The Experiential Architect
Prof K. T. Ravindran takes us through his experiences of practicing architecture, his love for urban design, and the stories evoked by cities, the drawing board where he visualises his creations and his aversion to cities packed with glass buildings with no value for spatiality. By Sindhu Nair
“Our response to culture shapes cities. The way we treat and link spaces, our definitions of privacy, etc, are cultural backgrounds that have an effect in the way we design cities and spaces. So, in a way, culture shapes our shelter, and cities perpetuate our behaviour.”
Prof. K.T. Ravindran
Former Head of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi.
Prof KT Ravindran, who served as Head of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, New Delhi, has a particular fire in his eyes, an insatiable quest to know more and a zest for life that belies his age. His work focuses on the development of cities, and on the inclusion and conservation of heritage buildings in urban spaces. Founder and president of the Institute of Urban Designers, he teaches “Urban Morphology” and “Humanising Cities” and in architects’ circles, he is known as the militant architect for his strong views on urban sprawl and the politics of architecture.
While he naysays the descriptor, militant architect, he does agree to have taken a contrarian view when the need arose, making enemies in the process yet having no regrets at all for he has followed his instincts while responding to public issues. “I speak my mind. I am outspoken, I am public-minded, I take interest in what happens in cities. I never hesitate to take a critical view of the things that happen around me. Not to criticize but to think critically. Often Governments might see my views to be contrarian when they come up with solutions that are less than reasonable. Yes, I do have a political view of life.”
He was the founder and president of the Institute of Urban Designers, India, vice-chairman of the Environmental Impact Assessment Committee of the Government of India, chairman of the Delhi Urban Art Commission, dean emeritus at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) School of Built Environment, Noida, and was also one of the five members on the Advisory Board, drawn from around the world, on the UN project in New York.
For someone who is so entrenched in the built environment, we would vision K.T (as he is known fondly amongst friends) to be born with the calling, instead of like many who found their vocation while trekking a different path he too stumbled upon architecture later on life.
“I didn’t know anything about architecture. I was very interested in painting; drawing, portraits were a particular delight. Traditionally, since Malabar was part of the administrative district of Madras Presidency, and following our family custom, I too went to Madras for higher studies. I enrolled in literature studies but by some instinct was pulled into Architecture. I scored particularly well in the drawings tests and that was the beginning of my life in architecture,” recalls K.T, and in retrospect, he adds that he wouldn’t want it to be any different.
Reacting to a maxim by Winston Churchill, “We shape our buildings and thereafter they shape us,” K.T confutes the argument in his distinctive contrarian nature.
“It is a very profound statement. But one cannot make a one-to-one analogy in real life. To a large extent, our lifestyle determines the structure of our cities. Climate and our response to climate shape the way we create shelter. Climate changes from one place to another and in response the shelters change accordingly. Hot humid places like Kerala have a very porous architecture, allowing air to follow through buildings. Climate plays a large role in shaping our built environment,” stresses K.T.
“Our response to culture shapes cities. The way we treat and link spaces, our definitions of privacy, etc are cultural backgrounds that have an effect on the way we design cities and spaces. So, in a way, culture shapes our shelter, and cities perpetuate our behaviour.”
K.T has been an educator for a major part of his life, with momentous learnings from each institution he has been part of or headed, which he dismisses in his customary fashion saying, “I have had no major key learnings, I am just a floating impurity enjoying each shift.”
But three things that have had a profound impact in his life, he admits, “One is pursuing urban design, which changed my perspective of cities. Another thing that profoundly affected me as a person was a sabbatical wandering to distant and remote parts of Africa and Europe, a backpacking trip that changed me as a person. Coming back to India, I did not pursue architecture, but joined an NGO driven by an urge to give back to society. But what I learned and was affected by was the work culture of the NGO; the democratic structure of functioning with open communications and no hierarchy in levels, a co-working environment that transformed the way I looked at people, and relationships. This subsequently perpetuated into the mode I run my practice, how we co-produce something together.”
K.T reminisces about the period when he had a small practice in Chennai, “I had a very small team, sometimes a junior resident, a trainee, and an assistant. I did most of the work myself,” he muses, “It was a high, the business of building, all the processes involved, I enjoyed it all.”
K. T’s first love, in the entire process of building and architecture, is his rendezvous with the drawing board. “It is not just the initial sketch schemes but how you grow the design through the working drawing stage, seeing all the corners through your mind’s eye. You transform and create the design in your mind. You are not worrying about the shape of things but you worry more about the spatial order. The experiential part of the building process is one of the most interesting stages in the designing process.”
His work is but a glimpse of this passion, embedded in cultural institutions such as the Multicultural Centre in Rewa, Madhya Pradesh, where nature is modulated in an interpenetrating format with the built form and the stage for the theatre of self-inquiry, discovery, and communication set by the mutually inclusive relationship between architecture and nature.
K.T was part of a team that formulated the Fort Kochi-Mattancherry Heritage Zone plan, but more than the enriching experience of the master plan itself, the place in itself has an effect on him. “Fort Kochi has something very unique about it, no other city has the capacity to seduce you like Fort Kochi has,” he says, impressed by the way a city is built organically by the underlying layers of culture it is steeped in. “More than the final outcome, the relationship that we had with the city, by walkthroughs, by interactions with the local community, through surveys. We had so many different interactions with the city and that was the most enriching experience of the whole project.”
“The connect I had with the city was as much endearing as the professional success of the project,” muses K.T.
On the culture of signature architects and their contribution to cities, K.T derides them as a sick practice that should not be followed. “Most cities are now nothing but wretched capitalists’ den who want more and more symbols of wealth, efficiency, progress, and wealth inducing more and more consumption. That is not our future.”
“It is not about the buildings they might bring forth; good cities are made not by these buildings but by the spatiality of a city which has a much more transformative quality than any building within it. That is where urban design is located. It is not good or bad buildings that make a good city. Even in buildings, what is transformative is not the colour of the wall or the shape of the building but what is transformative is how you perceive the building, how you enter it and how the spaces interact with you.”
1 One city that you wish had a proper master plan
There is nothing called a proper master plan. All master plans are problematic. There is no need for any master plans. Many cities are culturally defined and they are experientially better cities. Master plan only attempts to formulate functional structures which is very inadequate to address quality of life. Urban design is designing experiences in cities.
2 One building that you wish you had designed
I am happy with the buildings I have designed, I recently spent time in one of the residences I had designed and I was transported. To watch the rain from the verandah with a direct and physical connect to nature was divine.
3 One architect you would like to have worked with
I started working on my own from 21 and have no regrets of it.
4 One city you would love to live in
5 Is there something called the “perfect” design solution
No, there is nothing called a perfect design. Perfection is an aberration. Imperfection is the sign of life.
K.T. Ravindran’s images were taken during the Kochi Design Week 2019, where he was one of the panelists. Image Courtesy: Kochi Desgn Week 2019
K.T. Ravindran’s projects are courtesy K.T. Ravindran.