Tony Ashai, the renowned California-based architect, who has designed homes for celebrities such and who redesigned New York's famous landmark – the Chrysler building – is upbeat about the way Dubai's skyline is changing. The emirate is what Rome probably was when it was being built, he says. "The architects of ancient Rome built walls around the city and then started building it. All they said was – you build and people will come to live here. When I studied that in the history of architecture I tried to imagine how it would have been to live in Rome then. Dubai draws a comparison here. When people ask me about the kind of construction work going on here, I think about another Rome being built."
Ashai has already been behind the design work of Dubai Lifestyle City and now plans to expand his scope of business in the city by coming up with five eponymous towers, the first one – Ashai 5 – already sold out.
Ashai's mission is to exceed the expectations of his clients and provide superior service to those who entrust him with the design and management of projects.
He spoke to Emirates Business about his work, his favourite project and the reasons that make Dubai the hub of architecture.
—Can you tell us a bit about your company and your presence in Dubai?
—We are a Los Angeles-based company. We basically started in 1993 as a design firm and that grew to a construction company and finally we became a development company. But we never gave up design, as it is the forte of our company and forms our very foundation. In the past 13 to 14 years we have become a 100 people company from just me and my brother, Arthur.
Over the years, our company has grown into one of southern California's prominent architectural firms for luxury estates and villas and has expanded its scope of operations to encompass master planning, interiors and landscape design.
In Dubai we are planning a series of five towers. Ashai 5, the first tower, was launched three weeks back and was sold out in a couple of weeks. That really got us excited and now we plan to do four more of these towers – Ashai 4, Ashai 3, Ashai 2 and Ashai 1. The last of the towers will be the most high-end and prestigious.
The fifth and fourth towers will be in Jumeriah Village and the rest depends on where we get land but we are looking at waterfront areas and the Palm Jebel Ali.
—What have been the rewards of practicing architecture?
—I grew up as an artist. Even when I was in the eighth grade I went to art school and finally became an architect. Architecture gives me a creative outlook, which normal development business cannot provide. Most developers rely on architects to translate their ideas into reality. In my field creativity rules and there are no bounds.
—What do you think of the level of architecture in Dubai?
—Currently, Dubai is the hub of architecture and it is happening here in a way that is not seen anywhere else in the world. There is so much relaxation in guidelines. In the US we get instructions on what we can do and there is too much bureaucracy. Dubai is a unique place and an architect is permitted to be creative and imagination knows no bounds. If architects are not here they are missing the opportunity of a lifetime. It is phenomenal.
—What are the main determinants in the design process for you?
—In my designs I always focus on space. Some architects design from outside to inside but I do from inside to outside. Exterior is very important but that should not determine the usage of space inside.
—Which is your favourite city in terms of architecture?
—I love Florence and adore Florentine architecture. Florence was once what Dubai is today. During the Renaissance all rich people came to Florence and settled there. There were luxury houses, big buildings and the city became the hub of Europe, very similar to what we are now seeing in Dubai.
—What are the benefits of a family business?
—Firstly, in a family business you are not answerable to a board of directors. What I like about our family business is that I am totally in sync with my brother. You could say we complete each other. My father is also into the business. As far as money matters go, most capital is our own, but we have created a fund called Ashai Real Estate Investment Fund. People invest in it and it is managed by managers. However, we also rely on debt, the way it happens in the US, but in a place like Dubai all the money comes from pre-sales.
—Have any other professions or other types of work interested you?
—Whatever I have done has always been design oriented. I have thought of making movies and designing jewellery, but whatever it is, it is around art. There is no desire to be the richest or the biggest man, it has to do with creativity.
—Is there any major difference between the new and old system as far as architecture is concerned?
—There are two types of architects – those who are designers and those that are technical architects. The former do designs by hand and sketching and also rely on computers. Technical architects cannot design but they know how to put the building together. In the old system, architects as artists were a must but with time engineering and architecture merged. These days people practice both the old and new ways.
—What advice would you give to someone entering the field of architecture?
—I would say to any aspirant not to enter this field if he or she is not a dreamer. To become an architect you have to be dreaming all the time.
PROFILE: Tony Ashai President of Ashai & Associates
Ashai was born in India in Kashmir. His father recognised his son's talents early and sent him to the local art school. At the age of 16, Ashai left Kashmir for Chandigarh to study architecture at the acclaimed French modernist school in the northern Indian city founded by Le Corbusier.
Upon graduation, he travelled to Buffalo, New York, where he earned a master's degree in architecture from the University of New York. In 1987, he began working for the architectural firm of James Barclay and Associates in Manhattan.
An important project he worked on was the large-scale renovation of the Chrysler Building. In 1989, Ashai moved to Los Angeles and worked with architect Edward Carson Beall.
In 1993, he founded Ashai & Associates in Torrance, California. In 14 years, Ashai & Associates has become one of the leading architectural firms in the South Bay area of Los Angeles.