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A rebel with a cause

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My recent visit to Goa for a conference ended with an interesting meeting with architect Gerard da Cunha, a name synonymous with Goan architecture and one of the very few truly green architects of our country.

Gerard, a practicing architect with his architectural firm based in Goa, is a man of diverse interests. While, he executes projects all over the country in the genre of sustainability, he also runs a publishing house, printing books on heritage and architecture. He is the curator of the Museum ‘Houses of Goa’ set up by him and hosts the Mario Gallery dedicated to preserve and propagate the works of legendary artist Mario de Miranda.

On reaching Torda, Salvador-do-Mundo Bardez on a muggy afternoon, our group of inquisitive journalists were warmly greeted by the casually dressed architect himself outside Nisha’s Play School, run by his wife and designed by him. While waiting for the school buses to leave before taking us inside the school, he reminisced his journey of becoming an architect. Born in the city of Godhra, Gujarat, Gerard travelled across the country since childhood as his father worked with the State Bank of India and had a transferable job. He did most of his schooling in Maharashtra and later studied architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi. “I greatly admired legendary architect Laurie Baker and worked with him initially to imbibe his meticulous approach and learn the importance of working on site,” he said.

While showing around the vernacular designs of Nisha’s Play School, and Shiksha Niketan school he explained the unusual design of the play school. Set on a steeply sloping site, he points out that the building though four storied, visually or practically does not seem that way. Indeed, the cleverly sloping roof and the layout camouflages the height of the structure. From the approach road, it seems like a single storey building. The internal stairs for adults and slides for kids, vertically connect the different levels of spatial experiences along the slope.

The 60-year-old architect & conservationist strongly believes in preserving the site contours, flora and building around the existing trees. He exploits locally available materials, waste products and the traditional wisdom in creating new structures. “The entire school is made of local stone laterite, recycled materials like tiles from a local tile factory, waste bottles, sewer pipes, thermocol etc. All the windows are of different shapes and sizes depending upon the grills and frames donated by the people. The ceiling has bottles and termocol embedded for insulation while, sewer pipe collars serve as the rim for round windows. The mosaics made from broken tiles come in handy to decorate the walls, built-in seating, work platforms and toilets,” he stated.

The building design and form of the school evolved from the need to optimize day lighting and enhance natural ventilation. The roof has open-to-sky skylights which are covered with transparent plastics during rains, explained Gerard. The light-shelves, corbelled windows, small openings in the brickwork provide plentiful light as well as playful environment for the children aged 3-10. Courtyards with trees are not merely means of ventilation but also serve as indoor play spaces for the children. The classrooms and activity spaces  Museum – a doll room, workroom and rooms for music and dance, set around the courtyard, open into small gardens and outdoor seating. Gerard explained further, “Brick arches, sometimes set so low that adults have to stoop to enter, become the door less entryways for kids. Building elements in different shapes and colours become teaching aids to convey ideas of form and colour while, recycled metal bars come together to create the functional yet aesthetic grills for windows and balconies.” But, I feel the highlight of the school is the outdoor amphitheatre with walls made from recycled beer bottles arranged in artistic pattern.

Outside the school, the triangular traffic island is a landmark in itself containing an architectural oddity built by Gerard. It is a triangular ship- like building of laterite stones, called ‘Houses of Goa’ museum. According to the architect, its design is inspired from Portuguese homes, where they kept the cattle at the ground floor with living quarters upstairs to utilize heat of the livestock to keep the home warm.

The three storied museum displays Goan architectural traditions through building materials, doors, windows, railings, construction material, furniture, etc. in an in-depth manner. Climb the winding steps to the top level and one reaches the terrace amphitheatre with a seating capacity for about 100 people. Here Gerard conducts slide show presentations with an adaptable screen.

Unequivocally impressed by the fairy-tale look of the building with triangular French doors and windows opening to the white metal circular balconies and beautiful foliage, our gaze moved on to Gerard house opposite the museum. More than a decade old and built for his parents, the house is now occupied by him and his family. Representative of Gerard distinct style, it features the influences of Portuguese and Goan architecture, – the open verandah, courtyard, brickwork and stained glass features among others.

As Gerard puts it, “My architecture comes out from construction and 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.”

Gerard da Cunha prefers working with natural stone and his architectural firm ‘Architecture Autonomous’ specializes in eco-friendly, site specific architecture. He has received the Commendation Award in Rural Architecture, Designer of the Year Award and the Prime Minister’s National Award for Excellence in Urban Planning and Design.


Sapna Srivastava

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