From a Mumbai chawl to Guinness: The highrise story of Ashok Korgaonkar
He grew up in a chawl in Worli, looking up in wonder as towers mushroomed around him. Four decades later, Ashok Korgaonkar, founder and managing partner of Dubai-based Archgroup Consultants, has entered the Guinness Book of Records as the creator of the world's tallest hotel � the JW Marriott Marquis in Dubai. He speaks to Dhiman Chattopadhyay and Avinash Iyer about his childhood, love, awards and dreams
Ashok Korgaonkar is a celebrity in his own right. The Mumbai-born and Dubai-based architect has just entered the Guinness Book of Records for designing the ‘tallest dedicated hotel building in the world’. But the limelight doesn’t necessarily excite him. His work does.
His latest piece of work is what earned his company the Archgroup Consultants, an entry into the Guinness Book. Located in Central Dubai, the JW Marriott Marquis is a 77-storied twin tower. It has 20 restaurants offering different cuisines, a 55,000-square feet business centre and a huge spa. Together the twin towers boast of 1,608 rooms.
This is huge, by any stretch of imagination. But Korgaonkar chooses to be modest. “It did not start out to be the tallest hotel building in the world. As we planned it, we realised it was going to be pretty tall. The rest was just a matter of course,” he says.
At the Archgroup Consultants’ swanky new office in Dadar (he set up office in India just three years ago), we talk to the architect about his childhood in Mumbai, his move to Dubai, his work and his future plans.
Korgaonkar had a lower-middle class upbringing in a Worli chawl in the Mumbai of the ’60s and ’70s, then Bombay. He would often look up to see skyscrapers around him and perhaps even dream of living in them. It was this fascination with structures and buildings that urged this Maharashtrian boy to pursue architecture at Rachana Sansad Academy of Architecture. “I belonged to a conservative family. They were not too happy with me taking up architecture, specially when my siblings were pursuing conventional courses,” he recalls. However, he stood his ground and followed his instincts. This meant he ended up paying for his fees. This he achieved by earning a few bucks, helping his seniors with their work. “For books, I solely depended on the library as there was not enough money to buy them,” he says.
Bridging the Gulf
Korgaonkar moved to Dubai within weeks of graduating in 1980. “I fell in love with my classmate Arti, and we figured the best thing we could do was get married and move out. We had heard of life in the Middle East from a cousin in Bahrain, and the fact that a job there came with promise of accommodation was a huge plus for us. Besides, Mumbai had not witnessed the real estate boom then,” he recalls. For a decade they slogged it out, built homes and widened their network. Then, in 1992 the entrepreneurial bug bit him. “While my wife kept her job, I took the plunge and the Archgroup Consultants was born,” he says. One of his first big projects was a school, which he finished in eight months and received a lot of appreciation for. And then, in 1999 he landed a project for the Emirates Group.
Over the next decade, Korgaonkar went on to become a formidable name in Dubai. He has since designed the awe-inspiring Emirates Airlines Headquarters in Dubai —spread over 25,16,000 square feet. The building comprises a crew terminal, duty-free shops, briefing rooms and a host of other amenities. “It is linked to the Dubai airport through an underground tunnel,” Korgaonkar adds. There has been no looking back since then. “For the past 14 years, we have designed a lot for the Emirates, including hotels, offices and malls,” he says.
The world record
“The Guinness Book of World Records is a huge high in my career. But honestly, it was not planned,” he admits. Korgaonkar’s company won the JW Marriott project without the usual bidding procedure. That it was on Emirates property which had employed his services for the past decade, of course helped. “We started planning the hotel in 2005 and by the time we were through with the designing, we realised that we had a record-breaker on our hands,” he smiles.
In 2007, he started contemplating India as a potential market. By 2008, he had opened offices in Pune and Mumbai. But sadly, within months the global economic crisis hit home and the UAE witnessed a dramatic financial meltdown. “Between 2008 and 2010, our staff strength in Dubai was reduced to 140 from 260,” Korgaonkar recalls. Plans to expand the India operations too were put on the backburner. Today however, he is designing and planning several projects in India such as high-end villas in Alibaug, the Adani Group headquarters in Ahmedabad and malls in Trivandrum and Chennai. “We are also the consultant designers and architects for five Premier Inn hotels across India and Omkar Altamount in Mumbai,” he said.
When not at work
“When not designing buildings, I like watching cricket and I enjoy my single malt,” he says, affording himself a smile. He plays golf too occasionally, when time permits. “For me the best networking is through my work. Each satisfied customer helps me build a network,” he adds. So is their any dream that lies unfulfilled? “Several,” he laughs, adding: “But I do want to design an airport. That’s something I haven’t managed yet.”