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A language of spaces

Updated: Jan 28, 2019


Arati Chari

The author is a landscape architect based in Chennai.

"Only in silence and solitude can we regain our dreams . . . and build, plan a space, sow trees, pile mountains, sail in the memory of a lake, discover symbols that have hitherto been concealed . . . To know who we are, to listen to the echo of a voice which sounds strangely like our own. This is the physical memory of our landscape".


For much of the twentieth century, landscape design remained peripheral to architecture, rarely rising above generalised indications of natural planting. The Modern Movement in its preoccupation with technology, progress and order denied the very existence of landscape design and its inherently inorganic nature, as is evident in its exclusion in the pioneering Bauhaus.

The subsequent evolution of the more pluralist Post Modern has resulted in an architecture that is more divergent and multivalent rather than convergent or universal in ideology - a major consequence of which has been the blurring of stark distinctions between architecture, landscape, urban design, sculpture and art.

Landscape design, till as late as the early Sixties, was little more than visual art, until participative, emotional and perceptual dimensions were explored. With a growing ecological consciousness later in the Seventies, landscapes began to be understood not merely in their anthropocentric dimensions - in the pleasure they gave man - but at a profoundly deeper level, as part of the overall ecological process of which they were undeniably a part. This ecological view, to quote Ian McHarg, advocated "biological partnership rather than subjugation or conquest" and stressed that "survival and health are contingent upon an understanding of nature and her processes." Environmental ethics came to be recognised as central to responsible design, reminding landscape designers that theirs was a science and art, above all others inherently tied into the global ecosystem.

Designed landscapes are perhaps as old as time, as in the rich and diverse formations of fields, strips and terraces of vernacular agriculture. The "designed garden" as we know it today, owes its origins largely to the Islamic concept of "Earthly Paradise" - the word paradise being derived from the ancient Persian pairidaeza or park. Inspired by the formal paradise gardens of the Moorish Empire, the cloister herb gardens of medieval Europe gave way to the formal Italian garden and later to the grandiose gardens of the French Renaissance.

The eighteenth century in England saw the birth of a radical new language in garden design called "naturalism" or the "picturesque". Inspired by poets and painters of the romantic genre, this new style in its celebration of the natural pastoral landscapes of the countryside, was to go on to become the single most dominant aesthetic model for landscapes the world over.

The great gardens of Europe for all their beauty and grandeur were symbols of power and authority and scarcely affected the life of the common man. The industrial revolution was to change all that. As voices of protest began to be heard increasingly in the industrial city, urban planning came to be recognised as imperative to its survival and health. Several private estates were made public at this time and the first planned public park was commissioned in Liverpool. In this milieu was born Ebenezer Howard's "Garden City Concept" laying the foundation of contemporary city planning and establishing landscape planning at the heart of the city planning process.

📷Palace gardens, late Mughal, Rajasthan.

Le Corbusier's scheme for Chandigarh is one such landmark example of landscape structure integral to the city plan. Several layers of functioning systems - such as housing, vehicular and pedestrian circulation and its open space structure, were carefully layered over each other here, so as to completely integrate the elements of the City Plan.

Environmental planning today - with our vast ecological knowledge and hindsight - is less about incorporating nature into the city, as about incorporating the city into existing natural processes such as its aquifers, flood plains, marshes and woodlands. The conservation of New Delhi's Ridge is one such example closer home, of environmental planning at the heart of the dynamics of urban expansion.

Open space in the city has a powerful impact on our perceptions of place. Places root us. To the earth, to our own history and memories, to our families and our larger communities. Central to landscape design thinking of any quality or depth today is the belief that the designed environment must be read at deeper levels than the merely visual, and that this meaning cannot be invented or imposed and must derive from a region's cultural roots and the perceptions of its people. "For architecture" to quote Charles Correa, "is not created in a vacuum. It is the compulsive expression of belief (implicit or explicit) central to our lives".

There is much we can learn from vernacular architecture and space, not in its imitation or superficial transfer, but in the understanding of its underlying spirit and essence and in its response to the constraints of site and climate. "For life in the tropics" as Geoffrey Bawa observes "is about living out-of-doors." This responsiveness to open space expressed in its architecture, gives rise to a whole range of ambiguous and intermediary spaces in the interface between architecture and its surroundings - as expressed in the traditional courtyard, the colonial verandah, the symbolic "chattri" or pavilion, the shamiana and the bamboo pergolas of the North East.

Open-to-sky space has always had great religious and symbolic value in Asia in the "quasi-mystical sensations this generates within us". Ranging from responses as varied as the great Islamic mosques of Delhi and Lahore - which in essence are large open spaces "surrounded by just enough built form, to make one feel 'inside' a piece of architecture" - to the temple complexes of South India, our relationship with open-to-sky space has always been one of utmost spiritual connectedness. As Correa puts it "the great Hindu temples of South India such as those at Madurai, Tanjore and Srirangam are experienced not just as a collection of gopurams and shrines, but as a pedestrian path (a pilgrimage) through the sacred spaces that lie between."

And yet design must also always be an agent of change. "We must understand our past well enough to value it - and yet also well enough to know why (and how) it must be changed. Architecture is not just a reinforcement of existing values . . . it should open new doors to new aspirations." Landscape architecture as we know it today is fundamentally pluralist drawing from a great diversity of sources and disciplines, its palette of materials ranging from elements as diverse as stark architectural planes and volumes, to environmental art, sculpture and painting. This is in some ways an inevitable development for an art which is now put to uses as diverse as small scale commerce to large scale recreation and regional planning.

Landscape design today is increasingly perceived as a collaborative effort, along with the architectural component towards the design of total integrated space. In its growing ecological relevance now and in the new millennium, and its potential power to calm, refresh, satisfy and inspire the soul, landscape design "may well become total, and may soon supercede architecture as the mother of the arts" (Geoffrey Jellicoe).

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