CPKA: An architectural practice across two generations

Text by: Rajnish Wattas

The 1970s was a period of resurgent independent India’s search for its defining architecture. At the helm was the generation of stalwarts such as Achyut Kanvinde, Charles Correa, BV Doshi and Raj Rewal, followed by emerging talents like CP Kukreja, among others. Returning home from their education abroad, these young architects were eager to explore avenues beyond the horizons delineated by the Indian masters of Modernism. Other influences on their early works were, of course, the iconic aesthetics of Le Corbusier in Chandigarh and of Louis Kahn in Ahmedabad.

Today, almost 50 years later, contemporary Indian architecture has evolved greatly, and is yet passing through a very exciting, challenging and arduous phase. The global competition for mega infrastructure projects is intensifying, with large number of players, both new and
old, from across the world entering the field. The architectural world has been flattened by the domination of the standard international style, which is treated as the preferred template by aspirational clients. In this scenario, the value-based, responsive architecture as practiced by CPKA is indeed, laudable.

Rooted in the ethos and idealism of the ‘nation-making’ generation of post-Independence India, the baton of responsible professionalism in the firm’s evolutionary journey over the years, was handed over from the pioneering CP Kukreja to the present Principal Architect, Dikshu C Kukreja. Educated at the finest global architectural institutions and honed by the mentorship of his father, Dikshu’s stewardship helped steer the scope and range of work done by CPKA to greater heights. His design style is a testimony to his core belief: “The most important exercise in the design process is to read the salient 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.”

The genesis 

One of the major avenues for the young firm to get a break in the spearheading era of the 70s was the path of architectural competitions, adjudged by impeccable and impartial juries without any vested interests. Winning these competitions was the turning point for CP Kukreja’s architectural start-up, which also gave direction to his incredible journey thereafter. He won the prestigious National Architectural Competition for the design of the coveted Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in 1970, after which there was no looking back.

CP Kukreja had just returned from his studies at Melbourne University, Australia, where he was mentored by one of the most respected global names in Tropical Architecture—Dr Balwant Saini, affectionately called Bal by his colleagues and admiring students. The JNU was envisioned as a university for higher studies in numerous new, out-of-the-box emerging disciplines. It has since produced India’s finest civil servants, diplomats and global experts in the humanities, sciences and other fields, addressing modern India’s global and domestic needs over the years.

Located in the southern part of New Delhi, the site for the proposed university was challenging, with rocky outcrops spread over an area of 1,000 acres. The campus was to occupy some of the northernmost reaches of the Aravalli Hills, which forms the Ridge with a very interesting bio- diversity. This demanded a university campus that was nature-inclusive, on one hand, and responded to the rolling landscape of the rocky terrain, on the other. At that time, brick was not merely a material made from clay, but also symbolic of Modernism in Indian Architecture. The massive project was completed successfully in 1969, and the red brick façades became an iconic character of the university.

While CPKA was forging ahead on the trail of carving an Indian idiom for Modernity, it was also exploring the country’s ancient roots of culture and religious diversity. For the 1988 project of the Karmapa International Buddhist Institute in New Delhi, built on a small site of half a hectare, the architects derived their design sensibilities from Buddhist philosophies. The inwardly- designed campus thus, provides an inspirational environment for the students to engage in meditation practices, which encourages them to look within oneself.

In order to replicate the intrinsic architectural features of the original Rumtek Monastery in Sikkim, about 50 highly-skilled local craftsmen from the hill state were engaged. This not only empowered them, but also gave them an opportunity to showcase their workmanship on a national platform. Built almost entirely in timber and stone, the architects recreated the Tibetan architectural vocabulary in brick and concrete—materials more suited to the climate of the capital city.

Noting the contrasting scales and diversity of projects that the firm was operating, nothing could have been more fascinatingly different to the monastery project, than the making
of the Amba Deep Tower in New Delhi. Built on a 5-acre site at a prime location near Connaught Place, the project completed in 1991 was an exploration in fusion—of a traditional ornamental façade and the international vocabulary of high-rise towers that were fast emerging in the New Delhi skyline. The bold facade treatment in long continuous bands, broken at corners by square pilasters, features geometric-patterned ceramic tiles
in shades of white, yellow and blue. The style seems like a connect to the timeless Indian traditions of vernacular architecture, which treated architecture as a celebration of life itself.

The new paradigm Along with this foray into the early high-rises to dot the New Delhi urban- scape, the development of Gurgaon (now Gurugram) was an indicative resurgence of the free market capitalist forces in the Indian economy. Global firms began to cluster here, building shiny new, bold glass-scape high-rises on what was previously farmsteads and village land. CPKA too made a defining new gleaming building called the Signature Tower in Gurgaon, with a built- up area of 600,000 sq ft. Completed in 1999, the landmark project has many firsts attached to it and is a prominent fixture of the Gurugram skyline.

One of the first distinct design responses at a significant scale, the Signature Tower is symbolic of a new paradigm in Indian architecture, when the country ushered in globalisation by opening its doors to the world. The concept for the Signature Tower emerged by the sculpting of its volume and the play of mass and void, creating a metaphorical gesture of a ‘New India’. The dynamic curved façade echoes the movement along the adjoining highway and the changing moods of the sky on its reflective surface. With the ushering in of the new millennium, a buoyant economy, globalisation of architecture in the world and loss of regional identities, brought in major challenges for Indian architects. While prominent IT hubs like Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Chennai, Pune and Gurugram adapted the template of glass towers for office, retail and shopping mall complexes, gated residential communities developed by builders comprised of concrete midrise apartment blocks, clustered around a miniscule central green space.

But CPKA held on to its commitment to ‘responsive architecture’ and climate-balanced structures in the three institutional projects built during this new phase—the Indian Institute of Management (IIM) Lucknow in 2000, Gautam Buddh University in 2007 and Shiv Nadar University in 2012. In all three projects, it manifested a resolute and conscious effort to infuse the vernacular and site-specific elements, expressed in a modern idiom to showcase the quintessential spirit of these beautiful campuses of higher learning.

One the most architecturally distinct cities in north India, Lucknow boasts a vibrant socio-cultural and design heritage, ranging from the exquisite Imambaras to the bedecked palaces and striking gates. While the IIM, on one hand, encapsulated the architectural ethos of Lucknow, it also conceptualised protective features against the harsh, dry summer. The outer walls were provided with jaalis and rich indentations in the brick-work, thus preventing the building envelope from being directly exposed
to the sun, while offering an interplay of light and shade.

At the Gautam Buddh University project in Greater Noida, the concept was an abstraction of the overlapping chakras that form the different spatial entities in the master plan. It brought a rhythm in the dialogue between the spaces, while also standing as a metaphor for the rhythm of life and death, success and failure, light and dark, and all other binaries that, as the Middle Path of Buddhism advocates, contribute to the creation of the Universe. “To imagine an environment of learning, it was necessary to base the design of the complex into philosophies stemming from different cultures, teaching humans simple living and high thinking”.

Along the axis of the entrance promenade, a magnificent statue of Mahatma Buddha is positioned that is visible from any point within the campus, hence becoming the centre of gravity of the academic environment. At the foot of the statue is a serene lake, which not only functions as an ecological water system, but also as a vibrant meeting place for students and teachers alike. The faculty blocks are strung around the lake like a necklace and are connected by a beautiful colonnade.

In between the two seminal university projects, another defining work was that of the Lalit Golf & Spa Resort Goa, in which the challenge was to recreate the spirit of the historic Goan architecture—a blend of Portuguese and indigenous climate-balanced elements. The architects wanted to retain the sanctity of the natural reserve of the area and hence, the project was designed to harness local architectural techniques. There is inclusion of local design elements like verandahs, arched openings, pitched roof structures and a combination of waterscapes, with expansive open lawns around the buildings. The resort’s architecture is in the Baroque-Portuguese style, developed using regional design aesthetics as inspiration and with the climate in mind. The design style also offers permeability between the different zones within the site, resulting in a singular design language. The climate of the region had a major influence on the design conceptualization.

The way ahead One can thus, observe three distinct strands of concerns and values that define the underpinnings of CPKA’s core design and guiding principles throughout the years. The first is to respond to the local site conditions; second, to imaginatively fulfill the client’s commercial agenda into a work of artistic interpretation; and finally, to continuously innovate on the technological innovations and be at the front line of adopting best global practices.

In its march to being at the forefront of technology-driven projects, ambitious in both scale and aspiration, the CPKA has showcased the best global practices in service, with its numerous new key projects. The gigantic Medicity of Hamidia Hospital in Bhopal, for instance, is actually a ‘city within a city’—it will contain its own functional districts, public spaces and hierarchy of streets, which would encourage a thriving and environment- friendly style of living. This healthy lifestyle within the Medicity would redefine medical infrastructure as a quintessential building block for a ‘healthy city’.

Another mega project undertaken by CPKA is that of the India International Convention & Exhibition Centre, Dwarka, of which Phase 1 will be completed in 2019 and Phase 2 in 2025. The state-of- the-art convention centre will be Asia’s second largest and the world’s third largest—with a capacity to sit 10,000 people at the same time, it’s designed to host the G20 Summit and other such mega world events in India, along with international conferences, exhibitions and trade shows. With a staggering built-up area of 1,22,00,000 sq ft, the project supports an array of innovative design concepts. A thoughtful skin system is proposed in order to achieve sustainability, as well as to synthesise each facet of the project, such as materiality, constructability and budget. All façades are proposed to be layered in two orders. The first one will be a regular system, attending to all static conditions, while the second will be the structural system, to be integrated into the building frame.

In a sense, CPKA’s journey from a small ‘two-men’ garage start-up to the architectural behemoth counted amongst the best and the largest practices in the country today, reflects both its convictions as well as resilience over time, encompassing two generations. Today under Dikshu Kukreja’s dynamic and creative design leadership not only is CPKA winning prestigious architectural and urban design competitions like the IIM at Bodhgaya, HPCL Township at Barmer, Rajasthan and the Denmark embassy at New Delhi—but also earning numerous accolades and awards like being listed amongst top 5 architects in Asia among many others. Surely the road ahead is delineated with more such laudable landmarks.

Rajnish Wattas, former Principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture, is a noted architectural critic and author