Give landscape its due

Ravindra Bhan is one of the country’s pioneer landscape architects. From establishing a programme in landscape architecture at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi to master planning of Delhi, he has seen the profession and the building industry evolve over the years. He speaks to Sakshi C Dasgupta and Avikal Somvanshi on the changing scene

By Sakshi Chadha Dasgupta, Avikal Somvanshi
Published: Sunday 31 March 2013

Ravindra Bhan is one of the country’s pioneer landscape architectsWhat is the role of a landscape architect in building design?

People have a misconception that landscape means planting trees around buildings. Landscape architecture deals with the design of the total outdoor environment with the understanding that the components of nature like earth and water are interdependent. Landscape architecture plays a key role in any sort of development as it understands how and where to develop, without abusing nature. Landscape needs to be incorporated at the planning stage of a building to lessen environmental damage.

What is the key to a good design?

There are two thumb rules: for whom to design and where to design. When designing a structure, you are not doing it for yourself. There is always a client who has his or her own set of priorities. According to F L Wright, the legendary American architect, one should live with the client for some time to understand their needs. Secondly, the building’s location is vital. An architect needs to understand that while making a building he or she is changing the site’s dynamics. For instance, an unbuilt land has its own ecosystem. The water in the site maintains the ecosystem, both on ground and underground. As soon as a structure is erected, there are chances the water passage will get disturbed. An architect should use water from other sources like the roof top to recharge groundwater. This will lessen the harm to the ground.

Understanding how a site will be changed is a paramount requirement to reduce environmental harm. If a new house blocks the wind, then the entire neighbourhood, which was earlier benefiting from the way the wind was funneling out, will be in misery. Such environmental conditions need to be studied; technically it is called siting of a building. If the siting is ecologically correct then it will be aesthetically correct too.

Where are cities going wrong?

We do not even understand how to locate a town itself. Take the example of Silvasa near Pune. There, hillocks are being massacred in the name of urbanisation. Town planning is not a game, where you take a drawing, make a zig-zag road pattern on it and fill with colours. One has to understand how much a land can support. There was a reason why earlier certain areas were not inhabited.

Today we are building townships without conducting proper surveys. In a township in Kota, Rajasthan, I was asked to do the landscaping. There, I found the drains were built against the site’s natural drainage pattern. When I asked for the survey drawings, there were none. How can anyone build a township on more than 400 hectares without a proper land survey? But this is happening rampantly. This is the reason roads get flooded. If the survey is in place, it is easy to figure out how the rain water will drain. For instance, till a few decades ago roads in old cities like Lyuten’s Delhi used to drain effectively. But now in the name of maintenance the roads are being topped with a new layer of tar. This has led to an almost half a metre rise in the road level, making them flood-prone. Ideally, the old tar should be removed and then the new one should be laid to maintain the drainage pattern.

Why such a paradigm shift in the building industry?

People want everything done overnight, which was not the case earlier. For example, if a customer wanted a window, one needed a window frame and 101 different details to make it functional. To mitigate wind pressure, there was a groove in the window and for rain there was a drip. The window had many aspects; it was a complex thing. Today everything has been overtly simplified. One can get a plate glass and pivot it on the opening without understanding how it will function.

Hotel Mughal Sheraton in Agra fetched Ravindra Bhan the Aga Khan award for architecture in 1980

Another problem is the absence of an architect who oversees the entire process of building a structure. Nowadays there are specialists for everything. And this is leading to coordination issues. If I want to repaint my room I will call a painter. When the painter comes he will say that I first need to get an under-coat done and there is another specialist for that. Then the undercoat specialist will say that my plaster work is shoddy and I should get a plaster specialist first.

Is coordination among specialists the biggest problem?

No. Market, which is flooded with new materials and technology, is posing a bigger problem. The building industry will take 30 years to understand how these innovations will behave on ground. But this lack of knowledge has not stopped people from using them.

In case a problem arises, people brush them aside by using cement coat or varnish. There is no understanding of materials that have been present traditionally. Building techniques were evolved over decades to complement the behaviour of each and every material.

Is the education system responding to the changed paradigm?

The old system of education is not going to work in today’s technology-driven era. But the new system of education is not geared right. Problems stemming from new technology are there and will be around for a long time. How to solve these problems technically? Who is going to teach students about them? Technology has become very high grade but the technique of coaching is still the same. The books on construction and technology that I studied more than 60 years ago are being used today as well. A drastic rethinking is needed on how to teach students so that they can handle new complications.

How is the developed world dealing with them?

Yes it is a global problem. Market is driving the industry insane. Because of the technology, media, Internet, commercialisation and loss of traditional information, people’s mindset has changed. The difference is West is more aware, it has made mistakes and is realising them. In Britain, people are returning to natural materials after discovering the harmful effects of artificial materials on health. We are picking up what they have abandoned.

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