The travails of teaching Landscape Design in India

  • May 10, 2019
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Just about every sensible landscape architect I have met in the last few months agrees that landscape design education has dropped to abysmally low depths and  it almost seems an irreversible position.  My own visit to some places recently did not give much cause for cheer.  Then last week I happened to go to a place that is setting up a new programme and was greatly taken up  by the enthusiasm, boldness of thinking and the genuine desire to do well. Of course only time will tell- but at least the heart was surely in the right place.

Upon my return, I penned a small essay that I sent out to a few colleagues and the reaction was immediate. Long text messages, mails and phone calls followed-  all suggesting that something must be done.

I, of course am in no position to do any thing but reflect and occasionally opine, but do believe that it is  time that some forum that allows young students to  truly understand the discipline and its grasp is a crying need- or we are systematically  destroying the idea of the discipline slowly but surely in the country.

The essay:

 

The Travails of Teaching Landscape Design in India.

We all know the problems.

Compounded by students who come from  indifferent  design education backgrounds, most landscape departments in India suffer either from the paucity of teachers, or when lucky have very young enthusiastic  teachers who have had little chance to be mentored by an earlier generation, and have very little by work or research experience to make them reasonably confident of the trade.

This problem is somewhat aggravated by the state of the profession itself; simply put there are  a minuscule number, if at all any, firms, who have consistently produced over the decades a body of work that could be considered an exemplar to be used to benchmark the  meaningful occupation of a landscape architect.

It is a story of young , keen but ill exposed students, being taught by enthusiastic, at times even bright and well-meaning young teachers who have no real training in teaching, or no real experience in the trade, in a vacuum, where the vigorous discussion on what constitutes meaningful work is absent.

This state is not likely to change quickly. The new fetish of wanting PhDs to teach will if anything delay any change even longer.

On the other hand the demand for the services of landscape architects will grow as it has in the last few decades, and the services rendered by them will mostly be bench-marked unfavorably, when compared with services of landscape architects from the neighboring nations.

The other problem is ,that,  which constitutes landscape design teaching even when it does occur with some sincerity.

India has seen an assault on its natural resources and too much that passes of as development is insensitive.  It is  no wonder that as concerned citizens, the ability to contribute to this improvement is a burning desire. The tacky nature of the public realm is the other cause for worry. As young students of architecture and as lay people all of us experience our public realms and rue the fact that they could be so much more invigorating. Similarly we are horrified when new river-fronts are hammered mercilessly, or old towns are ravaged, or huge infrastructure is built often at the cost of people and environment; and our instincts urge us to do something about this.

This concern naturally leaks and influences greatly the concerns set out for the young landscape architect to grapple with.  We are drawn to dealing with large environmental concerns, to improving destructed ecologies, to intervening and changing the nature of our public spaces.

This is important and admirable and hopefully subsequent decades will  gain greatly by the seeds sown now.

This however does not in any way, equally equip the student to deal with the present.

The present life of landscape architects in the country is occupied by the vast urban and semi-urban typologies that are rapidly changing our literal landscape. Large workplaces, dense housing, small public interventions, industry, and to some extent recreation landscapes along with private commissions for homes, is what puts bread on the table.

And here the student is woefully ill armed; because here it needs an armory of design that can convert the ordinary into something poetic and inspirational.

Design in its real sense has been abandoned as a teaching responsibility. Ideas of abstraction, of poetics, of the philosophical import of landscape design and how this can be translated into design is something that systematically has been consigned to the margins. The reasons are again not too difficult to fathom. It is easier to talk about large environmental concerns since it appeals to the heart , but also has no real manner in which its testing or articulation can be really commented upon sharply by the tutor. At the very best the teacher can try and comment on the depth and systemic manner in which the student gathers data and makes connections- but beyond that there is really no possibility of being empirically precise about the critique. Data is spotty, the context is usually far removed  from general understanding and highly specific to the geography it sits in. The tutor has almost always never grappled with similar contexts in real life, nor seen the meanings of the strategies set in place over say a period of few decades. This could be remedied somewhat by serious case referencing- but is almost never done. So the teaching becomes a collective dance of lament- but rarely sharp sets of actions whose import can be assessed and commented on.

Design on the other hand needs the tutor to be a gifted designer or a design thinker, with empathy for the arts, philosophy and history; it needs sociological and anthropological skills, and it needs strong capabilities in inspiring the student with ideas of abstraction, and most importantly it needs the understanding of the natural world and the world of humans beings and the ability to weave tapestries with the two. This is a formidable task and sadly rarely attempted. The teacher then reduces the commentary to banality ; leading the student to believe that that’s all there is really to landscape design – and if one really has to push the envelope, then some plan graphics would be an admirable pursuit !

Such students leave the teaching programme armed with dreams of changing the  world and with the tools that cannot sadly  change the  ground on which they stand; and then go and join offices which don’t strive each day to set standards – and so the dance continues , the beats lower and fainter in each round.

Can this change?

If the programmes continue as they are now it seems unlikely. Dramatic changes will be needed.

In a recent programme about  to commence, they have decided to allow an entire semester and the accompanying vacation as a training period- go out they will say; work with good landscape architects, with nurseries, with nature research organizations, with NGOS, and learn on the ground and realize what the world is all about and do this in a  broadly structured format designed  by the institution. This is a bold move and one that no doubt will allow significant improvement.

The other is departments will just have to change the way the teaching work is assigned; they can’t depend on stressed or indifferent permanent staff, nor on landscape architects from their town who come in once a week reluctantly – but will have to develop modules where good academics and professionals come in for longer duration and even manage a studio remotely if needed with the help of enthusiastic students and teaching assistants.

The third is they will need to equip themselves with vast cast studies ; of project typologies,  citizen movements, work of NGOs, other individuals in the country and ensure the teachers have understood them in absolute depth and use these for continuous debates in the class rooms. These will need to be detailed documents that talk not only about design and its realization, but also its life post , or the politics attached to it.

And the last is to share; share freely and systematically with all other colleges ,institutions and offices  engaged with the profession in a manner in which students and teachers are abreast of ways of thinking, representation, and realization on a real time basis.

I can wager that any institution that manages to do all four with a great deal of sincerity and rigor will be the proverbial turning of the leaf that the profession so greatly needs.

Aniket Bhagwat
May 2019

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