It all started with a Lego set for architect Gerard D’Cunha.
A rebel’s got to do what a rebel’s got to do and so, one fine day in ’74 Gerard da Cunha, then in his third year at the college of Architecture in Delhi, packed his bags and headed for Trivandrum to persuade the architect, Laurie Baker, to take him under his wing. a Cunha had just passed the third year examinations and his friends had not. Not particularly happy with what he was learning at college and wanting to keep pace whit his friends, he realized he had a yen on his hands.
Deliberate and emphatic, Da Cunha measures out his speech and lays it out word by word, brick by brick. “I want to work with you and I don’t want any money,” he told seen and admired on a short study tour of South India. baker refused. Da Cunha dug his heels in I’m not going. I’m here and I’m not leaving.”
Baker gave in and Da Cunha got himself a cycle, donned a mundu and cycled form site to site doing the things Baker didn’t want to do, like paying the cash, keeping the accounts, going to the bank. “All the dirty work.” For a student who had to his credit constructions on a Lego set at the age of eight, the opportunity to watch a man he believes is a genius was reward enough. “I used to keep a little distance; he doesn’t like people messing around. I just saw how he did it. I don’t think I learnt how to do it. But I just saw the approach of the man.”
Baker obviously loved and enjoyed his work. A hands-on, architect, Da Cunha watched homes grow out of Baker’s hands on site and not on drawing boards in plush carpeted offices. “And he was always following around, always laughing an joking,” he remembers. A far cry from the faculty at school – ” all these serious guys, with four ens in their pockets and their air-conditioned offices… and they were not producing homes,cheap beautiful homes.” Da Cunha learnt the importance of working on site, and imbibed Baker’s meticulous approach. “It was like cooking feeling your way out…it was homespun and not an academic approach, there as no jargon..”
Nominated Designer of the year by Interiors India, the country, only interiors design annual, features the tall, bearded, architect’s recent work, The Palaio, on its cover. It is perhaps fair compensation for Da Cunha, known for his low-cost housing, that in a covering article for the magazine, Baker has described his work as “open, honest, truthful, meaningful, beautiful and of great worth.”
It was in 86 that D’Cunha met the man he calls the Gatsby, an affluent Bombayite who wanted Da Cunha to build a fantasy house for him. “The Palacio is a hotch-potch of various styles, it’s like a medieval castle and it’s got all sort of features..” With his background and reputation for budget housing, Da Cunha was surprised that the Natural Architecture, the name by which his company is known, had been approached for a project that was high-budget dream. “Principally, I work with local materials, local techniques… and this comes from Baker… I build special houses for anyone. You come to me, you lie to write, you like to do yoga, whatever and it’s generally been economical stuff. Then suddenly out of the blue came this man wanted this palace.”
On a hillside in Sinquerim the tall, multi-level Palacio stands on Venetian arches in rock and spiraling pillars at the end of a road that runs alongside the river it overlooks. Once you cross the porch, you open a door and get in to a foyer. There’s no light except in the four corners where there are four light-wells in the ceiling no widows, it’s a little dark. Then you open out and you can see the sea and the land touching. From the dark foyer, you come under a dome, a huge dome. “It makes you feel small,” he says. Seven teenth century rococo columns and a complex array of arches at the entrance of the living room, gargoyles and stag heads reflect the Gatsby’s love for Western classical art. “The idea was to create different sensations of surire, suspense, awe, grandeiu, You come to the place and you said `Wow’, you know, that kind of thing.”
For all the wows it has elicited, D’Cunha, admitting reluctantly that he is proud of it, is quick to add that it does embarrass him at times. “It to impress, not to live in. It’s not really my scene. I had a few guilty feelings initially, but it was worth a try and I enjoyed myself up to point. Laurie Baker, he point out world never have accepted a house like this and neither doe she intend taking up another project lie this. “It’s not my scene.”
The 60s and 70s period during which he received his formal education, were marked by the sprit of rebellion and experimentation, and the call to return to nature. Preferring not to join the rate race, after a two years stint with the DDA where he “rotted for two years,” he upped and left. “Not staying in the city was a conscious decision.” Da Cunha headed for the land of his ancestors, Goa.
A reflection of Da Cunha’s bent for the personal, for the sense of community he tries to achieve in his work, the humaneness he aspires for is the Nrityagram in Bangalore. “When I was starting work there, I had a site that was flat. No trees, no view, nothing. I had to create vistas. it was an isolated area, so I had to bring a sense of security., For the few students living in isolation with the teacher,it had to be compact. He grouped his buildings around the three courtyards that he built. “When you got into the building you felt secure.”
This attention to the needs of people as living, breathing individuals and not mere statistic, Da Cunha believes is possible in big cities too. “We are not part of an international style in India. You see a lot of buildings coming up here, “referring to the high-rise apartments in Bombay, “which are similar to buildings coming up in the West.” He cities London as an example of a big city which doesn’t build high-rise structures. In New York, he says, citing another example, an award-winning low-cost building had to be destroyed because it was conductive to circumstances. “Bombay is an extreme case, but surely there are more humane was to live.” The international style that’s become the fashion in the bug Indian cities is not for him. “Fashion doesn’t interest me at all. My architecture comes out from construction, from material from site. It’s got nothing to do with fashion. I don’t do the same thing each time. I don’t have a norm, I don’t have a style. I try out different things..”
Other than the projects including the university library in Hampi for the university of Culture, the guest house close to Nrityagram, Da Cunha has five students of architecture who are presently going around measuring houses in Goa for a book on Goan houses. “We have in Goa one of the best traditions of domestic architecture. At some point of time in Goa, it looked as if all people did was build beautiful houses. They’re so nice, so friendly; they’re all different, they all follow a pattern some are high, some are low, but they will behave within a framework and they all seem to talk to each other.” Da Cunha hopes to capture all this in the book.
Not interested in being a big architectural firm, Da Cunha had rather be doing special things that are closer to his heart. “I don’t want to be the sort of architect that files to Delhi on a project spends ones day in Madras, tow days elsewhere . I wouldn’t be able to cope. I’d then start getting into formulas which I don’t want to do.” For a man who claims to passionately love buildings, it seems like a fair enough compromise.
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