“Cities are complex organisms,” says Dikshu C Kukreja, the managing principal of C.P. Kukreja Architects (CPKA), one of the world’s largest architecture and urban design firms with offices in India, Vietnam, Japan, and the USA.
There is a danger in trying to analyse such a complex beast too simplistically, he believes, pointing out that this will give a distorted view of the problem and solutions. “You need a more holistic view of the city. It could be related to habitation issues, it could be related to social equality, gender issues, safety, happiness, economy,” says Mr. Kukreja, who will be launching a compendium of essays titled Livable Cities for the Future at the Think 20 Summit to be held in Mysuru on August 1 and 2.
Mr. Kukreja, who has always been invested in the idea of sustainable planning and development, has garnered a number of accolades over the years. These include a felicitation by the NRI Institute for “Contribution to Indian Architecture” in 2022, a Bharat Shiromani Award for Excellence in Architecture in 2019, a Bharat Seva Ratan Gold Medal Award by Global Economic Progress & Research Association, Tamil Nadu, in 2016 and an Excellence in Architecture received from former prime minister Dr. Manmohan Singh in 2015, among many others.
Some of CPKA’s most notable upcoming projects include the Harrow School in Bengaluru, The Brij, New Delhi for the Serendipity Arts Foundation, and the India International Convention Centre, New Delhi. The firm had already played a vital role in developing the India Pavilion, Dubai, the Vallabh Bhawan (State Secretariat), Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh, the Central University Rajasthan, Ajmer, Rajasthan and the Gautam Buddha University, Greater Noida.
“Design cannot be in silos,” says Mr. Kukreja, adding that the firm prides itself on being a multidisciplinary design practice. “That is what is so special about us,” he believes, pointing out that it shapes the firm’s design thinking approach.
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What does sustainable design mean to you?
I personally think that sustainable design is simple. All you need to do is to turn back the pages of history; our ancestors did not just build sustainably, but followed a sustainable lifestyle.
It is just about a happy co-existence with nature. All that it requires or means is that you do things that can fit sustainably and comfortably with the natural environment. If we can do that, nothing stops us from advancing in our living standards or commuting standards.
You’ve talked about how the car-centric American model of development, which is being aped by many countries around the world, including our own, is a failed model. Can you elaborate on this?
Yes, I think of it as a failed model, even though it is still often considered synonymous with advancement and development. The American system is a capitalistic society, and they let this develop for business interests, namely the car corporations. The railroad, for instance, has never been able to stand on its own feet in the US.
I am not saying that car-centric planning was a crime. It might have been okay for a certain approach to a city. But then it became the sole driver of planning, with all other countries taking off from it.
Let us talk about our country specifically. Our cities, culture, and density of population are all very different from the US. I don’t think this is the right way to go about it here.
You’ve spoken about how understanding context is an important aspect of urban planning. Can you expand on this?
For me, personally, the whole business of creating a built environment cannot be considered and thought about without looking at the context. Manmade design, after all, is imposing itself on nature.
So, the context of the place, be it climatic, topographical or socio-cultural such as the customs, practices, and history of the people in the region, needs to be considered before we create a built environment.
Can you talk about mixed-use development, where a specific area or building serves multiple purposes, making it more pedestrian-friendly and environmentally sustainable? How do you think our cities’ narrative will unfurl if we use it as a development model?
I would say that mixed-use development for me is the right model, the way cities should be planned and function. I would also tie that up with the earlier question of context. When you look at cities across India, people were living in the vicinity of where they were working. Old Indian cities would have shopping or business at ground level, and you would live in the upper level. It was a very sustainable way of living, making a place vibrant both day and night.
All these simple, basic, fundamentals of living and city planning were successful in our earlier model. Then came this post-independence boom when we looked at the Western cities and started thinking that the best way to develop was to segregate land uses. You’d have planners sitting in ivory towers taking a map of the city and starting to use colours to divide it. They would mark one area and call it commercial, mark an area at the other end of the city and say it was residential or institutional.
I would call that a failed or unsuccessful model too. I don’t think this is the right way to go about it here. Why can’t I study, work, live and go for my health checkups in the same area? Why should they get spread out around the city?
I am not about creating silos of urban habitation. I am saying that there should be self-contained, interconnected clusters.
What would suggest should go into planning today’s cities, taking into account the threat of climate change?
Of course, these are unescapable conversations, issues we really need to deal with.
Given all of that, we need to rethink urban development. First of all, this format of city-centred living needs to be relooked. Cities as engines of growth is a very 20th-century phenomenon that requires a serious rethink. I also feel that any (new) interventions, whether infrastructure development or other kinds of impositions of the built environment onto nature, must be very carefully looked at because it has been irresponsibly done in the past.
The third thing is that international communities and organisations need to come together and evolve sustainable lifestyle patterns. We have to think about the way we work, the workspaces we create, the way we commute… All these issues, if you ask me, are absolutely interconnected. So some of them are solutions to the problem straight away.
For me, mixed-use development, high-density development and controlling how much a city sprawls (is important). We are very proud today of the Mumbai metropolitan, NCR, and even Bengaluru. But how can you keep expanding cities endlessly?
Do you have any thoughts about development in Bengaluru? It was a city that started off being a pensioners’ paradise and has grown exponentially over the past couple of decades.
I think, for me, Bengaluru is right up there as one of the examples of how humans can ruin a city. It will go down in history as being one of the most tragic examples of destroying a place that had a great climate and living ecosystem of lakes and greenery. All you needed to do was enhance and maintain it; what we have done is completely ruin it.
We keep talking about the IT revolution as a cause for it. But the fact of the matter is that it could have been the greatest spur of positive development and could have led to creating Bengaluru as a model city. IT is not a heavy industry like steel or cement, it is a forward-thinking industry, technology-driven profession that attracts human capital, typically young people.
I don’t know how a bunch of young people, whose future lies ahead, allow the environment around them to deteriorate so badly. Yes, we can condemn the political and the administrative class. And they do deserve all that blame. But what about the youth who went there? What did they do? How did the resident welfare associations and citizen groups behave? Today, citizen advocacy groups come to the fore (in case of an issue). Why did this not start happening some 20 years ago?