Dean D’Cruz: On Sustainability, Architecture and Practice

Dean D’Cruz, co-Founder and Principal Architect of Mozaic writes about his learnings from a three-decade long tryst with the landscape of Goa, and the way in which its biodiverse terrain became the foreground of a practice in environmentally responsible architecture.


It has been 32 years since I came to Goa. In the beginning, I worked for Gerard D’Cunha and in time entered into a partnership with him which was then called Natural Architecture. This was interesting and a change for me; since my college days, I was intrigued by technology, which I loved. Earlier, as a student of architecture, I was inspired by Mies, and Corbusier for their mastery of forms. But then slowly, I began to appreciate the level of detailing in the work of architects like Gaudi. Gerard had worked closely with Laurie Baker who was always very hands-on, maintained a down-to earth approach to architecture where one actually builds oneself! So, it was a very interesting learning – this integration of technology and the Baker-approach to architecture. As I grew, I was influenced more by the humanistic approach to architecture rather than the final sculptural form.

Initially the practice was experimental. Back in the day, the word ‘sustainable’ was not yet in the ‘architectural dictionary’ and it was really just about being direct in your approach. I realise now that maybe that mindset that resulted in such simple design solutions. Influenced by Baker’s principles, for years now, we have tried to maintain an approach which is direct, simple and low-cost. When people talk about sustainability, one immediately thinks of technology, and new materials. But I think it is more about the simplest way to keep things low-cost. A mix of these approaches was our way of perceiving good design.

ENVIRONMENT

Mozaic came up much later into the practice in partnership with Reboni Saha, who is a product designer from NID, Ahmedabad. As a collaboration between an architect and a designer, we would look at the broader aspects of how interdisciplinary practices could offer holistic solutions. We believe that all design disciplines have a common thread and that is how we decided to name the practice ‘Mozaic’- a collection of different pieces in a design puzzle that we could bring together in some form. Our expertise here is to offer a comprehensive solution. Initially, our projects mainly composed of low-cost houses which we developed primarily through learnings from the building construction process and through the understanding of materials, costing, reaction and longevity. Once we developed this skill, we were offered small and big hospitality projects, jungle resorts, institutional work, and some commercial work. We had considerable diversity. Every few years, we evolved our process and tried to push our boundaries to avoid getting stuck in a particular style. This lent a certain richness to our architecture.

We consciously tried to avoid our architecture from being labelled as a ‘Mozaic building’ or ‘Dean D’Cruz’s building’ in an effort to stay as varied as possible.

Goa is among the top biodiversity hotspots in the world. It is expected of every architect and/or professional from the construction industry to tread cautiously when developing projects in Goa. It means that one has to imbibe sensitivity in their approach. Like with every context, Goa also has a natural and built heritage that needs to be respected. At the same time the context offers possibilities of reinterpretation but is not as easy as “let’s copy the Portuguese style.”

I think it is important that we respond to the needs and aspirations of the times we live in and respect our traditional crafts but at the same time reinterpret their character as we progress.

BUILDING LIGHTLY

For me, context is not necessarily responding to the building next door but responding to the needs of the people and the project. It does not necessarily have to be local in terms of a visual language. It could be a subtle gesture of connecting the inside and outside for one. It is important to me that the building is fluid without being functionally fixed but also to be able to see how it can morph over time. As I mentioned, the most basic form of sustainability is about how little it costs and the connect with the local environment. The fact that Goa is among the rich biodiverse spots in the world, one does feel the need to connect with the outdoors and create buildings that are as transparent as possible. In our practice, we strive to keep this in mind. We try to incorporate the outdoors into the indoors, with a limited footprint.

Influenced by Baker, I would say our initial architecture was fairly opaque. The difference is Baker worked with brick but being based out of Goa, laterite seemed like a more sensible choice to use for us. While laterite lends a touch of solemnity to the building, we felt the need to introduce more transparency in our buildings over time. Slowly, we moved towards a pavilion-style of architecture that rendered a much greater connect with nature, allowed ample air flow resulting in a more appropriate climatic response. Most of the traditional architecture that one sees in Goa often does not perform well climatically. I feel like a hybrid response to some of the characteristic features of traditional architecture is critical in creating a space that is climatically sound. As designers, we often tend to slip into trying things without much realisation of the consequences. I think it is very important to assess one’s building post-occupancy and see how much of what we have tried has actually paid off. This is a practice we follow at our studio where ten-years post-construction we visit the buildings to learn for ourselves. These learnings I feel are very critical and can influence future works.

When a client approaches us, we try to get behind their façades as much as possible and understand their true aspirations. I think it is fundamental to understand the client as a person and their real needs. Once you have achieved this, you try and offer as many possibilities as feedback. For any project, we run through at least ten to fifteen conceptual options. With these variations, it is possible to shortlist the true sensibilities of the client. That is our starting point. Developing the design further, we like to get down to little details that make a big difference.

I really enjoy detailing integrated with technology and the ability to get into these intricacies. In every project, whether it is the windows, gates, openings or the overall experience, I think the fact that every project takes on a new approach brings a sort of freshness and excitement each time.

Working on jungle lodges was in fact a new revelation for us because here we had an opportunity to change the typical approach to hospitality of serving and being served. We explored a system where this does not happen anymore, and you are at par with the people serving you, in a way. I think traditionally it is in the field of hospitality that people talk of indulgence, and luxury. Breaking down these conventional hierarchies was relieving because now hotels felt like homestays where one had to actually respect the host in a way. I think that it is very important to provide this dignity to people who work for and with you. In the past we have had some unfortunate experiences while designing for the rich whose mind set was closeted towards the people who supported their lives. What architecture does is that it gives us an opportunity to create new lifestyles.

A lot of the built forms that we see today are eye sores: blots on the landscape. So, it is important that architecturally we understand what enhances nature and how it can be incorporated into our built world. Till that time, we can at least let nature take over these buildings in some form.

One has a chance to realise how close we are to nature by simply waking up early to a beautiful sunrise after a good night’s sleep thus responding to nature’s body-clocks. It is these simple things that connect bodies to nature and that I think is vital.

PEOPLE

Every time I look at architecture, especially while working on the regional plan, trying to understand peoples’ perspective on development, I have realised that the problem most people have with so-called development of buildings is visual clutter. The moment we see development, we see degradation of the environment, and it does not have to be that way. If we are sensitive to what a building needs to be, and how it connects with the outside, the resentment towards development will reduce.

There is a famous Australian architect who said, “Buildings do not interest me anymore, people do.”, and I think it is extremely important for every architect to realise this eventually. Architecture is about creating a safe haven for people to interact in. At the end of the day, your building is just a backdrop for human interaction. Very often we look at a house in isolation while in a larger context it is actually a conglomeration of houses that need to respond to each other. You can see this happening in local Goan villages – the little streets with people in the ‘balcao’ in front, the chapel forming a focal point for the village to gather – there is a traditional response. Today with the way urbanisation is taking place, everything seems so defined. It is almost as if your purpose in life is to travel from point A to point B, and the in between does not matter at all!

I think it is very important that we recreate these opportunities of interaction drawing from the past like the slow food movement and slow city movement. Unfortunately, what is happening today with gated communities and development is a sorry state of affairs – they are disconnecting people by creating insulated communities with a limited diversity of people. It is important that integration is encouraged wherein people actually get a chance to meet new people, understand new cultures and realise there is value in diversity. A demographic change is inevitable, but it is important to maintain public platforms for dialogue. Sadly, we are so caught up in making buildings as little silos of offices and homes without the connect. It is also in-between transit spaces that needs designing, is what I have realised.

RESEARCH IN PRACTICE

We are now definitely looking to get involved in projects that could make a big social difference whether it is in the field of education, or healthcare because these are areas which are least looked upon. We need to change this paradigm of what is good architecture from being visual to effective. Our awards do not have the rigour of Aga Khan or Curry Stone Design Prize which involve visiting or assessing projects in-depth. I love the Aga Khan projects and the fact that they have such great community contributions. In the last 15-20 years of being involved with the Goa Foundation, Goa Bachao Abhiyan, Goa Heritage Action Group, and being a part of lot of social forums, has made me even more sensitive to peoples’ issues. I look at architecture not as isolated buildings but as community efforts. I appreciate architects who are really hands-on in their ability to work towards this, like architect Christopher Day who has broken away from convention to create communities that are inspiring and impactful.

We are designing a community centre in Nerul, which is essentially a hall used for community functions and get-togethers. It is situated right on top of a hill with beautiful panoramic views. So, the question we asked was, can a community centre be more than that? How can one keep it alive throughout the day? What are the various activities one likes to get engaged in and what is missing presently? Luckily there is a school nearby, so we thought of getting children involved. We decided to integrate play spaces which most community centres do not offer. In this manner, we began creating a brief based on what we sensed the community needed. We are now looking at every village having their own community centre since most of them lack this facility altogether. Earlier, it used to be primarily a religious centre or a market space that served as a place for the community to gather but today, with changed times, people come for a specific prayer or shopping and disappear. If places to meet and spend time can be created, we can encourage social exchange and a community centre is the best place for this. One can use it for cultural, recreational or informal gatherings – with the core idea being to get people together effecting social change through architecture

LEARNING(S)

I feel it is time for architects with substantial experience to give back their learnings in some way because there is a real drop in the standard of education. I think professional practices need to step in and maybe accommodate a longer internship period wherein part learning (skill) happens in the college and part of the learning (implementation) is hands-on in good offices. Today, we see an extremely superficial approach to architecture with the speed of execution demanded from the practice. That said, the youth are energetic and have great potential in their hands – with new tools of software for design, prototyping and assessing knowledge from around the world. These are great assets that we did not have but must be used carefully.

Small projects keep me going and with an interest in product design, they help push innovation. I enjoy working on sketching something new on the side and take note of my observations that could eventually become little design exercises. For instance, we are currently working on a pre-fab system – a microcosm system – of a toilet-kitchen where we are looking at evolving the whole idea of living lightly in some way. These become hypothetical (research) projects which sometimes may become a reality. When we observe something that needs to be addressed, we work on hypothetical solutions and sometimes these learnings contribute to real projects in some way. Unfortunately, it is quite tough to get this progressive sort of work in today’s scenario.

Mozaic Office Section

While specialisation in architecture is reaching new levels of proficiency, there can still be possibilities of a fresh interpretation and I think the idea of brainstorming on bigger platforms, where architects could meet, and discuss projects is essential. I am part of one such collective called the Gubbi Group where the 20 of us are trying to work in the area of sustainability and have no qualms in sharing our work and thoughts and analysing it together. These frank collective opinions are extremely helpful. I think if we have more such platforms, we could get professionals to share their work without egos and receive constructive feedback which would then help us improve the quality of work produced. At the moment, architects are extremely possessive about their own projects and do not like criticism or analysis beyond a point. The print media also needs to change that in certain ways – they need to be able to dissect buildings critically and analyse them in a constructive way. This can really help people in their design process and be more sensitive and careful in the future, because what is important to realise at the end of the day, is that our work impacts a lot of lives. Thus, as a fraternity, it is important to realise the serious nature of our interventions and our responsibilities to make a positive difference in people’s lives♦



DEAN D’CRUZ leads Mozaic – an architecture and design firm based in Goa. After graduating from Sir J.J. College of Architecture, Bombay, Dean joined architect Gerard Da Cunha as an assistant in Goa. Enamoured by the soft and human scale of Goa’s Architecture and lifestyle he decided to stay. In 1986, he became a partner in the firm Natural Architecture where he worked on cost effective housing through a Laurie Baker approach using waste building materials and innovation in design as well as construction technology. In 1994, he expanded base of design work, taking on small hotels, large houses and institutional work as principal architect of Dean D’Cruz & Associates. In 2001 he co-founded Mozaic with Reboni Saha, a product designer from NID. Mozaic was established with creative collaboration between disciplines as the core ethic. Having been part of the State Level Committee for the making of the Regional Plan 2021 for Goa, his current emphasis is on environmental architecture, urban interventions, sustainable principles and conservation.


This editorial was originally authored and published as part of a series of articles for the [IN]SIDE Journal.


KEYNOTE features an essay / text by an architect / designer about a particular aspect of their practice.

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