Interview: A dialogue with Dikshu C. Kukreja

The destiny of Indian architects lies very much within the hands of the Indian architects themselves…

Architect Dikshu C. Kukreja – Managing Principal, C P Kukreja Architects shares his design insights and perspectives with Suneet Paul – Editor-in-chief, Architecture+Design
in a conversation which took place recently –

Suneet Paul (SP): First, let me congratulate you for CPKA achieving the formidable landmark of 50 years of purposeful architectural practice in India. The firm is now recognised nationally and internationally as one of the biggest architecture practices in the country. Your father CP Kukreja, the founder, was a pioneer in adding a fresh vocabulary to post-independent Indian architecture. I’m sure it has been an invigorating experience for the entire team.

Dikshu Kukreja (DK): Yes, it is certainly a very formidable landmark. But it makes one feel humbled too, by the thought that our work has been appreciated by our clients and our practice has not only continued, but has also grown and evolved consistently. Mr CP Kukreja’s vision, hard-work, imagination and human values have been at the core of our firm, and these have set the foundation for what we have achieved today. Our team has been consistent in delivering meaningful architecture through significant projects over the last five decades, which has not only made a difference in many Indian cities but abroad too. Concepts of eco-friendly design, culturally responsive architecture, and futuristic and innovative ideas have been propagated through design and construction of numerous projects. Our practice has achieved many milestones, from delivering the design of one of the largest to the tallest buildings in the country, while promising that every project is special in its own way, and giving out a significant message about the very idea of ‘architecture’ and its future to the society and beyond.

SP: In the 60s when the practice was founded, Indian architecture was in a discovery mode. CPKA made a significant contribution to define the priorities for growth in the profession. Today, in the 21st century, the context is a totally different one. Where does the firm’s focus lie in the present scenario?

DK: 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 it as ‘Responsive Architecture’—a philosophy that advocates architecture as a response to the various existing forces and systems like nature, climate, society, technology, economy and culture. Our primary objective today is to create architecture that is a collective of all these blended seamlessly as 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.

SP: In a country such as India that has a bagful of wealth in traditional architecture on one hand, and on the other, the huge surge towards a global approach in design today, the architects probably have to perform either a holistic balancing act or be definitively singular in their approach. What is CPKA’s design methodology in this respect?

DK: India has a remarkable history of sustainable, vernacular architecture, where buildings use passive design and local materials and respond to the site context. It is very difficult to define what ‘Indian Architecture’ really is. 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 a design that has a true impact on its surroundings.

 

Started in 1969 with a vision to redefine architecture and planning in India, CPKA is one of the most revered architectural firms in the country. They have been contributing to the field for almost 50 years. The firm is ranked amongst the Top 100 architecture firms in the world and Top 5 in Asia. CPKA has achieved the unique distinction of being the first design firm in India to have acquired a US-based design practice, specializing in Sustainability. Their integrated practice undertakes consultancy in Master Planning, Architecture Urban Design, Structural and Civil Engineering, Electrical, Plumbing and Sanitary Engineering, Air-conditioning and FDV System, Fire Fighting System, Quantity Surveying and Estimating, and Project Management. CPKA’s unique multi-disciplinary approach is the reason for creation of some of the most iconic buildings across the globe in addition to their commitment to design excellence through innovation and sustainability. It has been receiving global awards and recognition across major design platforms such as the BUILD Review’s 2018 Architecture Innovation Awards, wherein CPKA has been recognized as the ‘Most Innovative Indian Architectural Design Firm for the year 2018’, amongst other numerous awards.

 

SP: Working on government projects has often been a problem for architects because of the bureaucratic hurdles involved in the different stages. CPKA, over time, has been involved in some of the largest and most significant projects funded by different state governments. How has your experience been?

DK: We believe that architecture cannot be restricted by getting classified into a single silo of a certain kind of building or a certain kind of client, and that we should be able to deal with all situations, all projects, all sites and all kinds of clients. Accordingly, we have consistently worked both in the private sector and on government projects. Both kind of situations bring their own challenges and their own pros and cons. Government projects in India do take time and are mired by indecisions, or sometimes, change in decisions when the client changes within the official setup. However, I believe that over the years, the exposure of the bureaucracy has only increased, and a design sensitivity is more prevalent today than it used to be in the past. My personal experience has been that the government client is willing to listen, provided we have the conviction and ability to convey to them our design ideas and thoughts. Once that is done, I think the experience can turn out to be very positive.

SP: Being one of the largest practices in India also brings in a sense of responsibility towards the profession. And to meet the challenges, a team of extraordinarily dedicated and charged architects and other allied professionals is required. How do you keep such a large team motivated and creatively inspired?

DK: In a large practice one has to be ahead of challenges. I sometimes find myself in a situation where it can be rather complicated trying to unite a team of highly educated and talented professionals, where each individual believes that s/he is the best in their field with the best ideas that cannot be countered by anyone else. Having said that, we strive hard to create a culture of working cohesively, breaking the silos and treating each other as one extended family. This aspect is very important to us to be able to work in a cordial manner. And in this respect, I think our team remains highly motivated and we work as a close-knit family, where we all have a common vision and a common belief that we want to create a better habitat, a better environment, and we are charged to do that every single day.

SP: Over the years, there has been reasonable talk about developing Smart Cities. Do you think we have really been able to define, in our Indian context, what a ‘Smart City’ would mean? And how do you visualise an Indian city developed on the criteria of being smart?

DK: 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 to this regard. 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, every facet of the city is geared towards complete productivity. While this is undoubtedly a daring ambition, and may indeed merely be a utopian concept, we can take smaller steps towards achieving this, and in the process create better city living. I have always believed that a city can only be ‘Smart’ if its citizens are so. Therefore, the atom of this compound called ‘Smart City’ rests with the ‘Smart Citizens’, and that cultural evolution needs to take place amongst all of us in order to create a more livable, a more memorable and a more sustainable city that we can call ‘Smart’.

SP: Many in the architecture academia often voice their frustrations with the Indian architecture education system, which they say has evolved far too little, following redundant methodologies in teaching and pursuing a primitive curriculum. Having had a versatile exposure to international education institutions of architecture, would you agree with them, and if so, what in your opinion would be the way forward?

DK: Architecture is an amalgamation of creativity and engineering. However, both these aspects are lacking in the current architectural education scenario. The creativity of the students is being inhibited. They are being encouraged to take inspiration from the buildings from an engineering point of view, which is affecting any ‘Eureka’ moments their designs might produce. The effect of this can also be judged by looking at the entrepreneurial skills of the architecture students in the country. Secondly, due to lack of practical knowledge amongst the faculty, the practical aspect of designing a building is not fully understood by the students. With a lack of practical aspect in a student’s education, we are not able to ready next generation architects. Thirdly, with 70 plus years of Independence, we still don’t have architectural colleges backing the research aspects of the subject. There is no inclination and encouragement for the students to back their designs and projects with research, leading to a half-understood design problem and subsequently, a problematic design.

SP: In today’s world of digital and sophisticated software backed by high technology, where design, form, structure, etc. are all worked out on the computer, would you agree with the thought that the role of art and graphics is diminishing with craft gradually becoming a back-bencher?

DK: 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. Craft remains a medium or a science, and the computer software is only a tool that can be used in a powerful manner to enhance the craftsmanship. The increasing popularity of digital and sophisticated software should not be considered a cause of the diminishing role of art and graphics or craft, for that matter. Art, graphics and craft are very much, and will remain very much, an integral part of architecture. In fact, a computer software can only allow us to enhance a visual and tectonic appeal of the craft, rather than ignoring it.

SP: The country today is globally poised on a much firmer footing. Would you say the same applies to Indian architects, when it comes to the global platform?

DK: India seems to be witnessing exciting times, with a plethora of opportunities waiting to be explored in its design and development sectors. The availability of large development areas like new cities, towns, etc. make the scope for growth through green practices an achievable feat. Additionally, this is also the perfect time to learn through the design and development practices already implemented across the world, and customise and formulate them to suit the country’s requirements in order for us to benefit best from them. I believe the destiny of Indian architects lies very much within the hands of the Indian architects themselves. We cannot wait for anyone, be it the government or our clients or society in general, to come and fix the issues or challenges that affect our profession. I believe Indian architects, or Indian architecture for that matter, is a long way from having a global impact. I worry about the increasing marginalisation of both, our architecture and our architects. And as I said, it is for us to find the appropriate solutions to the problems we know best.

SP: India has seen stalwarts like Corbusier, Louis Kahn, Lutyens, Pierre Jeanneret, Foster and several others make a mark in the making of Indian architecture. Your professional/ educational background has exposed you to many such masters of architecture. Is there anyone you would like to mention, whose vision and thoughts you relate to or who has been a positive professional influence?

DK: During my educational journey, I have been fortunate to work in Paris with architect Olivier Vidal and in the US with the legendary architect Kevin Roche. While I am deeply impressed by many architectural legends, my ideal remains my father Mr CP Kukreja. His passion and commitment towards his work, his compassion towards society, his humility towards success, and his sacrifice for others, are qualities that I not only admire but strive to emulate.

SP: Passion and zeal are two important elements for excellence— and which CPKA has time and again exemplified through their professional commitment and architecture. With the recent initiative of acquiring the Indian arm of the reputed Chicago-based design firm dbHMS, the practice is all set to expand its dynamic horizons on the wider international arena as well.

DK: To me, air and water are two essential elements for survival. But as we look around, we realise that more and more cities across India are very soon going to be unlivable. With this kind of urban environment, it is imperative that we raise our standards and, with a sense of urgency, rethink our architectural approach. It is this fate of the environment and the responsibility of our profession, which has made us think hard in pushing the boundaries of excellence in environment-friendly design. I believe that our unique initiative of absorbing the best international expertise that is available in the world, to become part of the CPKA work environment and the CPKA family, would go a long way in creating a design approach that will play an important role in not only sustaining our environment, but actually uplifting it. We are delighted that we are able to bring this world-class expertise to our clients in India. The country is poised for unprecedented development in the years to come and it is important that the foundation of our work is based on sustainability and environmentally-responsible design.

SP: Continuing a legacy with equal zeal is not an easy task. With your spontaneous creative urges contextualised to the present, you’ve raised the bar high. What insights would you like to share with the students of architecture out in search of their respective goals?

DK: I feel privileged in continuing a legacy that was started with the vision of Mr CP Kukreja. I begin my work every day with such enthusiasm and I find it so interesting that I don’t know where to stop. My advice for the upcoming architects would be that if they have the passion and conviction to follow their dreams, it can help them overcome any obstacle or barrier. Architecture is a challenging profession, where we are constantly expected to create new ideas, be innovative and yet be able to convince others around us that every intention we have is for the betterment of their project or their environment. It is therefore, very important that we have our own strong convictions, and only then we can be successful in transforming the environment around us. I also believe that the human mind is a palace of thoughts with endless possibilities. I would advise students of architecture that they should be able to explore these endless possibilities and make the world see things through their eyes.

SP: Well, it’s been very absorbing delving with you in the world of architecture, where the belief is to provide a cheerful, sustainable habitat and pave the path for a better and cleaner environment for the future generations. I’m sure you are working aggressively on disseminating constructive inputs on such pertinent issues on the various platforms that you are associated with.

DK: Our endeavour is to create, through the field of architecture, a cheerful, sustainable habitat, an environment that we can cherish for years to come. I believe it is as much the responsibility of an architect to design a new building, as it is to be able to disseminate information and knowledge across society, on pertinent issues that affect us today, or shall affect us in times to come. I, therefore, find it personally very satisfying to be able to share my ideas across different media and send that message out in society, which I hope is going to, in times to come, only improve our built environment.