Mohan Rao is an environmental design and landscape architecture professional, and a partner at Integrated Design (INDÉ), a multidisciplinary consultancy practice in regional planning, environmental design and landscape architecture. He is actively involved in the master planning of existing and new settlements; ecological restoration/conservation; impact assessment of natural disasters, management and reconstruction; resource assessment and management; as well as conservation and site interpretation of world heritage sites. Through his many projects, he has tried to elucidate that landscape architecture should not only look good in plans but should also achieve an ecological function. Rao is currently involved in master planning, regional planning and sustainable development projects across the Indian subcontinent, Morocco, Libya, France and China. He is an active partner with several French agencies involved in research projects that focuses on sustainable development issues on behalf of the French Environment and Energy Management Agency (ADEME). In a conversation with Bhawna Jaimini, Mohan Rao spoke about how we can begin to look at landscapes as ecological service providers by looking into our past and preparing for our future.
BJ: You have built a multidisciplinary practice, which deals with multiple facets of sustainable development in India and abroad. From water management and landscapes to architecture and restoration, you have worked on a myriad of projects in the past. Why and how did you set up such a practice?
MR: I will start with answering the why because the how is a rather long story. I started this practice because it was necessary in these times when we have taken every facet of space-making and made it a super specialised field. This approach is counter-productive to the whole idea of sustainability. It doesn’t matter whether you are building a small residence or a huge hospital, each and every aspect of our buildings, like thermal comfort, sanitation, landscape and lighting, are all interlinked. Segregating them into super specialised fields compromises the end goal of sustainability, mostly because these professionals do not work in tandem with each other, often ignoring the value others are bringing to the project.
The other major reason was to change the way landscape architects engage with a project. Because we come from a design background, we are taught to produce great-looking end products, without much regard for the process. I feel landscape architecture should be seen as congruent to the environment, society and culture; within the process as well as the end product.
BJ: We rarely see that happening except a few examples here and there. That is why how you succeed is an important story to be told.
MR: The how is not easy and different people have found different ways of doing it. The first thing is the willingness to take a lot of risks and set different benchmarks. Rather than setting up a number of projects one does in a year, one has to look at impact as a benchmark. The impact doesn’t necessarily mean numbers. It is not about the amount of square metres of landscape you do every year but what you do with 1 square metre that matters.
I will give you an example of Hathi Gaon, a habitat we developed for elephants in Jaipur, Rajasthan. The standard way would have been to plant a number plant species while the architect designs the building. But we pushed the envelope by unlearning what we already knew about landscapes while learning new things in that process. Before we started, I didn’t know that the profession of elephant psychology exists. There are many such professions that can add so much value to projects, and we should act as facilitators to combine and articulate this shared pool of knowledge, and translate that to space-making.
BJ: Landscapes are usually considered secondary when it comes to the overall design and architecture of a building. Most of the firms attribute landscape architecture to just planting trees on-site. How do you think this can be changed?
MR: In our context, within the Indian subcontinent, landscape is just an extension of architecture and still
remains in the category of space-making. The only difference is that, instead of using bricks and mortar, we
use plants and water along with other elements. One way is to make visually appealing green open spaces,
and there is nothing wrong with that, but do we have the understanding of the larger terrestrial system, which
this landscape is a part of? Do we understand the ecology, hydrology and geology of the region?
Not everyone gets to work on big ecology projects but even when one is designing a small residence in an urban context, it is important to understand the relationship between vegetation and culture before deciding whether to plant a neem or a gulmohar. It is vital to build the understanding of ecological services provided by vegetation, which adds more meaning to the space. For example, in areas where a lot of dust is generated, big-leaved trees are preferred over small-leaved trees because they are able to trap more dust.
BJ: Since you collaborate with other architects who often come with their own notions of what a designed landscape should be, do you find it difficult to explain the importance of landscapes as ecological service providers?
MR: It was difficult when we started but over the years, as we did more projects, it became easier. With the body of work, we are able to provide tangible examples to convince them. I try to push boundaries as far as I can.
The rocky landscape of Hampi—the ruins of Vijayanagara—is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (photo courtesy of Integrated Design (INDÉ), Bangalore).