Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Asphalt Godowns to an IT Company

Since Indian IT Company's architecture are started competing with best world architects, an pretty old Asphalt tobacco godown has been renovated to Beautiful IT Software Company in Bangalore.

Driving from the airport into this city that has become India's technology hub, visitors are struck by the gleam of steel-and-glass high-rise office and apartment buildings with names like Golden Enclave and Diamond District. Farther along, dozens of box-shaped, glass-encased buildings carry signboards of the biggest Western high-tech companies.

In contrast to these unabashed clones of buildings in Palo Alto or San Jose is a 37-acre campus in the heart of the city whose granite- and terra cotta-adorned buildings are set among decades-old trees and painted in vibrant Indian shades of brick red and deep green. The buildings have names from the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit, while the rooms within are named after the ancient books of learning, the Vedas. Every morning the Indian flag is ceremonially hoisted on a central flagpole, an unusual practice for businesses here. At lunchtime, the chirping of birds mixes with the chatter of workers in the open spaces . Young men in jeans and polo shirts and women in colorful salwar kameez (an Indian tunic and trouser suit) linger along the stone-paved avenues.

The campus, with its distinctive architecture, is the headquarters of a four-year-old outsourcing company called ITC Infotech. With 4,000 employees and $55 million in revenues, the company's professed philosophy is not to let its workplace be an imitation of countless modern buildings. Flouting the local fashion for buildings with names like Hi-Tech Tower or Software Techcity, the company calls its campus simply the ITC Infotech Park. As its managing director, Sanjay Verma said, "This campus reflects our Indian-ness."

The tranquil expanse that blends the old and the new provides relief amid the concrete and glass structures in Bangalore, a city that the World Bank lists as among the fastest growing in the world. The country's biggest domestic outsourcing companies like Infosys Technologies and Wipro are headquartered here, as are the Indian branches of multinationals like Intel and Texas Instruments.

In the last decade, the boom in the outsourcing of services from Western countries has brought about a construction explosion in the once quiet and orderly Bangalore. Call center and software services companies have grabbed whatever high-rise buildings that have sprouted up, as if overnight, with scant regard to urban planning or design.

"Companies say, 'We need a million square feet of space,' then go to their laptops and slap aluminum and glass over the million square feet," said Bob Hoekstra, head of the software division at Philips Electronics India.

Mr. Hoekstra, who is campaigning for the local government to improve facilities like roads, traffic systems and public transport, said multinationals like Intel and SAP AG had given little thought to aesthetics. "Intel's campus looks like a parking lot with a building in the middle; SAP's resembles the Frankfurt airport," he said.

In the new buildings of Bangalore, and other outsourcing centers like nearby Chennai or Gurgaon in the suburbs of New Delhi, academics see an eagerness to conform to what is perceived here as the Western taste.

"Companies psychologically feel that their Western clients want to come here and see something that looks familiar and efficient," said Aparna Narasimhan, an architect at the Bangalore-based firm Venkataramanan Associates, which has designed buildings for Infosys and General Electric.

When ITC Infotech set out three years ago to plan its campus, it bucked such trends. Opportunely, its parent, ITC Ltd., a 100-year-old cigarette maker with interests in hotels, apparel and food products, offered its defunct tobacco manufacturing complex in central Bangalore. But one architect after another suggested the same plan: bulldoze the 36 tobacco warehouses and replace them with glass-and-steel high-rises. Mr. Verma, ITC Infotech's top executive, who first joined the parent company as a young shift engineer at this tobacco complex in 1981, found this idea repugnant. Finally, the company came to the Bangalore-based architect Krishnarao Jaisim, who agreed with Mr. Verma that the old structures and environment were worth preserving.

Mr. Jaisim, whose firm is named Jaisim Fountainhead, in reference to the Ayn Rand novel, said his work had always been defined by the book's central character, the architect Howard Roark.

"I read the book in the 1960's; it has been my moral guideline ever since," he said. The book influenced him to work on his own terms and abhor commercialism, he said.

For ITC Infotech, Mr. Jaisim said he wanted to come up with a plan that would retain the character of the old warehouses while upgrading them.

"When I started, the warehouses stank of tobacco and every road was covered with asphalt," he said.

Three years later, two dozen of the warehouses have been modified to seat hundreds of workers each, and most of the streets have been paved with local stone. The architect retained the shell of the old high-ceilinged warehouses. Besides the strikingly minimal use of glass and steel, these buildings have unusual new touches: walls made of hollow terra-cotta blocks, flat stone tables and acoustic-friendly ceilings that are fashioned out of earthen pots. The giant century-old chimney, ancient trees and even an old fire station have been left standing.

One jarring note is the unusual number of smokers on the campus. Unlike other outsourcing firms, where smoking is frowned upon, at this subsidiary of India's biggest cigarette maker the practice is not discouraged.

The distinctive marks of the company's ideas have paid off for ITC Infotech in unexpected ways.

"Many employees feel a strong sense of pride in their unique campus," said Anirvan Mukherjee, a systems analyst who joined ITC Infotech nearly three years ago.

"One of the high points of working here is the campus," said Mr. Mukherjee, adding that his workplace was the envy of all his friends.

Mr. Verma said that in Bangalore, where competition for skilled talent is intense, "Our campus is a great differentiator."

It is a refreshing change from the "clipped, almost Californian, presentation of the typical campus" said Simon P. Bentley, vice president for application development at DHL, one of ITC Infotech's customers. Mr. Bentley said it is a "beautiful oasis in the midst of the daily noise and difficulty" of life in Bangalore. It was as comfortable and efficient as his own offices in Scottsdale, Ariz., he said, but with a "more enviable" natural environment.

Aesthetic examples such as ITC Infotech are rare, said Kamal Sagar, a Bangalore architect whose firm, Total Environment, prides itself on creating structures that incorporate greenery and local building materials.

"Every company wants to outdo the other," said Mr. Sagar, citing the spaceship- and Sydney Opera House-inspired food courts at Infosys's headquarters and its plans to build origami-shaped buildings in nearby Mysore. "Companies like Infosys and Wipro have the power to shape Bangalore's skyline," he said, "and so they should."

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