“An architect has to create meaningful spaces. The rest will follow”

CP Kukreja Architects (CPKA), founded in 1969, is today one of the most influential architectural practices in the country. With a highly-qualified and professional team of architects, urban planners, structural engineers, and surveyors, the New Delhi-based CPKA is a multi-disciplinary firm known for some of the most iconic buildings across the globe and for its commitment to design excellence, innovation, and sustainability.
We feature an extensive interview with Dikshu C. Kukreja, the highly-qualified architect, who is a gold medalist in B.Arch from the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi; has an M.Arch degree in urban design from Harvard University; besides an MCOA from the AIIA. Excerpts:

WORDS: KOMAL RAO AND TILLANA DESAI

You have been conferred with several national and international awards. Could you please tell us about your journey that led to these accolades?

I have always felt that as an architect, all one can hope to do is to create meaningful spaces. The rest will follow. That has been our aim since when CP Kukreja Architects (CPKA) was established in 1969, almost five decades ago.
After winning the national competition for Jawaharlal Nehru University and rising to prominence, we made it our mission to contribute to the architectural field by designing buildings that respond to the complexities of the contextual urban fabric.
The journey has been nothing short of incredible, being given the opportunity to work on a variety of projects over the years, each posing a fresh challenge for us. To us, the fact that we have gained recognition and won awards for our work comes secondary to the way the built form interacts with its surroundings over time.
We try to gauge our success on the basis of a space’s functionality, aesthetic and sustainability.

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In the end, it is important for one to realise that no matter how many accolades a practice gets, it is temporal – here today and gone tomorrow. What remains is the longevity of architecture itself, and therefore architects are called to build with a responsibility towards society and generations to come.

CPKA is known for some of the most Iconic buildings across the globe and the commitment to design excellence, innovation and sustainability. What is your design philosophy?

At CPKA, we believe that design is a process and not the end product. It is a journey of discovery, innovation, evolution and eventually, creation. With each project, we aim to “read” and “respond” to the built and un-built contexts of the urban scape.

The most important exercise in the design process is to read the silent gestures of forms and spaces, to converse with the natural environment and then translate those gestures into architectural ensembles.

We refer to this as ‘Responsive Architecture’ – a philosophy which advocates architecture as a response to the various existing forces and systems like nature, climate, society, technology, economy and culture.

Our primary objective is to create architecture that is a collective of all these blended seamlessly into a physical manifestation with the existing geographical setting and, at the same time containing within itself a strong potential to live up to the future developments and urban standards.

Which of your buildings have been the most challenging to design?

Working on the pilot Transit Oriented Development (TOD) project alongside IDOM, UK in the capital city was by far the most challenging project we have ever undertaken. Delhi has become a victim of half-baked ideas, with no clear vision for the future of the city.
Development is spreading in both horizontal and vertical directions, and satellite towns are emerging alongside re-densification projects in the mother city.
The TOD policy drafted by Delhi Development Authority was a major breakthrough. Not only did TOD interlink the different parts of the expanding city, but it also emphasised the need for high density growth at the centres of such development, thus reconciling the two sides of Delhi’s city-shaping.

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East Delhi Hub in Karkardooma allowed us to interpret the TOD policy as a step towards a “Smart City.” We incorporated an “organic density” that introduces extensive vertical mixed-use development, which includes commercial, residential, medical and recreational facilities.
This ensured 24-hour activity at all points within the site, and thus promote safety by encouraging “eyes on the street.” In addition to this, we were able to maximise the un-built areas devoted to landscape through compact, high density planning, which would in turn serve as a vibrant public space, and include greens, plazas and multipurpose zones for cultural activities.
Vertical gardens, landscaped terraces and green facades were proposed as an attempt at providing “Greens for all.”

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East Delhi Hub’s design is based on a sustainable grid and building configuration which combines a sustainable orientation with the complex geometry of the site.

The result is a highly efficient radial hexagonal system that upholds “Smart Mobility”, “Smart Infrastructure” and “Smart Living”. We perceive this project as a definition of “Living, Organic Architecture” on real ground.

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The Gautam Buddha University at Noida was bestowed with the title of “Best Sustainable Campus” by BUILD 2016 Architecture Awards, London. Could you tell us about the design?

Gautam Buddha University was designed to underline the importance of a harmonious coexistence between man and his natural surroundings. Believing this relationship to be the key to fostering intellect, creativity and the dissemination of ideas, our aim was to create a “Centre of Learning” that embraces Mother Nature.

The very understanding and realisation of “Enlightenment” propagated by Gautam Buddha, the “Enlightened One,” and Buddhist teachings such as the Middle Path stress on the importance of a marriage between binaries like Dhatu (matter/solid) and Shunya (antimatter/void), existence and non-existence, Bhog (consumption) and Tyag (detachment) to maintain a balance that keeps the wheel of life turning.

The ratio and proportions of the image of the “Buddha in meditation” were considered to derive a rhythmically knitted pattern with strong connectivity, network and space organisation for the master plan of the 500-acre university campus.
For the main campus entrance, we created a dense forest to act as a visual and sound buffer. It creates a stark difference in environment, as the tranquility is a stark juxtaposition to the chaotic frenzy outside.
The academic and faculty blocks are arranged radially along the Central Promenade Axis, which culminates at the feet of a magnificent statue of Buddha himself.
A meditation centre, with its somber domed form echoes the architectural symbolism of the stupa. It was designed to visually tie the earth with the sky when viewed in the horizon. Features like water recycling through lakes and water bodies, natural lighting and ventilation, locally sourced materials and traditional elements like jaalis, chajjas and domes allowed us to further establish a strong link with the environment.

You have designed embassies for several nations. What is the thought process that goes behind designing such official buildings?

I think the challenge with designing any embassy or foreign mission is that the architect feels obliged to force an architectural vocabulary onto the structure irrespective of whether it works with the contextual influences or not.
Doubtless, it is important to reflect the cultural richness of the home state when designing foreign missions. Yet, the objective is not to portray this through mere cosmetic additions and alterations, but to achieve a tasteful amalgamation of styles.
Restraint plays an important role here. It is easy to be carried away with creating a beautiful building that blindly apes a foreign character and has no real relationship with its immediate surroundings, especially in terms of climate and geographical responsiveness.
However, the result of such a design exercise is always disastrous, because the built form is nothing more than an empty shell.

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As far as the creative liberty of an architect is concerned, clients are entitled to make their demands, and they must be respected. The wishes of the end user cannot be ignored. However, the architect has the creative liberty to interpret these demands and engage with the client in the envisioning of the final product.
The idea of translating a concept from paper to the ground is a romantic idea, but it is seldom that simple. There is, and should be,

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a constant dialogue and back and forth between the client and the designer. Only then can any design be approached in a holistic manner.

India is a country of disparity. While rural India is totally devoid of technology and development, urban India is rapidly expanding. How do you think this gap can be bridged?

The idea of translating a concept from paper to the ground is a romantic idea, but it is seldom that simple. There is, and should be, a constant dialogue and back and forth between the client and the designer. Only then can any design be approached in a holistic manner.

One of the harshest truths in India is that we have plenty of talented urban designers and urban planners, but the development of rural areas is left solely in the hands of policy makers.

Why should this be? Rural regions have their own complexities, just like an urban fabric would have. Yet, most of what we hear about any progress in these areas comes from government policies to safeguard the livelihood of the people here, be it switching to alternate sources of power, providing loans, etc.

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While this is crucial, we cannot deny that one of the major contributing factors for the mass exodus of people to cities is because they are in search of better lifestyles.
There is no real “designing” of rural spaces to address the needs of those who live here. Everyone has the right to contented living, and it is important for us to understand that while an agrarian society can do without us, we cannot do without an agrarian society.
The disparity between rural and urban India is appalling, and this gap can only be bridged with serious, dedicated research in “rural design”. From the very beginning, we need to work hand-in-hand with experts from a variety of disciplines such as agriculturists, economists, architects, designers and planners to create a well-rounded field that may one day even be taught as part of the curriculum in architectural schools.
Educating and creating awareness among the current and next generation of architects about this issue would be a concrete step towards ensuring action is taken to uplift the lives of rural dwellers.

When we look at architecture in India, it is heavily influenced by foreign styles. Is there any form which we can truly say is our own Indian identity?

It is very difficult to define what “Indian Architecture” really is. We have borrowed from so many influences over the history of the Indian subcontinent that the diverse religions, lifestyles and indeed, architecture of this country are the result of a cultural melting pot.
The very idea of finding our “true” style is therefore complex, because if we had to go back into our origins, we would have to revive the Indus Valley Civilisation, which predates the Colonial Era, Mughal Age and even the Aryan Invasion.

Perhaps it is time for us to abandon the argument of defining what is ‘Indian,’ learn to embrace our past as an integral part of who we are, and look to the future as we continue on this journey of evolution and re-evolution.
To me, the future of Indian architecture is not about imbibing an identity that is only skin deep. It is about architecture that is sensitive to the needs of its context – social, political, economic, and geographic.
It is about creating a meaningful dialogue between the tangible and intangible aspects of the built form, and giving up superfluity for spaces that have a true impact on its surroundings.

When you look at the current generation of architects, what difference do you see (if any) from the time that you were a fresher?

I have to admit that with three dimensional visualisation and photo realistic conceptual imagery, architecture has reached new heights on paper. Young architects have been trained to better convey their ideas to the layman through these tools, and this is definitely a positive step towards progress.
However, this cannot and does not replace the architect’s design intuition, which is something technology cannot provide. As far as talent goes, I believe the next generation possesses the same capabilities and potential that we did when we began in the profession. Yet, it is in the hands of these young, aspiring architects on how they choose to take the reins.

Could you share your views on the term “Smart City”?

The term “Smart Cities” is in vogue, and everyone is using it.

Yet, the very definition of a smart city is still to be comprehended to its fullest, even by experts. People from different educational and professional backgrounds would explain this concept in different ways.
It is therefore important to incorporate a multidisciplinary view to generate a more comprehensive outlook with regard to this.
To me, a smart city is one that is high on efficiency in every way. From sustainability and low carbon footprints, to the incorporation of technology to transit, every facet of the city is geared towards complete productivity.
While this is undoubtedly a daring ambition, and may indeed be merely a utopian concept, we can take smaller steps towards achieving this, and in the process create better city living.

Vaastu is an ancient science of space. How important and relevant do you think it is in today’s times?

Vaastu, as ancient as it may be, was based on the principles of science as we know it. It took into account geographical phenomena such as the movement of the sun and wind patterns.
Even though architecture in the 21st century may not necessarily use the term “vaastu”, it is based on similar principles of climatically responsive design. It is impressive to think that we still use the fundamentals from what was taught centuries ago.
Doubtless, the logic of any design should stem from a strong, scientific, methodical backing. I therefore am convinced that “vaastu” has a place and relevance everywhere, and must be encouraged as an integral part of the curriculum in architectural schools.