ontinuation (Part II of II) of Clear Estate’s cover story where Architect, Alfredo Munoz gives his most comprehensive interview to date.
Tapping into the three time zones
We were intrigued and wanted to better understand how Abiboo’s international presence affected the work done in India, Chennai. We were curious if this office was a stand alone or if the teams indulged in a bartering of skills. Munoz confirmed the latter while again stressing on the firm’s objective of introducing innovation based on proved research and creativity for every project.
Munoz and his team have immense confidence in the engineering skills of the Indian builder though this is not reflected in how he views the architectural scene in the country. He believes India has a lot to catch up with, in the usage of design, especially with the case of modern influences and experimentative architecture.
Which is why his teams in U.S. and Madrid work on the designs for projects in India. He accepts that it will be some time before he meets the kind of talent he wants to work with in the Indian market. At the moment, Abiboo, India handles operations of projects which includes concept and cost approvals, material sourcing and project site overview.
Interestingly, Munoz observes that his international contemporaries in India in spite of being headquartered elsewhere in the world don’t tap into that international exposure but have their designs done, locally.
Back to the Fundamentals
Having alluded to the lack in current Indian architectural design, Munoz does not take a back seat. He is actively working with universities here in India like the Marg Institute of Design and Architecture Swarnabhoomi (MIDAS) in Chennai, where he is an Executive Advisor. His firm belief is that, “all one needs is strong fundamentals through education and in the course of acquiring that knowledge, universities can push the students to the next level in their field of choice. This is extremely critical for a country developing talent that is competing with the world”.
A Chennai first for Munoz
Abiboo’s first project in Chennai must definitely be a landmark moment in the minds of team, Abiboo and how that moment came about speaks volumes about the single minded, absolute commitment that Munoz inspired within his team, “We were very clear and committed to what we wanted to achieve in India. Accepting the fact that we are here to stay was the first and most important step after which the vision of blending beautiful modern international architecture with local culture became even clearer.
I have to admit that we were very lucky in getting the right partner who believed in our ideas for the Indian market. The association with Vijay Shanti and Suresh Jain has evolved into an ideal and long lasting relationship since Abiboo’s first project with them”.
The industry as a whole just needed to see that Abiboo was not only an aspirational futurist but was just as dedicated to the practical responsibilities of a project. And once they did, the projects started pouring in. “Potential partners saw that we were offering world class architectural solutions within the Indian client’s designated time period and that was the beginning of our vision becoming a reality”.
The Indian Client: Private Individuals
Munoz, who is a point of reference in the world of architecture and is evolving into a design force to be reckoned with in the country shares a vivid description of what it is like to work with an Indian client. “When we are talking about a private client, an individual who wants me to design their house, their personal space, the approach is not that different from a private client in any other country. In fact in India most of my work is in the private residence space. For example, I am currently working on a 50,000 sq. ft home for a well-known industrialist and a 20,000 sq. ft home for a famous actor. A lot of our work is for important Indian personalities.
Considering that the idea and design are exclusive and customized to the client, we begin by spending a lot of time together. Every layout is different from the other because each family has their own style of living. I sometimes talk about how an architect is like a psychologist, taking the time to understand the family, understand their use of space, their habits. Effectively combining this personal information with elements from the local culture is where our expertise comes in. This is how we arrive at a unique design that will enhance the client’s life style.”
Time is Money
In the other corner stands the Indian developer, individuals and teams who work on either residential or commercial projects with profitability being the dominant motivation. As we discuss Abiboo’s approach to these projects, Munoz elaborates, “The Indian developer’s relationship with time is unique. In many instances time is just if not more important than the design itself. The model for development has progressed in this manner. Irrespective of whether the developer is working on a joint venture or owns the property, Indian bank interest rates are so high that time becomes a very precious commodity.
Our experience across countries has made Abiboo extremely efficient in handling the component of time. Take the case of delayed approvals, we have to accommodate situations where design changes need to be incorporated in the plans because government approvals are taking time to come through. To be successful in India, firms need to understand, accept and work with this reality”. He also added, ” Interestingly and on a side note, this is the case with China as well”.
Munoz’s respect for time, both as a commodity and as a threat goes in to even more detail as he talks about managing this element in projects. “Scale and context define how long a project will take from start to finish. We have executed designs for a 1 million sq.ft mall in Delhi, a 320 acre city in Kolkata, a 7000 sq.ft villa and a project with a thousand apartments.
What is great is how we have managed to compress the aforesaid scale. Let me explain this with an example of a Vijay Shanti project of nearly a million sq.ft and a thousand apartments. The designs were completed and approved by the client. The developer got back to us with a need for changes. This was a shift in the market had been identified and we needed to incorporate the newly identified requirements into the project.
We went back to the drawing board and re-designed the entire project within three weeks. This was complicated to say the least and massively aggressive. At the end of the day, Abiboo’s first preference will always be to spend more time on the design stage. A right balance between scale, context and time needs to be achieved. This is because a mismanagement of time means our Research and Development stage takes a hit and this means the design’s creativity takes a hit and that affects the firm’s objective which is to always come up with innovative design”.
How does Chennai’s story unfold?
Equipped with industry and customer intel from Indian and international markets, Munoz shared his view of the Chennai’s realty development in the near future. He compared the city with the likes of Bangalore and Mumbai, testifying to the latter two’s growth in real estate at the moment. Munoz believes that.” Chennai has many opportunities and a few challenges. There has been a phase of over development in the last year which is why things are slowing down in the construction context”.
Abiboo’s founder assimilates what he has gathered from his colleagues, partners and clients in the market to foresee Chennai’s realty future being more stable in the next year. This could be without the city showing the kind of growth that Bangalore and Mumbai are posting, right now. What stands in Chennai’s favour is the extensive cash in the market. Munoz explains his point of view saying, “Chennai’s traditional quality ensures that it is not exposed to volatility like other cities are. And while this slightly slow pace might continue for a year at most, things will change post that.”
Clear Estate was inquisitive about Chennai being a potential melting pot of international talent. Could the city really become a competitive real estate hub where construction, architecture, interior design and project management become fair play for world class brand names? To this, Munoz responded quite practically stating that, “India holds a population that is equal to one-tenth of the world’s population. That means, there are lots of people looking for something of value, for something better”.
Abiboo, spreading its wings
Capitalising on the afore mentioned burgeoning Indian market is a priority for Abiboo. Munoz confirmed intentions to open up offices in other cities within the country. He referred to an internal office that has been set up at Mumbai to complement the constant back and forth between the Chennai and the former. Projects in Bangalore are handled resourcefully through the Chennai office because of proximity to the city and the support of local partners in Bangalore, itself. When expansion is evaluated in earnest, Munoz agrees that he will need to decide between opening up more officers or increasing the number of personnel in existing locations.
While on the spread of work in Chennai, Munoz alluded to a few projects on hand. He is working with Vijay Shanti on a colossal project, a second developer in Chennai which at the moment will remain confidential pending official announcement, numerous private residences in Chennai in areas like Nungambakkam and Adyar. There is also an eight luxury villa project in East Coast Road (ECR), Chennai. However considering that the pace of work is slow in Chennai, the projects keeping the teams busy are the ones in Kolkata, Mumbai and Bangalore.
Alfredo Munoz, the global personality who embodies qualities of a category leader did admit that the Abiboo team will always be more emotionally attached to the Chennai market. But having said that, he also clarified that, “The demand across the country can truly benefit from our singular approach to high quality and originality. Just as we have learned a lot from our experience in other countries, I have learned a lot from India and I intend to stay for a very long time”.