Castles in the sky
Even India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani, CMD of Reliance Industries, could not find a large area of land in Mumbai to build himself a new home. The tiny strip that constitutes Mumbai has so little land left that it is close to imploding. Denied the pleasure of building a palatial estate amid rambling landscaped gardens in the heart of the city, Ambani had no choice but to spread himself upwards instead and build a US$1 billion vertical home on 27 floors.
Such is the land scarcity in India's commercial capital where 14 million residents jostle for space that even its millionaires and billionaires struggle to find a home. Not that they are homeless - it hasn't quite come to that yet. Just that finding a home commensurate with their wealth and social status, located in the only place that counts - the centre of the city - and providing the high class amenities that the rich expect all over the world is tough in Mumbai. With the demand for luxury on the rise, this gap for high-end homes is being filled by the prestigious World One residential tower, a 117-storey colossus coming up on seven hectares of prime land in Upper Worli.
The developers, the Lodha Group, say World One, at more than 440 metres, will be the tallest residential tower in the world, taller than Queensland Number 1 in Australia, the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago and the Jin Mao Tower in Shanghai. The 300 flats and villas will cost from US$2 million to US$20 million.
The specifications of the US$440 million complex, designed by New York-based architects Pei Cobb Freed & Partners, are striking: the villas have massive curved windows with 270-degree views of the Arabian Sea and the mansions have 360-degree views; the interiors, including all the fittings, upholstery and carpets, have been conceived by Giorgio Armani; there are private pools, gyms, a clubhouse and spa; gardens provide space to breathe; it is encased in high-level security; and has an open-air observatory 300 metres above ground with views of the city and the sea.
This being India, where everyone is religious, each home will have a puja (prayer room). This being India, where no one likes to walk even a few metres, each floor will have its own parking space close to the homes. And this being India, the servants will have separate entrances and lifts to minimise interclass mingling.
'It's a first for Indian buyers. Bombay's rich are exposed to the very best in comfort, amenities, and aesthetic surroundings when they go abroad but this is the first time they will be able to have this experience in Bombay,' says R. Karthik, chief marketing officer of the Lodha Group.
An executive with Dun & Bradstreet says that millionaire homes are 'the need of the hour'. The response to Dun & Bradstreet's show earlier this year in Mumbai showcasing upcoming millionaires' homes was positive. 'We had over 800 visitors, all looking for a luxury home. There has been a surge in demand for such homes.'
By 'home', people in Mumbai do not mean a house. The concept does not exist owing to the land shortage. Even a millionaire's home will be a flat. No builder will build a single home on a coveted plot; when real estate is among the most expensive in the world, he stands to make much more money by building a tower. A garden is an unattainable luxury. Instead, everyone hankers after a sea view - the only thing that gives you a sense of space in a city so overcrowded it's been dubbed 'Slumbai'.
But Lodha and other developers are not just building opulent homes; they are altering the city's skyline. High-rise residential towers for the rich are mushrooming in the heart of the city in areas such as Lower Parel, Dadar and Prabhadevi.
Builders are erecting shopping malls and dream homes for the rapidly growing number of Indian millionaires created by Asia's third-largest economy. A report by the Swiss banking group Julius Baer last year predicted that India will have 403,000 dollar millionaires by 2015.
About 30 high-rises are under construction. Some are ready for the owners to move in. 'Over 60 per cent of the homes in World One have already been sold and the complex won't even be ready till 2014,' says Karthik.
A two-day drive from Mumbai, in Pune, the London-based design powerhouse Yoo, co-founded by Philippe Starck, will soon be opening its doors in its first foray into India's luxury residential market. Called YooPune, this will be a modern five-star sanctuary offering world-class design.
'A lot more people in India now understand brand value, appreciate quality and don't mind paying extra for it. So far, this has applied to luxury goods. Now this understanding applies to the real estate market as well,' says New Delhi architect Ranjan Aggarwal.
For Abhisheck Lodha, managing director of the Lodha Group, his great hope is that World One - which will have a smaller, twin tower next to it - will become an iconic structure in Mumbai symbolising the spirit of the city. While India has been trumpeting its arrival on the world stage for some time now, it has failed to erect a building that embodies its new status as a rising economic power. World One, its developers hope, may be the answer.