Kunal Maniar explains how  

Landscape architect Kunal Maniar, founder of Mumbai-based landscape practice Kunal Maniar and Associates, has designed for every kind of surface and structure – from rooftops to resorts to campuses and weekend homes. Maniar, whose client list includes Gauri and Shah Rukh Khan as well as Sakshi and M.S. Dhoni, describes the guiding design principle that informs his work as ‘studied negligence’, through which nature is handed back the power to assert its own design statement. Here’s more.

How important is landscape design today and why?

Given the climate emergency we are facing, mindful landscape design is of paramount importance. Thoughtful, responsible design and planning can help communities build resilience against the adverse effects of global warming and play an essential role in our collective efforts towards sustainability.

Aside from environmental significance, landscape design has a positive correlation with public health and well-being. Providing people with access to nature in their immediate environments could really help alleviate the effects of the mental-health pandemic we are currently living through.

What attracted you to landscaping? You have a bachelor’s degree in horticulture and have studied landscape architecture at the post graduate level at the University of Melbourne, Australia. What were the most important lessons learnt?

I’ve grown up with an innate sense of respect for nature, and this only amplified during my time at university. For creative students that care about ecology, fields like landscape architecture, horticulture, bio-architecture and natural building, or environmental science are especially pertinent avenues to explore, given our dire need for pathways to sustainability.

Your intention is to ‘create spaces that exemplify ideals of tropical living whilst subscribing to principles of environmental sustainability.’ How is it put into practice and how has it translated to some of your projects?

Creating spaces that exemplify ideals of tropical living is best achieved through what I call ‘studied negligence’ through which nature is handed back the power to assert its own design statement freely. Respect for nature inherently gives way to a site that subscribes to principles of sustainability. Whilst curating a planting palette, I always think about water conservation, supporting local biodiversity and promoting soil health onsite.

When it comes to hardscaping, I maximize permeable surfaces in order to increase rainwater percolation, and minimize local flood risk. I also like to implement strategies to reduce waste, for instance, repurposing construction debris into gravel for a pathway – a small tactic as part of a larger movement towards a more circular economy.

Is there a trend where landscaping is concerned? If yes, then what are the trends now?

I’d like to be optimistic and say that we are shifting away from imported exotic species, and prioritising our native plants and trees, which is a really positive change, ecologically speaking. Xerophytes like cacti (which require barely any water or maintenance) are also gaining popularity. I guess we have Instagram trends to thank for that!

Projects you love to boast about?

A project I’m really proud of is a coastal garden I created in Alibaug. The project exemplifies ‘xeriscaping,’ a style of landscape architecture characterized by minimal water consumption and maintenance requirements. We used minimal lawn space to save water. Natural stone slabs were laid loosely on sand, lots of native species, a host of succulent varieties, and interspersed coconut palms were planted to create an idyllic, sustainable beachfront paradise.

Projects that proved to be most challenging?

A challenging yet very exciting project was a private terrace garden in Mumbai. The terrace had to take about 1,500 kilograms worth of plants and mature Frangipani trees, so the project involved some structural changes as well. It paid off because despite being located at the beachfront, exposed to strong winds, the garden has really stood the test of time and is still just as beautiful.

Five things about landscaping that everyone must know.

A few things that come to mind are:

1. Landscape architecture is not just glorified gardening

2. It goes far beyond frivolous embellishment, it’s a nexus of living art and  strategic planning that can bring genuine environmental benefits

3. Our native species are treasures that hold our ecosystem together and should be prioritized

4. Large lawn spaces and living walls are greenwashing gimmicks for the ignorant, not sustainable landscape interventions

5. ‘Sustainable’ landscape designs are those that put man back in sync with nature.

What are you thinking about when you start designing for a project? Do you have a theme, a structured way of doing things? How much of your sensibilities go into that design?

There’s a subtle science to striking a balance between what my client needs, functionality, and my own design sensibilities.  Every site is different, so for every project it’s crucial to understand the site characteristics, and the language of the land and its contours. I like to take a storytelling approach to planning a landscape, creating a design narrative for a spatial experience, the mood of the space, and the journey I want users to have.

Are you put off by criticism? Has your work ever been criticised? How do you take it?

Design is so subjective, and everyone has their own sensibilities. If I’ve been able to realise my vision and stay true to myself, and the client is happy, then I’m confident enough in my work to not be affected by anyone else’s opinion.

How is landscape architecture shaping up at this time when the world faces extreme weather conditions, landslides, floods and forest fires?  

Landscape architecture and mindful planning interventions applied at a large scale can help restore ecological balance in regions that have suffered ill-effects of exploitation by humans, and build resilience against anthropogenic climate change. Dense planting contributes to microclimate creation, bringing cooler temperatures in a given region, and better air quality due to the natural carbon capture facility that trees provide. Dense, diverse planting can also improve soil health, and soil integrity which is vital in landslide prone areas. As more rainwater is intercepted by vegetation, and allowed to percolate freely into the ground, ground water stores get recharged, and local flood risk can be mitigated.

An artist has his paintings, how does a landscape expert leave his mark on a design or advertise it?

According to me, most often the goal while working on a landscape project is to design a spatial experience: you’re trying to create a space that heals, a space that can liberate, or a space that brings people together. If you achieve one or more of these effects, you’ve left your mark as a designer.

Does scale matter in landscaping?

Landscape architecture doesn’t discriminate based on scale; meaningful planning and design strategy can be applied to spaces ranging from massive national parks to disused industrial sites, and from farmhouses to small terraces and balconies.

Demand in India today for landscaping?

I attribute the growing demand for well-designed landscapes to a growing sense of environmental consciousness in our country. Furthermore, I think the pandemic was a great reminder that we need to slow down and reconnect with nature, and do our best to integrate it into our immediate living environments.

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