Friday, November 26, 2010

sublime or ridiculous?

I was wondering what it might be that the uber-rich like to spend their ill-gotten gains purchasing. I know about yachts, mansions, fancy cars, fabulous jewels, antiques, famous paintings, and other trinkets but the strangest thing I found was this - the world's most expensive house.

I was so unnerved by it I had to post this extra picture so you could see it against the skyline. It's a recently completed building in Mumbai, India and is home to India's richest man, Mukesh Ambani. The house, which cost more than $1billion, is 27 stories tall but at 568 ft would be a 60 storey building if it had normal ceilings. It has 398,000 sq ft of living space that requires a staff of more than 600 people to care for him, his wife, and three children. Mukesh Ambani wasn't from Dharavi but his father, who made the original fortune, came from very modest means. It's sad to see such a bizarre example of conspicuous consumption in a country that's one of the poorest on the planet.

Speaking of spending money wisely for housing, I came across an article from last autumn's NY Times about a Wisconsin forester-architect who uses small, whole trees to build houses, greenhouses and larger buildings. The economic slowdown has put several contracts he'd anticipated from non-profit companies on hold but not so strangely, a lot of people have been asking him for small houses. At $100 per square foot, imagine how many nice little houses Mr Ambani could have built for the price of his personal skyscraper? I'm sure there would have been enough for homes for his 600 staff members who likely do live in Dharavi.

Yes, wealthy people do what they like with their money but the fact is that they mistake the true wealth of the world in their calculations. In today's culture of profit, we don't produce goods based on human need. We don't build houses based on population needs. We don't grow food to feed people. Instead, we're decimating our renewable natural resources to rip non-renewables out of the ground.

 There are many clever and talented people in the world like the forester-architect and lots of room for other ways of doing things. I don't know what will happen in the future but it makes me feel better about today knowing he and others like him are here.


  1. Wow. I'm a little speechless about the house in India. As a species, I think we're breeding the ability for shame out of existence. But I know that's not really true. I still see plenty of it. It's just so often misplaced.

    It is good to know that there are people like the forester/ architect.

    I've been having small house fantasies. That's next.

  2. Great post, Susan!

    We don't always have to do something, simply because we can do it. Mr. Ambani doesn't seem to have realised that.

    And *whispers* ... between you and me, I think his house is ugly!

  3. lisa - I couldn't believe my eyes when I first saw the place. These people really are the shame of our race - no wonder they hide.

    You have a few years yet of needing room and besides, I doubt there are many small houses available that are less expensive.

    francis - There's also a tradition in India of the householder saint. I don't know why he couldn't have built a neighbourhood and lived there.. maybe with a slightly bigger room for him and his family :-)

    Oh yes, it is ugly.

  4. I have no words...i did think that 'maybe' his 'staff' lived in this monstrosity, perhaps in the basement or the bottom floors? this is just disgusting in ALL ways...thanks for the opposite story to help ease the anguish at the human condition...

    and on a completely different note, i do hope your weekend is turning out to be relaxing and full of the sun.xox

  5. the only good thing about having a 60-story-sized house is he provided jobs for 600 people.
    but i wonder if he only pays them minimum wage?

    it costs 700 rupees per square foot to build and furnish a modern school in india. 700 rupees is about $15.30 USD. a 5000sq school would cost less than $80,000 to build.

    the literacy rate in india is less than 75% overall. For adults, the rate is only about 67%.

    For the cost of his palace, mr. ambani could have built and furnished over 10,000 fully-equipped schools with enough money left over for an opulant $200+ million dollar "house."

    by the way, by comparison, the taj mahal was completed in 1653. it took 21 years to build. The cost to build it, in today's dollars, was about one billion dollars-- exactly the same as mr. ambani's house.

  6. First of all, a belated Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Everyday should be a spiritual Thanksgiving, sans the turkey.
    I've been through Stoddard many times. It is about 160 miles from where I live, but on those weekend motorcycle rides down the Mississippi River, I get through there somewhat often. I'll have to look for one of these tree homes.
    I once rigged an aluminum canoe with sails. I had one mast and one sail. A friend, who is an architect, did a series of drawings, each with more masts and mnore sails on that simple 17 foot canoe. His caption was this:
    "From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a short leap". No one needs a house like the one you picture. Capitalism at its best.
    You wrote: "We don't grow food to feed people. Instead, we're decimating our renewable natural resources to rip non-renewables out of the ground."
    I think we do what we do for money, period. Profit by all and any means. Sad state of affairs.
    I've been busy. Glad I finally had a chance to stop by.


  7. Wow... thanks for the Heads up on the NYT article. The location is only about forty five minutes from where I grew up. Beautiful country, as Spadoman can attest. I will have to check it further the next time I travel that way.

  8. Aye, aye, you've touched on a serious pet peeve of mine - excellent post! I love that image you've chosen of the home with a tree in it providing the most wonderful railing to that balcony.

    I see we're "talking' to each other at the same time - your comment came in while I was reading here :-)

  9. linda - My guess is that a few probably live there but most would not. Can you imagine such a person putting up with family lives going on downstairs?

    Thanks for the good wishes. I send the same to you.

    sera - The 600 jobs was my feeling too. I guess the salaries would depend on whether one was polishing the ballroom floor or flying one of the helicopters.

    Your breakdown of school costs and literacy rates is most interesting. Considering he only used a small portion of his total fortune to build his house, I'm sure he has money to educate the the whole population.

    The Taj Mahal is at least arguably the most beautiful building in the world and thus worth the effort. This one not so much.

    spadoman - I hope yours was very good too and i agree with you about being aware of the gifts of life every day.

    I hope you can drop by their place in Stoddard. The article was a revelation to me as well when I really needed one after reading about that other place. We all know there are fabulous places in this country (well, yes, Canada too) where the super wealthy live in splendid and opulent isolation from the rest of us. The idea that this guy can be so blatant is a nasty sign and, as you say, a sad one.

    Take good care on your travels.

    okjimm - I hoped you'd come by to see this one. I'd love to hear more about their place from someone who can go and meet them. What we saw of Wisconsin on our way across the country was very beautiful.

    marja-leena - It's one of my serious pet peeves too. The link also has a gallery of pictures of their place including one of their daughter climbing down from that loft. It's all very unique and beautiful.

    Happy we had a mutual visit :-)

  10. so you don't think in 350 years, people will be touring mr. ambani's house and revering it as a 21st century arhitectural (or cultural) wonder?

  11. Just think of the difference it might have made to hire 600 teachers or nurses rather than 600 floor polishers.

    The wealthy generally fail to appreciate/acknowledge that "their" wealth is "parasited" off the efforts of great numbers of others. To give back to those who bear them up would be not just appropriate, but appropriately just.

  12. Can something be both sublime and ridiculous? It makes me think of the Vatican, it seems both to me. The Vatican is excessive and was built by the sweat and suffering of poor all over the world and yet is magnificent in its own strange way and it does inspire hope and faith and good deeds( and also oppression---I suppose everything has good and bad in it). All great feats of architecture have a bit of both. Of course they aren't necessary and money could be better spent but I do think great architecture inspires. I hear you, I know it is an absurd amount of money. The Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, and countless other excesses in architecture have been lambasted and ridiculed for their excesses but there is something about bold, brazen and excessive structures that seem to inspire peoples imagination. I hope Dhraravi also uses his wealth to help his country and their poor.

    And, I LOVE the story about Mr. Ambani. Thanks for sharing it.

  13. I could be very happy in that little house. The railing of the loft is so sweet. :-)

    I read an article about a recent best seller NY Times journalist Chris Hedges. Sorry I don't know how to make html tags easily on blogger. I found the article at Sherry's blog, After the Bridge. She posts a ton of interesting links on her blog and just keeps them coming.

    Hedges' opinions are right-on and so frightening. We are a crumbling empire in the U.S. Hell, the whole world is in ruins.

  14. I feel the same dismay you do over this conspicuous consumption. I happen to like smaller houses--easier to clean and you can't have too much stuff. :)

  15. Why would I come to think of this (old) joke?
    Somewhere in the U.S.A.: Two friend walking. Says one: 'See the Mercedes 500? One day I shall drive such a car.'
    Somewhere in Germany: Two friends walking. Says one: 'See the Mercedes 500? Sooner or later its driver will walk, too.'

    This much about different attitudes.

    Why would one offer neighbours' children unpaid private lessons, and others not?

    It's not 'but' about noblesse oblige /richesse oblige.
    I am convinced: It has to start with us and our neighbours.

    See Haiti? The poorest of the poorest enslaving orphans?!

    Oh dear. Yes. I am thinking too much.

    Phew! And much too talkative to become I do allow myself, these days.

    Seems this was an inspiring post, Susan. :)

  16. sera - My guess is it won't be standing in 350 years :-)

    cr - No doubt it would make a huge difference here too but because of the general poverty there, it's so much more egregious.

    The thing that perturbs me most is their greed and fear. Scrooge McDuck run amok.

    belette - Of course things can be both and it's in our nature to just see the bright side of whatever monumental structures history has presented us with. Many people lived in crushing poverty but usually buildings of immense size and grandeur took generations to build and there was an inherent pride of accomplishment in their combined effort. There was room for individuals to add their own embellishments to great buildings too. It's also true that until very recently most people lived outside of cities.

    I've always felt much better about the Pyramids since I learned they were built using alien levitation devices :-)

    pagan sphinx - Chis Hedges columns appear every Monday on Truthdig. He's always interesting to read and has been getting more depressed by public myopia in America for quite some time. The problem is that the country needs more education about what's really going on behind the scenes and the media isn't providing that. Fortunately, people like your friend Sherry are finding the links and providing some direction. Unfortunately, more of them still prefer 'dancing with the stars'.

    liberality - It's just so unnecessary and people and the world are so much more interesting than fortresses. I like smaller houses too and good neighbors next door and on-line :-)

  17. sean - The joke was a good one and does show a big difference in prevailing attitudes between the old world and America. I think in general Europeans are more used to seeing themselves as citizens who are in it together while Americans have a long history of division. Advertising and public relations aren't about bringing people together.

    You're right that the cure for the ills of our time has to start with mutual caring.

  18. sigh. it doesn't just happen in India and 'away'. i had a local businessman whom we were lead to believe was donating kitchen cabinets for our current build, in my Habitat for Humanity office the other day. he drove up in a Lincoln Continental (only one among a fleet of 'impressive' cars he owns), wearing very expensive clothes and handed me an invoice for $10,000. then he had the gall to say, "well, a fella's got to fed the family".

  19. It is somewhat ironic in a city predominated by slums you see one family residence occupying 27-floors worth a reported 1 billion.
    However I noticed the Indian press responses vary; some commentators call it distasteful and vulgar- as we would report from our western eyes, whilst others confirm the typical Mumbaian harbors no resentment; the building marks just another landmark of modern India to which they all aspire. That architecture is a long way from the ideals of Aristotle’s most beautiful city and the buildings appearance to me sticks out like a sore thumb on the landscape.
    Fortunately many Indian companies are now proactive towards sustainable issues, but overall lag their counterparts overseas. Down under logging of native forests has now all but vanished in favour of sustainable plantations. I’m not sure about your Wisconsin man whose forest hopefully is left in such a state which enables it to be sustainable?
    Best wishes

  20. What a contrast! I love the little houses - hooray that people still want that rather than huge and ostentatious. And I'm with Francis Hunt - Mr Ambani's house is hideous. Seraphine's mention of the Taj Mahal was startling. It makes obvious the major differences - one was a shrine to love and a gift to the world - a wonder of beauty. The other is as ugly as a concrete bunker and a monument to selfishness.

  21. gfid - That is really one of the most outrageous things I've ever heard. What a sad and despicable character. I'm hoping the cabinets hadn't been delivered and installed yet. If so, maybe you could hit them with a hammer and ship them back at his expense as being defective.

    lindsay - Yes, Dharavi isn't the only slum in Mumbai, nor the biggest, but it is the most famous. Perhaps there are people there who hope to win a lottery and become another Slumdog Millionaire. Others, of course, will also be trying to move up the business ladder but that still doesn't mean it's right to value ostentatious wealth.

    The article about Ronald Gunderson, the forester architect in Wisconsin, was interesting to me particularly because he does use trees that loggers would ignore. They are weed trees like small aspens that were crowding out oak trees. He shapes and prunes the smaller trees as they grow and strips them of bark where they stand before cutting them down for building. He also uses standing dead trees such as the elms that were killed by disease many years ago in North America. He and his wife are part of a community forest project and have about 1000 trees people who want to build homes can choose from.

    It was interesting finding two such different views.

  22. steve - I imagine the lower floors of Mr Ambani's house having slits windows for the hired guns and pots of boiling oil just in case. It's very difficult to compare the circumstances when very old buildings were erected with what happens today. Before our era the people who participated in such projects had a deep respect for the harmonies of natural form and building truly was an art and form of grace. I think that's what Hundertwasser and Gaudi both saw and it's what many of us prefer even if we can't build our own little houses.

  23. Susan – thanks for your feedback – I don’t imply its right to value ostentatious wealth, but the reality in much of the developing world does. I have heard it said and I agree that in some ways much of the developing world in terms of community has what we need but they want what we don’t need.
    Even in the more developed economies I saw in South Africa amidst a building boom frenzy for the world cup in Joberg where the billions being spent could be much more wisely have been spent in my view on enhanced community projects. But the general population doest not think that way. It is most certainly true for large parts of both India and China as peasants unwisely flock from the country to the cities. There are some encouraging signs nevertheless I think that it is the poor example of the west that developing nations seek to emulate which is embraced in these large buildings exemplified as a sign of progress. That is the point I am making. Best wishes

  24. Gah what a hideous example of conspicuous consumption.. but then it is just a modern version of one of those hideous palladian houses...

    I won't start ranting!

  25. I've always wanted each of my books to have its own floor.

  26. The house in India is positively revolting. But I wouldn't mind living in the tree house.

  27. lindsay - Thanks for writing back and I know for a fact that's not what you meant. The thing that really aggravates me about the underlying disease of our consumer culture is its virulence. There was a period of time where the west really was on the way to becoming a shining example of what could be achieved. America was the bread basket of the world and was generous with its harvest but somewhere along the line things changed - or perhaps it was just my imagination and power and greed were always unnoticed factors. We are indeed making a bad example in suggesting through advertising that everybody everywhere should hope for empty riches. For most of us there's a very big stick and hardly a whiff of carrot.

    jams - Exactly, I've probably already done enough over here.

    randal - That's a perfectly reasonable wish but a Roman Room setup might be a more preferable design for you.

  28. Greed has always been present but the concentration of wealth and power has accelerated (with only a few redeeming green shoots) under the present USA administration which has done little to overhall a flawed system.
    One aspect worth noting in my view is the economics of monetarism which gathered pace over the past few decades to create the ideal conditions for financial engineering with endless bubbles/ ( to subsequently burst) which only benefits the few yet it continues on unabated in many markets.

    I think we can take our hat off to those charged with awarding Nobel laureates in economics since some notable recipients must go down in history for their creative literary masterpieces deserved of the highest praise to have gained household recognition for their flawed modeling. What a pity they forget about the fact there is always double entry accounting in banking (they only modeled the money supply side) and that as a service industry it is supposed to be a servant of the economy and not its master. It’s still not too late to change but I’ m afraid the leadership has to start out with the reality of where we are and build upon that.

    Best wishes

  29. lindsay - You inspired my newest post. Thanks :-)