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Fretting our way into the future
von Bertsch Georg-Christof | 2/16/2010

Probably more than any other design project, the "Chrome" hotel (it is a member of the local "Chocolate" group, which seeks to combine style and crisis, enjoyment and monetary sense) stands for the bumbling renaissance of the west Bengal metropolis of Calcutta, which since 2001 has officially been called Kolkata. Hidden away behind a concrete wall with a metal sliding door painted silver, the hotel makes a programmatic statement. With this seven-storey luxury hotel on a congested street, architect Sanjay Puri from Delhi has shown that Indian and Western designs blend to create something truly unique: a nonchalant Indo style.

"It has overtones of the London of the 1990s, the radii and colors evoke memories of the early days of the ‘100% design' trade fair", muses designer Chhatarpati Dutta. He sips his whisky on the rocks and has a look around the curved walls. "The wood paneling and veneers are not bad. But the ornaments that seem to be laser milled are undoubtedly cut out by hand, with a fretsaw." Dutta, who runs out an art project with flood victims in the Sundabarns, the tidal delta of the Ganges and Brahmaputra river, treats my enthusiasm for the style with some trepidation and responds with a rather serene "interesting". His priorities lie elsewhere.

Cultural manager Amrita Dhara has a different take on this issue of luxury: "Only a few lucky ones can afford this. But there is something liberating about it. It is the spaciousness and clarity for which everyone longs in this overloaded city." Of course, the "Chrome" is also a reflection of a class conflict in this mega-city, dogged as it is by so many problems. However, it is a symbol of the growing cultural confidence of an entire people, too.

Deval Tibrewalla, the 24-year-old CEO of the Chocolate group, attaches the greatest importance to "anticyclical investments in the midst of the financial crisis". The third-generation scion of a hotel-owning family learnt his trade at the Ecole hôtelière in Lausanne. "We would like to make a statement. The Chrome is a special statement in a very special spot of the city."

This design building, which to Western eyes looks rather misplaced between the ragged homeless people under the fly-over, is a real success. It may not be "new" in the sense of "dérnier cri". However, it is exactly this contradictoriness of a style hotel in the communist ruled megalopolis which makes it so intriguing. On the one hand, there is a mixture of fake furniture, spacious gestures and structural deficiencies, on the other hand, there is a fresh and perfectly natural elegance, there is style, and there is a lot of courage. As crooked as the porthole windows may be if you examine them up close, they evidence a strong wish to resemble nonchalant decoration. As much as the bar stools seem to be stapled together by hand, they are proof of open eyes, a clear head and the wish for progress. In a place like this, the combination of all this is much more than just a replica. It is an original and self-confident statement, a revolt against what is purportedly impossible here. It is Deval Tibrewalla, young and unstoppable; he wanted a hotel that looks like a "Swiss cheese from the outside and is simply better than the usual design hotels on the inside."

If we consider that in this former capital of the British Crown Colony almost every building has its own power generators, that people take their own septic tank and their water supplier of confidence for granted, then the project by architect Puri is all the more wonderful. Aspiring to style (and getting it built into the bargain) in this place, six meters above the rising sea levels of the Bay of Bengal, is more than the trade fairs Ambiente, Salone de Mobile and Kortrijk taken together.

Puri's generation builds in India and for the Indian people. Almost all the guests are fellow Indians. He builds for an audience who has seen the world and is now slowly returning to the subcontinent. Above all, he shows how, in an imperceptible and yet compelling manner, Indian design is emerging beyond all the saris and kali temples.

"There is a lot of passivity in Kolkata, which is certainly also due to the to the stifling humidity", suggests sociologist Surendra Munshi, who has been living here since the age of four. "It is a city of mismanagement but also of a human warmth that does not let go of anyone who comes here." His wife, who stands opposite me at a cocktail reception, wearing an elegant sari, agrees: "Life in a place with 35° Celsius at night and 100 percent humidity turns people into sloth-like creatures!"

Kolkata is a poor, an extremely poor place, a big city with extensive slums, home to thousands of immigrants from Bangladesh and many refugees from the Sundabarns. With its numerous universities and research institutes, however, it is also India's city of science. It hosts Asia's largest sports stadium. 15 million people reside on both sides of the Hoogli River despite all adversities, all in pursuit of a better future. As has always been the case in India, design, form, beauty and grace form part of it. This is the message of the "Chrome": We can succeed.

All photos: Hotel "Chrome" in Kolkata, © Georg-Christof Bertsch