‘Smart cities are a con job’

Architect Dean D’Cruz tells us why he quit designing luxury homes and switched to sustainable architecture.

Updated - March 29, 2016 04:37 pm IST

Published - August 21, 2015 01:25 pm IST

Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption – Karwar, Karnataka

Cathedral of Our Lady of Assumption – Karwar, Karnataka

After graduating from Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Bombay, in 1983, Dean D’Cruz joined architect Gerard Da Cunha as an assistant in Goa in 1985. Enamoured by the soft and human scale of Goa’s architecture and lifestyle, he decided to stay. In 1986, he became a partner in Natural Architecture and in 1994, he expanded his base to take on small hotels, large houses and institutional work as principal architect of Dean D’Cruz & Associates. In 2001, he co-founded architecture and product design house, Mozaic. Having been part of the State Level Committee for the making of Regional Plan 2021 for Goa, his emphasis today is on urban interventions, sustainable principles and conservation.

D’Cruz was in Chennai recently to give a lecture at Confluence Ten, curated by Artes Foundation. He spoke to The Hindu on issues ranging from the need for sensitive conservation efforts to his journey as architect over the last 30 years.


Architecture was not your first choice of career.

Strangely, looking back, my career guidance scores in a school test showed a very high aptitude for architecture or a career in design. As my father was an engineer, I was encouraged to join IIT.

Luckily, I failed to get in and as I was returning home after the results were announced, I remember walking past the beautiful campus of Sir J.J. College of Architecture. The entrance forms were free, so I filled them in and before I knew it, I was on the path to becoming an architect — a chance walk that changed my life and exposed me to one of the most rewarding professions that exist.

What is your design philosophy?

I believe one needs to be true to the emotive nature of the space one is designing — the visual treats of a hospitality project, the sacred silence of a religious space, the inspirational nature of an educational one.

While I enjoy working with natural materials, hi-tech materials, if used smartly, excite me equally.

An important aspect in my design is to root the building in its context, allowing users to identify with the character of its space, materials or technology used. We are humans after all, and our connect with architecture depends a great deal on our past experiences.

Please share your experiences as an architect in Goa and the design principles your firm, Mozaic, conveys?

For the first 10 years I designed mainly low-cost houses in a very Laurie Baker approach and then moved on to small, low-cost hotels, that by their uniqueness were termed ‘boutique’.

These much-celebrated buildings led us on to commissions of large luxurious homes, high-end hotels and some institutional work. In the last couple of years, however, we had a major introspection, as we felt the hollowness of designing these costly homes. Their wastefulness in a time of growing eco-consciousness and their financial arrogance in the time where social equity is needed affected us.

Hence, three years ago, we decided to stop designing such homes and now only take up cost-effective houses as community exercises and we design for groups of people that share resources. Hospitality, however, is still our mainstay and we are mainly into small hotels located in jungles or in environmentally sensitive areas.

Some of these hotels are temporary in nature and are designed completely using natural materials. This experience has taught us the need for architects to connect to nature and intervene as little as possible with the built form.

You are a member of the Goa State Level Committee. How difficult or easy is it to teach the importance of traditional, sustainable architectural practices at the government level?

I was inducted as I was part of an activist group concerned with development. The most critical input into the Regional Plan was the creation of eco-sensitive zones for the State. This put a freeze on development in any forested area, mangroves, Coastal Regulation Zones (CRZ), areas close to water bodies, fields, etc. It also placed a priority on preserving the village and its economic and ecological autonomy. The plan encouraged an integrated use of natural resources such as hills, fields, water bodies and settlement areas.

We managed to convince the government that development needs two types of infrastructure: ‘Grey’ infrastructure that includes roads, power, institutions, housing and green infrastructure, and ‘green’ infrastructure that supplies our fresh water, clean air, food, treats our sewage in a natural way, and provides us with natural building materials.

Green infrastructure is critical for any development and is the essential platform for any industrial or economic activity.

How has Indian architecture evolved over the years?

Sadly, Indian architecture seems to be losing out to a bland international style. Our traditional response to climate and use of natural materials is being obliterated by the material and technologies at hand today. Architects have become mainly form and facade designers.

Young architects need to look back at our rich history and see the many natural resources. They need to use common sense and not eco-rating systems to truly assess the ecological footprint of their building. They must also act with compassion when designing buildings, and not just respond to client needs, but to the needs of the users, right down to the people who clean and maintain the buildings.

Your views on the Indian Smart Cities Mission project?

Smart cities are a con job. While we do need to make our cities liveable through public transport, better communication, etc., the smart city movement is speared by material and technology suppliers who offer easy solutions to lazy planners.

While urbanisation is taking place rapidly, very few people are addressing the reasons for urbanisation. This economic migration can be addressed by making our villages more liveable and creating economic opportunities by creating dense nodes that act as economic drivers and market centres for groups of villages. The vast majority of people who migrate from villages generally live in pathetic conditions in cities and would prefer to stay back in their villages if opportunities existed.

The government should concentrate on infusing energy into our villages and reverse this disastrous and inhumane urbanisation.

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