Dikshu Kukreja of CPKA, ranked among the top 100 architecture firms in the world, is the face of all that is good in Indian architecture today

When an established architect like Dikshu Kukreja describes working on a new project as “falling in love for the first time – yet again,” it is evident that the spark that ignited his passion is still burning bright. “When I start designing, I feel like a child with a new toy – my excitement knows no bounds,” says the principal architect of CP Kukreja Architects (CPKA), who completed 25 years of practice this January. Holding the founder of CPKA, his father CP Kukreja, as responsible for his interest in this field, he muses, “Ironically, his determined efforts to challenge my choice…led to my further determination to only become an architect.”
Kukreja’s father has always been an inspirational figure for his commitment to design. At a time when terms like ‘sustainability’ and ‘environment-friendly architecture’ were yet to be coined, he emphasised the need for architecture that responded to the site and climate. The entire Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) campus was built on undulating, rugged terrain, and the design reflected this in its planning and choice of materials. His book Tropical Architecture is studied in universities like Harvard and MIT. A visionary and a man ahead of his time, his contribution to architecture has motivated many youngsters.

While he has been impressed by many architectural legends over the past three decades, Kukreja’s idol remains his father. “His passionate and determined commitment towards his work, his compassion towards the less privileged in society, his humility at his own success, and his sacrifice for others are qualities that I not only admire – but strive to emulate,” says Kukreja, who is as deeply inspired by the Louvre in Paris and Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur (both for their sensitive response to history and context as well as the impressive technology that creates an iconic outcome) as he is by Fatehpur Sikri – for its marvellous built and unbuilt space as well as climate and culture-responsive architectural expression.

As a student in school, Kukreja had spent a considerable amount of time learning Italian as a step towards his dream of studying architecture in Italy. But when opportunity knocked in the form of the Taliesin Fellowship which was created by the legendary architect Frank Lloyd Wright, he did not hesitate to answer. At Taliesin in Arizona, the experience of having to build your own shelter was an “eye opener” that taught him the importance and seriousness of being able to design a project keeping in mind its constructability. “It’s one thing to draw a line on paper, quite another to get it built. This has remained etched in my mind,” he says.

There were other life lessons he learnt during his academic journey. “Following Wright’s mantra of ‘Learning by Doing’ helped shape my personality and give a new dimension to my architectural thinking,” he recalls. At Harvard, he was impressed by the diversity of students from across the world (22 nationalities amongst 26 students in the programme), their “sheer brilliance” as creative talent, and camaraderie rather than competitive spirit. “Being the youngest in this group taught me more than any conventional degree programme would,” he maintains.

Kukreja believes that the decision of also studying at the Harvard Business School expanded his thinking beyond that of an architect – to understand how the mind of a typical ‘business client’ works. “I realised that a successful design often needs to acknowledge, if not conform to, business diktats as well,” he discloses. “The radical shift from the wild west of Taliesin to the hallowed corridors of Harvard University was like walking on another planet. Studying in the midst of extraordinarily talented students was unforgettable and a lifetime experience for me.”

As a young architect, his yearning to live in Europe drove him to work in Paris. Surviving on an incredibly frugal budget there kept him grounded, and his appetite for learning was satiated by both the city life and the French countryside. “When I took up a job in Paris, I was offered hardly any money, but the architect promised to make it a lifetime experience – and it was precisely so,” recalls Kukreja. “I got the opportunity to travel across the country and got to learn and experience so much – the historical architecture, the landscape from the Alps to the French Riviera to the plains; the villages, the cities. I was able to imbibe so much, that no amount of ‘salary’ would have done that.”

Returning to the USA and working in a corporate architectural set-up of the legendary architect Kevin Roche taught him various aspects of how a globally successful architectural practice is run. Enriched by these experiences, he returned to India to work, for the first time, at CPKA.

The two initial projects he handled at the firm were the renovation of the prestigious Delhi Gymkhana Club and the restoration as well as addition to the iconic Oberoi Hotel property in Srinagar which was taken over by the Lalit Hotel Group. Each project taught him different things, he reflects: “Delhi Gymkhana Club exposed me to dealing with the client, which comprised former bureaucrats and armed forces officers. The challenge of meeting the expectations of varied and highly opinionated clients was a new experience. The site itself has strong historical context, and the current context of adjoining the Prime Minister’s residence was both exciting and challenging. Working on the Lalit Hotel, Srinagar, in a climate which witnesses snowfall and making site visits when the atmosphere was politically charged (one could hear gun shots at night), was again a new experience. These two projects brought new learnings beyond just architecture, in dealing with clients, both private and government.”

Today, after working on a number of significant projects for CPKA and experiencing so many heritage and contemporary spaces in different parts of the world, the Louvre in Paris still draws him time and again for its fascinating play of history and modernity. “I find it inspiring to see how an extremely simple gesture of introducing an incredibly simple, literally transparent form of a pyramid into a historical overpowering context, can create an architecture which blends so well with each other and appears that there could simply be no other solution,” he explains.

The strong relationship with nature and sustainability, fostered by his father, continues to influence Kukreja. “I believe, in today’s time, we are yearning for nature to be brought back,” he says. “Our actions of the past have taken nature away further and faster from us than one could have ever imagined. As a result, we have reached a point where Sustainability, Ecology and Environment are the need of the hour. Secondly, in our present times, we are in search of an identity in a world where homogeneity is the norm, where it is very hard to reason why certain buildings look the same whether they are in Japan, China, Nigeria or Brazil…or closer home in Jodhpur, Delhi, Guwahati or Chennai.”

Kukreja is sure that the next generation can reverse the irresponsible development of architecture, “provided we learn to come together, and value each other’s contribution.” And his advice to senior architects who are bemoaning some of today’s built spaces, is to take the responsibility of mentoring and guiding the younger generation rather than only choosing to be critical spectators.

A mentor to students, young architects and designers himself, Kukreja insists that it’s the responsibility of each one who has spent time in the profession to nurture the next generation. “After all, I owe a lot to my seniors in the profession – Prof. Ram Sharma, Ajoy Chowdhury, Ranjit Sabikhi, Uttam Jain, Prof. MM Rana, Kevin Roche, Peter Rowe, Olivier Vidal and many more,” he acknowledges. “Also, I enjoy meeting young architects ; their curiosity, naivety, enthusiasm and creativity are infectious.”
Kukreja’s daily routine consists of, first thing in the morning, spending time with the youngest members of the office and discussing new ideas, new designs, what’s going on in the world. “This allows me to remain charged and enthusiastic about my work,” he maintains. “We are also, through the CPKA Foundation for Design Excellence, conducting knowledge-based programmes and competitions, to recognise young design talent and offer them a platform.”

Happiness, for Kukreja, is a state of mind which lies within and, therefore, the spaces that he creates reflect that. “Spaces should be airy, well lit, with adequate volume, flow into one another – thereby conversing with each other. As you experience these spaces, there should be an emotion of celebration,” he insists. “My temperament is of being a strong disciplinarian. I like to work as if there is no tomorrow. I believe in delivering to clients within a disciplined timeline and not hesitating to say no where I don’t agree with them. My colleagues in the office have to put up with this, but I am grateful that we all share similar values.”
It is astonishing to learn that Kukreja still dreams every night about his buildings – those that have been built, are under way or even yet to come. “Sometimes, I am so overwhelmed with my dreams, that I wake up in the middle of the night and in pitch darkness scribble my ideas on a paper – lest I lose them the next morning,” discloses the architect who would like to be remembered as “an architect who was not confined to shaping a built environment, but also shaped us into a meaningful, purposeful and thoughtful society. I would feel satisfied in not just accomplishing more and more projects, but in truly contributing towards the betterment and advancement in the state of our profession in our country.”
After the many mega landmark projects he has handled, he is on the brink of more defining ones – the redevelopment of the iconic Pragati Maidan; a 26,000 crore project of IICC; East Delhi Hub, a 1.5crore sq-ft first TOD project of India; a 1.2crore sq-ft multi-modal transport hub at Surat; and many others that are the first in their category by an Indian. Kukreja’s reaction is commendable: “It is a mixed emotion of gratitude and responsibility at this unique opportunity. We feel scale as never seen before in the history of this country. Everyone in our office is so charged up at this emerging, perhaps once in a lifetime, opportunity.”

Agreeing that architecture and design is a balance between Science and Art, he qualifies, “Science, because it is incomplete without technology; and Art because, without it, a building has no soul.” Kukreja’s work, as seen in the significant projects of the firm in the following pages, certainly has soul.

Author : Maria Louis

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