Its Sunday morning and as I sift through the morning papers the word jumps out at me – the Property Supplement’s use of the word goes far beyond a crutch word – it actually forms the body of the text. And the clear indication is that luxury can be interchanged with ‘expensive’ or upmarket first and then most often “branded” and thereafter sometimes, opulent and crass and finally perhaps, with comfortable, but rarely, sensuous.
As architects the realization that our primary and often only clients exist within this domain of ‘luxury’ is one that we don’t always make our peace with. As Charles Correa once said in an early 1980’s article – “we suffer from the schizophrenia of thinking for the poor and building for the rich”. For a profession as idealistic as ours, this is a bitter pill to swallow and one that is ameliorated perhaps, only by our role as ecological saviours and cultural guardians. So given that we are all in the profession of ‘luxury’ building in a country where less than 10% of the population actually interfaces with an architect, how do we interpret and critique the expressions of luxury in our profession– especially if luxury is simply about catering to “an inessential desirable item” (dictionary meaning).
Perhaps the associations with luxury can first be defined – Italian marble, German kitchens, French wall finishes, automated homes in the interior space and oversized buildings with abundant light and glass and perhaps skins and crowns would qualify in the architectural category. So as architects, then, is our role simply that of assembling and combining “luxury brands” into opulent interior spaces and grandiose boxes of conditioned air and artificial light and intelligence? Whether this constitutes architecture or not, it certainly represents one form of luxury – what I define as Packaged Luxury. Most of the luxury apartments on sale, the interior design of residential apartments and corporate offices is an assembly of branded products – perhaps aesthetically chosen, but highly reliant on the quality and ornamental value of the product to lend a sense of luxury to the space they inhabit.
The second association is with what I call Crafted Luxury - Indian marbles, inlays of semi precious stones, contemporary or antique screens, beautiful handmade fabrics and sculpture and selected art and craft adorning araish walls. More skilful and by far more sensuous than the packaged variety - the best example of this is the Devigarh Palace Hotel, the Udai and Amar Vilas Hotels and generally the homes of very tasteful Indophiles!
The association that we, as a practice have had with luxury has been that of a Spatial Luxury – the craft of space with a quality of light and form that can transform an environment from the mundane to the profane without the requisite dependencies on material and product. This perhaps has been the legacy of the Modern Movement where democracy and industrialization required beauty to be distilled through the essentials - the legacy of ‘less is more” or as equally, “more is less”. This definition of luxury, first expounded through the Barcelona Pavilion has not been an easy one to follow – its problematic expression visible in many a modern monster.
We present here two projects that represent this form of luxury in very different spheres but with similar attitudes. The Synergy factory in Karur with its use of courtyards and light wells has brought to the environment of a work space traditionally associated with labour and tedium, the feeling of luxury with the added dimension of eliminating air-conditioning and artificial lighting. The benefit of harvesting water through light wells only adds sensory value through sound and shimmer.
Similarly the use of a form that shields the user from rain and sun, resulted in the leaf house at Alibag where a weekend home depends entirely on its form, its volumes and its interplay of light and space to create comfort and the extra edge beyond comfort associated with luxury.
Interestingly and unfortunately, it is a culture’s association with luxury that lives well beyond its lifetime and goes into the annals of recorded living. Every great era in the history of mankind is recalled through its monuments, its record of how the elite worshipped, lived or died. Luxury is perhaps the most recorded element of human life, even if it is available as we discussed earlier to a small percentage of the population. And, as Malcolm Gladwell points out in “The Tipping Point” – ideas spread like epidemics and through the “Law of the Few” – ‘in a given process or system some people matter more than others” – so luxury has the power, with its aspirational qualities to affect society radically. Which is why luxury matters and how we choose it and what we choose will determine, eventually, how our civilization unfolds and how it will be viewed in posterity!
- First published in TRENDS Magazine