So when John Dawes, a director of the architectural and design company Benoy – the firm behind landmark projects around the world including the new MediaCity in Salford – says that he’s involved with a project that will define the new, dynamic India, you suspect it’s got to be something special, especially when it comes with such a stellar moniker. Supernova, Noida, a mixed-use development featuring five towers – with the flagship Spira Tower set to be the country’s tallest mixed-use building – is, says Dawes, about to "change the landscape of India."
"It is an incredibly exciting project and the site was instantly inspiring,” he says. “We were presented with a vast space and beautiful surroundings."
The sinuous form of the Yamuna River brought an energy and expression which naturally fed into the design, with its finale celebrated with Spira Tower rising from its banks. When completed, the Spira Tower will offer panoramic views across the city from the world class restaurant, leisure facilities and an observatory providing an extraordinary perspective of the Kalindi bird sanctuary and the river."
The project will be the culmination of seven years of working in the Indian market, which started with retail complex DLF Saket in Delhi.
"Our initial exposure to the market came in 2005 when our managing director was invited to speak at a conference,” says Dawes, "which was followed by our chairman being invited to join a trade delegation with UKTI, developing our profile with major players and key decision makers."
Dawes admits that there were many pros and cons to breaking into India, but the key to success has been to realise that it is not a case of one size fits all.
"We always view India as a continent, rather than a country, because of the diversity between states.
This makes each of our instructions equally exciting as we discover a new market with every new appointment," he says. "When we decided to enter India, we undertook a large amount of research. It is fundamental to understand the local market, both culturally and commercially.
"India is steeped in history and is utterly unique - it is imperative to appreciate and respect commercial and social customs and be culturally aware. Any foreign company must understand national business practices, including the tax system, the legal system, and right down to who should be present when signing contracts.
"We have always worked closely with UKTI and found them to be an incredible source of information and a gateway to relevant contacts. We also work closely with the UK India Business Council, which does a great job of enhancing bilateral trade links."
The benefit of working with UKTI and UKIBC was further illustrated recently when Benoy secured three new contracts, while completing Market City in Pune. Benoy Chairman, Graham Cartledge CBE, said: "The global Benoy team has worked tirelessly to establish a reputation as one of the most recognised international architectural brands and a leading player in India."
And Dawes added: "The opportunities presented by India are immense. The country has allowed us to grow our business both creatively and commercially.
"Architecturally, India has inspired us and pushed the boundaries of our design. Inspirational clients have allowed us to broaden our scope of expertise. Our local clients are driven by a desire for truly spectacular designs and it’s fantastic to be contributing to the 'New India'."
Because India has become so important to the Benoy portfolio, the company now has dedicated teams looking after it.
Explains Dawes: "We have an India desk in London and Hong Kong, as well as a client liaison team in Mumbai. Together, these form a steering group which is led by directors and includes masterplanners and interior designers among others.
"We convene weekly, or even more often, by VC, to ensure we have a regular forum to facilitate cross-border input. However, depending on the project, we may pull in other colleagues so that the best possible team is deployed. We have a staff of 500 across the globe and we dip into our pool of expertise as necessary."
While India is seen as one of the new economic powerhouses of the world, it doesn’t come without its pitfalls. “Although our Indian setup has proved a great model, it does require a lot of travel," he says.
"There are some parts of India that require more sophisticated infrastructure and so it is necessary to employ a simple and functional transport strategy.
"However, important steps are being made to improve this issue and projects, such as Supernova, Noida, are driving progress with transport links being developed to service the area more efficiently.
"As well as making towns more accessible, this will also help attract more interest in India internationally.
"Infrastructure is developing, and the ambitions are there to improve systems. This has encouraged a desire for destinations, which are vast schemes offering retail, residential, hospitality, office etc, in one location – they are self sufficient and harmonious and a place one never needs or wants to leave." While India, along with China, is among the most exciting and vibrant economies in the world, there is always the danger that the 'bubble' could burst, but Dawes remains optimistic.
"India and China are offering a platform to create some fantastic schemes," he says. “This year will see the opening of some of our most interesting projects in China, such as INDIGO Beijing.
"Although certain regions were less affected by the on-going financial crisis, the downturn has had a significant impact on how investments are approached. It has made the world aware that economies are unpredictable and with the ever increasing globalisation of trade, it is near impossible to ensure absolute immunity from recession.
"Developers are choosing partners with increased caution and there is a heightened level of due-diligence before the start of any project.
"Clients are seeking out partners that can bring the most added value to a scheme. There is an increasing demand for future proofing and flexible space, so that projects can be renovated and refurbished as needed, to accommodate advancing technology."
And innovations such as Supernova are providing Benoy with the opportunity to be pioneers of an architectural renaissance in the wider Asia-Pacific region, believes Dawes.
"The projects we are delivering in India are furthering our reputation as world class architects and the strength of the economy is ensuring that a good number of our designs are continuing to fruition.
"Due to the interest Supernova has generated, we are receiving a number of enquiries about mixed-use developments, with both vertical and horizontal aspirations. We are being approached about schemes including retail, commercial, residential and hospitality, and as such we are deepening our knowledge and skills."
This article first appeared in Global Trader, Summer 2012. To read the entire publication, click on the ebook.