What do the Las Vegas Strip, Disneyland, and Infosys’s recently inaugurated Global Education Center (GEC-2) have in common? They all seem to have an affinity for architecture that borders on absurdity while being out of context, out of scale and out of touch with reality. At least Vegas and Disneyland derive their identity through artifice. They pretend to be someplace they are not, and yet they are perfectly at ease with the caricatures they purport. You don’t go to Vegas or Disneyland to experience nature, enjoy high art or be intellectually stimulated. In Vegas, memorialized architectural regurgitation in meticulously scaled miniatures are perfect settings that numb the senses in preparation for the soporific jingle of slot machines and the ceaseless nervous flicker of colored lights. These are destinations to seek out imagineered fantasies and elusive jackpots – the land of neon rainbows, fried ice cream, talking animals, plastic smiles and surgical breasts. In those placeless spaces, being disingenuous is a virtue. The objective is to have a good time in a space that is stripped of time.
But the GEC-2 is not a tourist trap; it’s meant to be a seat of learning, even though in service of a corporation. Shouldn’t such a location reflect the spirit of learning and innovation that is supposed to define the “new” India? Yet, when we look at the GEC-2, we find an architectural aberration that seems to have materialized when particles from the Roman Coliseum and the Rashtrapathi Bhavan fused with a garish luxury development spawned by a mega-developer in a fantastic mid-air collision. A hybridized blob of thousand McMansions–from suburban USA to those in Whitefield outside Bangalore–frozen in time and memorialized in space, in the middle of a transnational architectural orgy. Make-believe columns and inoperable windows. Conference rooms with Victorian window dressing. Styrofoam false ceiling meets the plaster of paris architraves. The bluish green glow of flourescent tubes illuminates the empty hallways and relentless rows of concrete arches. Structural steel embraces the entablature. Almost every window ordained with a pediment putting the Greeks to shame.
But why did one of the most respected information technology firms in India, rated among the top ten innovative companies in the county, spend a fortune, only to end up making their flagship training center – Global Education Center-2 — look like a cross between a Vegas casino and a vinyl stage set for a historic television soap? Why did the company mentor Mr. Narayan Murthy, known for his modesty, succumb to architectural megalomania? What possessed the sophisticated, jet setting company leadership to identify themselves with the Roman and Greek architectural ornamentation when the future of the technology is increasingly shifting towards the microseconds and nano particles? Why would a company that offers generous rewards to the best and the brightest scientific minds in a wide range of disciplines hire an architect whose works are typically employed as pedagogic examples of how not to practice architecture? Someone who is known for his quantity rather than quality?
In the 1967 film “The Graduate,” Mr. McGuire emphatically offers a single word of advice to Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock: “Plastics.” Perhaps the brainstorming session for defining the character and goals of the new training center began and ended with one word: “Awe.” And the building seems to have achieved the goal of unleashing shock and awe with its sheer mass and disorienting ornamentation. Whether it’s a fresh trainee from the country’s rural heartland or a returning employee from an overcrowded metropolis working on his leadership training, the ‘world’s largest training facility’ is bound to wow most of its visitors as they struggle to frame the edifice within the bounds of their point-and-shoot viewfinders. Perhaps most of them would walk way with a sense of pride for having trained in this facility. Indeed, this new age coliseum is spawning freshly minted gladiators – the next generation of technological warriors eager to please a voracious audience of company shareholders in the capitalist ring of free market outsourcing, .
Why should they care about the isolated critical voices who think the building is a grotesque manifestation of misguided priorities? Why should they care if the entire structure is a basket of poorly detailed architectural kitsch? Why should it be of any concern that the blank wall in their conference room has half a dozen dummy windows on its exterior in the service of Roman architectural aspirations?
Infosys is not alone in attempting to memorialize its growing influence through architecture. Since early twentieth century, world-class companies have sought to leave behind longstanding architectural legacies – some more successfully than others. The Chrysler building by William Van Allen in the late thirties in Manhattan is still one of the most graceful skyscrapers to adorn the Manhattan skyline. The General Motors Technical Center designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1955 was a modernist masterpiece that was honored by the American Institute of Architects in 1986 as the most outstanding architectural project of that era. The much acclaimed headquarter building for Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank designed by Norman Foster Associates and completed in 1985 was a technological masterpiece of that time that redefined the practice of prefabricated skyscraper design. More recently, Adobe’s headquarters in San Jose is the first office building in the US to earn LEED Platinum status in 2006. Yet, within the largest corporate training facility in the world, size seems to trump all other imperatives. The result is nothing more than a relentless laundry list of seemingly superlative numbers– 1.44 million square feet, 147 training rooms, 485 faculty rooms, 42 conference rooms… –shrink wrapped in disingenuous ornamentation.
Perhaps Infosys had its reasons the employ architectural scale in letting the world know it has arrived. But the utter lack of inventiveness and critical thought that accompanied Infosys’s realization of “the largest monolithic classical building in post Independent India” has meant that the country’s bellwether information technology giant has lost one too many opportunities: the opportunity to engage innovative architectural minds in the country and abroad, the opportunity to embrace nature and the human scale, the opportunity to bring people together in the true spirit of learning. Lost is the opportunity to create memorable architectural sequences with materiality, light and space, and the opportunity to realize a context sensitive, ecologically responsive and environmentally responsible architecture. What a shame!