Towering Insult in Mumbai

Towering Insult in Mumbai

SITE’s original competition concept.
Courtesy SITE

It wasn’t even silly season a few months ago when the design media started going bananas over the world’s most expensive house, a 27-story concrete tower in Mumbai with six floors of parking, nine elevator banks, three helipads, a four-story open garden, health club, swimming pool, 50-seat theater, and cooling “snow” room, for starters.

The Antilia Tower is nearing completion and belongs to Mukesh Ambani, India’s wealthiest citizen and chairman of Reliance Industries. Journalists have called it “Godzilla-sized” and a “behemoth Tower of Babel,” while other reports delve deeper, casting its Vaastu principles of organization and living walls as a modern-day Hanging Gardens of Babylon.

James Wines of SITE is not amused. The longer copy is lifted directly, he says, from descriptions of a project he entered into the original competition for the Ambani residence in 2004. Besides SITE, the short list included Ken Yeang, Foster + Partners, Wilkinson Eyre, and Perkins+Will, the ultimate winners of the commission. SITE’s submission was for a stack of public gardens with a residence at the top: “Within this Vaastu tradition, the spine is regarded as the main source of support of the building, symbolically leading upward toward enlightenment. The various floor planes encompass a variety of garden tiers, terraces, water falls, ponds, recreational facilities, and enclosed living areas.”

This description has been largely appropriated as the description of the origins of the completed building. Wines is perturbed by the conflation: “I am sure SITE’s dilemma represents an archetypal scenario for a lot of architects these days who find themselves working in countries where there is little respect for ideas and no laws protecting ‘intellectual property’.”

Perkins+Will has had complaints of its own, expressed as early as 2007 in Architectural Record. The firm emphasized then that the project is as much corporate meeting facility as residence, and that hydroponically grown plants will create, according to Perkins+Will design principal Ralph Johnson, a green area “five to 10 times what it would be if you just did a green roof.” The comparisons to Indian traditions of Vaastu, an integral part of SITE’s concertedly sustainable proposal, still often show up in descriptions of the Perkins+Will tower for Ambani. “We sent them a protest letter but never heard back,” Wines said. “We really don’t want to be associated with this level of economic obscenity.”