Goan homes .. an unrecognized treasure

Goan homes… unrecognised treasure


From: Frederick Noronha fred@bom2.vsnl.net.in
Date: Mon, 08 Mar 1999 01:03:32 +0500


Every culture expresses their
genius in different ways.
Goans seem to have
concentrated on their
houses. All the crafts
and skills were
centered around their homes.

Frederick Noronha

Panaji (Goa): It’s strange: you live in a home all your life to
suddenly wake up one fine day to realise the true worth of this
legacy. That, says architect Gerard Da Cunha, is just what is
happening to Goans.

Da Cunha is working on a book on Goan homes. He has just finished
working on an eye-opening exhibition which surprised many by
portraying the wealth of Goan homes.


There have been all sorts of responses to his work. Visitors came
in from France, Macau, Austria, Belgaum, Lisbon, the US and
elsewhere. Many were part of the Goan diaspora, here to discover
their roots.

One lady returned from Portugal to encounter the house she grew
up in as a child in Goa. Another, a German woman with blue eyes
whose father Goan, pleaded eagerly “Can you help me trace my
house.” Yet others came in and said: “I hate what’s going on (in
a Goa that is fast losing its charm to concrete jungles). Can we
bomb all these buildings!”

Da Cunha says his aim is simple. He’s just trying to make the
average Goan “aware of what a wonderful heritage we have. We have
one of the greatest heritages of domestic architecture in this
world. Goan houses are really phenomenal houses.”

It is, as he puts it, an attempt to “record and honour” the
wonderful heritage of domestic Goan architecture. This, he says,
is very important now since traditional Goan houses currently
face a “great threat” due to commercial interests and also the
rapidly changing social structure.

Every culture, he argues, expresses their genius in different
ways. Rajasthan is full of clothes and silverware. Some cultures
express themselves in music, or by making huge monuments.

“But Goans seem to have concentrated on their houses. All the
crafts and skills were centered around their homes. They’ve had
so many different kinds of windows, for instance. How it
happened, one doesn’t know. So many accidents of fate…. Maybe
somebody started it off, someone else copied it,” as Da Cunha

Da Cunha is to publish a book shortly. He rates his exhibition as
a success. Says he: “As the exhibition carried on, it got better
known. Mainly by word of mouth. People also came because their
houses were there. We had a lot of houses there — we picked a
false ceiling from somewhere. Something else from somewhere else.
We did 150 houses in all.”

Says Da Cunha: “I think it aroused a lot of interest in the way
we live. People often take it for granted. Once everybody saw it
all together, the worth of (Goan homes) all came out.”

Goan architecture is a quaint mix. There were influences which
came from the West, basically Portugal. This married local
influences, and then it took its own direction.


“What surprised me is the richness of what we have. We certainly
have a rich heritage. When it comes to Goa, everybody talks of
the beaches. Nobody realises that this is our strongest point,”
argues Da Cunha.

But can the houses that ooze old world charm survive in a
rapidly-changing Goa? Specially with the type of economic
pressures being put on this small state?

Argues Da Cunha: “They can survive if they’re put to different
uses. Fortunately or unfortunately, tourism can play a part in
reviving these houses. They can play a new role as heritage-
homes, boutiques, restaurants, or even as offices. I myself work
in one old house.”

Strangely, even as the government has gone about imposing more
stringent laws ostensibly to protect conservation zones and
control building activity, the concretisation of Goa has got all
the more worse. Perhaps that was because once the stringent laws
were in place, some politicians and racketeers with dubious-
motivation were in business. They had strong incentives to go
about scheming to break the law, and reap the huge profits that
resulted illegally to them.

Does Da Cunha agree with such a view?

“Laws don’t really protect anything,” argues Da Cunha. He feels
that the change would come when people realise “how valuable” an
old property is, as has happened in areas of Florence and Venice.
Little boutiques or guest houses would make more sense in the
long run than ugly concrete structures. It would retain the charm
too, he argues.

It’s already happening in the Fontainhas (also known as Mala)
locale of Panjim — sometimes called the Latin Quarter of this
haphazardly-grown once pretty town. Da Cunha points to fashion
designer Wendel Rodrick’s exclusive showroom, the Panjim Inn,
Fundacao Orient and other such centres that are coming up in old
homes in this locale.


In the last few years, many old homes and structures have been
felled to make way for multi-storied buildings. Says Da Cunha:
“But Goans are intrinsically quite proud of their houses. Unlike
other people, Goans don’t live in the cities. They mostly live in
the villages and they travel to work.”

Goan homes, in this architect’s view, stand out from the rest in
terms of their richness of detail. “There was a remarkable
dignity about the old houses. They reflected Goan life, in a way.
Goans I think were very formal. Aren’t the old Goans and the
Portuguese-speaking ones? They had and have a certain grace,
formality, dignity, and perhaps are a little pompous too!”

Goa’s homes of old often had thick walls. For the climate —
often hot and humid — this made a lot of sense. But Goan homes
were not all that functional. Homes in Kerala, for instance,
responded to the climate more seriously, feels Da Cunha. In Goa,
the house had just one big roof. In Kerala, every room had a
domer-window which let off heated air.

Given his preferences, Da Cunha is obviously against Goa rushing
headling into urbanisation. Though, it can’t be avoided
altogether, he concedes.

“Some amount of urbanisation is a natural thing. It happens. (But
too much of it and) you’d spoil the basic character of the
village. It happens along the highways. So the first place to get
ruined would be Porvorim to Mapusa. Bambolim. Then, it starts
creeping inwards,” he says.

What about the argument that Goa’s old houses can no longer cope
with the ‘need of the time’?

“I don’t think so. A lot of this box-driven development is really
to do with making money. Now you have thousands of flats in Goa
which are unoccupied. Nobody wants to buy them. Lot of people
were buying for speculation,” says the bearded Da Cunha (44).


His plans don’t end here. For a start, the exhibition will move
to Portugal, actually Porto, the city selected to be the cultural
capital of Europe for this year. “Then, I’m going to take it
round the country (India). That’s my dream,” says he. Da Cunha
has plans or invitations to put up the exhibition at Kathmandu in
Nepal, Bangalore, Bombay, Delhi, Baroda, Ahmedabad, Jaipur. If
things work out his way, he’ll take a bus with his work on show.

“I’m planning to increase the size of the exhibition. We made 24
large panel photographs, some 20 x 30 inches, on laminated board.
Once I saw everybody coming in, I added to the exhibition,” says he.

Was this work something he enjoyed? Yes indeed, but for a strange

His high-pressure lifestyle in laid-back Goa has made Da Cunha “a
bit of a recluse”. This particular task forced him to take time
off, meet a lot of people, and get back in touch with those
living not so far away from home. “For long, it has simply been
to do my work, travel all over the place, and then come back to
my family. I hardly meet people or socialise much. So it was good
to meet a lot of people.”

Now he sees this as a success, Da Cunha also plans to go onto a
“bigger dream” — an exhibition on the vernacular architecture of
entire India.

Da Cunha’s Goa book focusses on a range of issues. Starting with
houses in Goa before the coming of the Portuguese. On how it was
built in mud and other material, and how this suited local
lifestyles. It goes under the title of ‘From Mud to Marvels’.
Other chapters are named ‘Elements of Style’ and ‘House Form’
(which refers to smaller homes). Way of Life looks at the Goan ethos.


Besides financial pressures, Da Cunha also sees other threats to
the stately Goan house. “If six sons inherit a house, it’s going
to be difficult to divide. So that makes it easy for them to go a
builder, and (barter the home) for a flat each and say Rs 100,000
in a building set up there”. But, says he, you can divide the
houses quite well if you’re clever about it.

His advice to expats being tempted to buy flats that are
proliferating in the state: “Don’t.”

Buy an old house, suggests Da Cunha. “There are hundreds of old
houses in remote parts of Goa which are all unoccupied. In
Uccasiam, Nachinola, Moira. It’s worth repairing it.” He concedes
that it could at times prove troublesome. “But the rewards are

What about the problems that people, particularly expatriate
Goans, face in repairing their old homes. Something that is
aggravated by the shortage of labour?

“Maybe something could be worked out by which people could repair
their houses. I don’t see why I couldn’t help that,” promises Da

“Goans have always been proud of their homes. But maybe they
didn’t show it,” argues the architect. (ENDS)

NOTE: Houses of Goais currently available at a pre-publication
discount of 40%, at Rs 875 + postage and packing. More details
from Gerard da Cunha at archauto@bom2.vsnl.net.in>

frederick noronha, freelance journalist, fred@vsnl.com
near lourdes convent, saligao 403511 goa india ph 276190 or 278683

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