Arrogance or elegance? The most expensive house in the world

Towering high above Mumbai and far from the teeming shanty towns, a billion-dollar home, an oasis of ultimate luxury, is being built for the world's fifth-richest man. By Andrew Buncombe

Anyone wishing to cast their eyes upon Mukesh Ambani's new house will very quickly find themselves with a stiff neck. The 27-storey tower soars huge and unmissable amid the greenery and quiet of the expensive Mumbai suburb of Malabar Hill. Abuzz with the noise of cranes and shouts of helmeted workmen, it is a human ants' nest of activity, set vertical amid the skyline of this booming city.

Mr Ambani is reckoned to be the world's fifth-richest man and when his extraordinary property is completed in an estimated six months, the $1bn (£500m) building named Antilia will be the priciest house in the world. "Yes, it will be the most expensive," said a shopkeeper, whose humble store stands next to the tower. He handed over a newspaper cutting about Mr Ambani that he had pinned to the wall.

Mukesh Ambani, aged 51 and said to be worth $43bn, is used to being in the headlines. Usually, it is about his business dealings as chairman and managing director of Reliance Industries, India's largest private company. Often it is about his infamous ongoing squabble with his younger brother, Anil, 49, a fellow industrialist with whom he fell out after their father's death; he is said to be the world's sixth-richest man.

On other occasions it is for his free-flowing spending; last year there was a flurry of reports claiming Mr Ambani had given his wife, Nita, a $60m private jet for her birthday. (Mr Ambani did buy a state-of-the-art Airbus 319, but it is unclear whether it was for his wife or his company.)

Now the tower on Malabar Hill, perhaps epitomising the swagger and confidence of India's economically buoyant upper echelons, has garnered both column inches and controversy. For some, it is a bold statement by a man who has never tried to hide his wealth; for others, it is vulgar and inappropriate in a city where more than six million people live in shanties. One local newspaper called it an "edifice to his ego".

Officially, details of the project, designed by two US-based architecture firms, remain under wraps even now. "You can't come in. It's secret," said the security guard on duty at the worksite when The Independent asked to have a peep. But the information that has been leaked is enough to capture the imagination.

A report in the Mumbai Mirror revealed that the first six floors of the tower will be reserved for parking up to 168 cars, with the seventh floor set aside for vehicle maintenance. Above that will be an entertainment centre with a silver-domed ballroom and a cinema capable of seating 50 people. On the next floor up, comes a garden, then three floors with balconies, each with landscaped terraces of their own. The ninth floor will be an emergency room should they need to evacuate the building, while the two floors above that will house a fitness centre and gym. Any guests of the Ambanis will be catered for in the two floors above.

And perched atop of all this, with be the family quarters, home to Mukesh, his wife and their three children. Not forgetting his Indian roots, the world's fifth richest man has reportedly set aside one of those four floors for his mother, Kokilaben. Finally, the roof will serve as a helipad for up to three helicopters. There will be nine lifts and perhaps as many as 600 staff.

"It represents the culture of Bombay in the right manner," said Hafeez Contractor, a leading Indian architect who is based in the city but who was not involved in the project. "Everybody in Bombay wants to go high and once you go high you get a sense of space. Some people say it's not in keeping with the style of the other buildings in the area but that is not the culture of Bombay. I'm very happy with it."

The design of the building is reportedly based on Vaastu, the Indian tradition similar to feng shui. Yet the mastermind behind the design is said to be Mrs Ambani. She has apparently ruled that each floor of the 27-storey building must be designed differently and with different materials.

The shopkeeper next to the building claimed Mrs Ambani visited the site every week to check on its progress. Meanwhile her hair-stylist, Jenny Hsueh Fen Law, a friendly woman whose simple salon is close to Antilia and whose staff visit Mrs Ambani "all the time" to do her hair, said: "She is a very smart lady."

It is fair to say that many of the Ambanis' soon-to-be neighbours appear a little bemused by the new building. "It's nice but it's a lot of room for one family," said Binu Manukshani. Another neighbour, SC Banerji, a retired doctor, said he was concerned about the noise that the helicopters would create. "It will have three helicopters on top to go to the airport or wherever else he wants," the 87-year-old sai. "That worries me: the sound." Asked to account for the building's 27 floors, he said: "Some will be for his office, some for his son, some for the car-park. But how can five people occupy so much floor space?"

If some people feel a little bewildered by Mr Ambani's new 550ft-high home, others have expressed anger. When the Mumbai Mirror printed the design for the property, commentators posting on the newspaper's website asked why the industrialist was devoting so much of his wealth to this project when so many in India endure lives of impoverishment.

One web contributor, Shailahja, wrote: "It's a great shame that well-educated and wealthy people of our great nation can only think about raising themselves to greater heights, rather than thinking about the basic necessities of many needy people. I cannot understand why is it so important for you to spend so much for your residence when there is so much you can do for the country's poor."

Some have even questioned whether Mr Ambani should be occupying the land on which the house is being built. A case now before the Bombay High Court argues that the land, formerly occupied by a Muslim orphanage was improperly granted to Mr Ambani in 2002 by local authorities. "It should not have been given," said AU Pathan, a lawyer involved in the case. "We are seeking compensation

But Mr Ambani is unlikely to let anything get in his way of seeing the completion of the project he reportedly planned to give him a "complete view of the Arabian Sea". The hard-headed businessman, who also owns the city's cricket team, rarely backs down from a challenge, be it from rivals or family.

Just last week, he and his brother, Anil, were involved in a spat over a planned merger between Anil Ambani's company, Reliance Communications, and the South African company MTN. Mukesh claimed that if his brother's company were to sell a such a stake it was legally obliged to first offer it to his company. Anil, a stylish but austere vegetarian who does not smoke or drink and who jogs most morning along Mumbai's Marine Parade, responded with a statement claiming that his brother's suggestion was "legally and factually untenable".

This outburst of unbrotherly behaviour was hardly the first time Anil and Mukesh have been at odds. The two brothers, who inherited their wealth from their late father, Dhirajlal, a former fuel station manager who created a business empire, have had a difficult and competitive relationship since his death in 2002. It was this that led to their father's business being divided between them.

Indeed, it may have been that spat that ultimately led to Mukesh Ambani's decision to build this controversial building. In the aftermath of their father's death, all the family continued to live at a 14-storey home called Sea Winds, located in Mumbai's Cuffe Parade. Ongoing squabbles persuaded Mukesh to opt for an alternative home and, in six months, Sea Winds is expected to be used solely by Anil Ambani and his family. By then his brother will have plenty of room of his own.

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