by Zohra KhanSep 10, 2020
The eleventh episode of Cross Border Conversations is an enriching exploration that brings together two senior creatives perfectly attuned to nature and wilderness; two inspiring professionals who uphold the stonemiller's secrets far above the 'star architect' philosophy.
In a refreshing twist, the conversation moves away from the virtual room as the two speakers meet in real time at the STIR Gallery in New Delhi on a warmly lit monsoon morning. Acclaimed environmentalist, habitat expert and National Award winning filmmaker Pradip Krishen, and architect and former Dean of Architecture at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, Prof. Anne Feenstra, lose themselves in musing that one thing that connects their practices: Landscape. As they share their journeys with one another, they reveal the most important gifts of the toughest terrains they have encountered : Trust, Endurance, Fragility and Interconnectedness.
New Delhi-based Krishen, who has written remarkably on trees and is known to have restored several degrading landscapes with native vegetation, talks about dominant preconceptions that fall within the practices associated with the natural world, and also shares fond learnings and anecdotes. Feenstra, whose studio operates from Kathmandu, Delhi and Amsterdam and advocates a pro-people, pro-ecology, research-based form of architecture, reminisces several encounters of working with locals on rural projects that manifested in incredible eco-sensitive solutions.
The 60-minute chat moderated by Amit Gupta (STIR Founder and Editor-in-Chief) brings insights into how design can embrace environment and ecology, and the human values that can drive positive change.
If people look at a photograph of a building and they say, ‘where is the building?’, for me that’s a compliment. – Prof. Anne Feenstra
Observation first, intervention later
Feenstra notes that architects need to be good listeners, and that before getting down to drawing a line on paper, interventions should begin with extensive observation and understanding of the landscape and its local life.
Driving his point home, he references one of his works from the Central Highlands of the Bamyan Province in Afghanistan in which the brief required construction of a visitor-cum-community center amid a breathtakingly beautiful but neglected landscape comprising mountains and interlocking lakes, waterfalls and dams.
“If you have the guts to intervene in a landscape like that, it’s very important to be modest,” he says. Feenstra’s approach to the project began with a keen understanding of the land, its people and their ways of living. He conceived a building that defied the concept of a facade. “It was very clear to me that the building that we’ll design need to be all sided, because beauty is everywhere."
By engaging with the locals to generate ownership, he led a slow process of ‘building’ by using contextual materials and techniques as against creating quick architecture which the professor believes does not last for very long.
Ecology is not about big landscapes. You can have a micro-habitat in the floral head of a grass that actually houses spiders, predators and prey. – Pradip Krishen
The Art of Seeing
Krishen looks back to one of his most notable projects - the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park which originally was a volcanic landscape spread adjacent to the Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. He says that the site, when showed to him in 2006, was completely dominated by invasive plants that stretched across the 70 hectares of land. What came as a shock was the brief that asked him to create a pleasant adjunct to the fort by ‘greening’ the rocky landscape of the site (as if it was a magic trick!).
Krishen raises a pertinent concern that landscape in India is misunderstood as a quick external process of ‘greening’ that doesn’t concern the site conditions which, in reality, go deep into the land’s ecology and require intensive research and testing.
He narrates the journey of the Rao Jodha Desert Rock park and how it was realised; all along sharing lessons on how to look and understand different terrains. He also elaborates on one of his recent projects, the Kishan Bagh in Jaipur, where he has transformed a barren tract of ‘marooned dunes’ and recreated a native shrubland of the Thar Desert.
In architectural schools, you only learn about Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas. You are supposed to become a star architect. When you learn from a fellow who has been making millstones for 25 years, that is real knowledge. – Prof. Anne Feenstra
Learning what they don't teach you inside studios
Both Feenstra and Krishen deliberate on the vital role of locals and their accumulated wisdom. The two walk one another through fond experiences that affirm their belief in the power of modesty, endurance, interconnectedness and ownership.. While the former recounts his encounter with a millstone worker whose 25 years of unravelled wisdom helped him effortlessly find capital stones that were needed in the construction of another visitors center project in Afghanistan; Krishen describes the story of a community of local miners that came to his rescue when uprooting invasive trees from the site of the Rao Jodha Desert Rock Park seemed a task impossible.
When you say nature teaches us trust and endurance, I think that’s only a part of the story. It also teaches us fragility and the interconnectedness of everything. – Pradip Krishen
Blurring boundaries and filling gaps
Krishen highlights an alarming observation about the state of forestry in India: “There is not a single forest department in any part of the country that has a reasonable representation of the native trees of that region. All of our landscapes are vanishing because there is no form of protection or control; these are not recognised as being beautiful.”
He adds that it’s not just foresters, but landscape architects, people who run nurseries, and municipal horticulturists who are blind to the beauty of our native vegetation.
Feenstra notes that today, there is a huge gap between landscape architects and architects in general. Contemplating how lessons in ecology and environment can be imparted to future generations, his advice to educators is to teach in a way that sparks a fire in them (and consequently save many a forest fire!)
Discover more in the video above.
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