Architecture in the 1960s was not a popular career choice. Yet it drew young K.T. Ravindran from Thalassery to pursue it. Five decades later, he has, to his and the country’s credit, an extraordinary body of work.
As former head of urban design and dean at School of Planning and Architecture, as founder and president of the Institute of Urban Designers–India, as vice-chairman of the Environmental Impact Assessment Committee of the Government of India, as the former chairman of the Delhi Urban Art Commission, as dean emeritus at the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) School of Built Environment, Noida, and currently as one of the five members on the Advisory Board, drawn from around the world, on the UN project in New York, Ravindran has built a landscape that ranges from building small houses to constructing nationally significant projects. He is one of the leading voices in the country on urban design.
When he won a competition run by the Central Government to build a memorial for former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi at Sri Perumbudur near Chennai, Ravindran got the opportunity to showcase architecture as a symbol rather than it being merely functional. In 1986, after preparing an Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) report, Ravindran was instrumental in the formation of a first-of-its-kind heritage zone in Fort Kochi-Mattancherry.
In his present capacity as Advisor to the UN Capital Master Plan, New York, he has been involved in the complete transformation of the interiors of the 1949-built United Nations office on eight acres in Manhattan. Conservation, vernacular architecture, functionality, aesthetics, adaptive reuse, context, environmental impact, urban morphology, green buildings, humanising cities are just some of the tenets that form his architectural lexicon.
Ravindran finds it interesting to ruminate over the early days of his growth. “This is taking me into those recesses where I was long ago,” he says nostalgically as if entering into a landscape whose context defines him.
After completing his degree from AC College of Technology in Chennai and post graduation in Urban Design, he took up an offer to work in Teheran where he worked in urban conservation and design in the old cities of Dezful and Andimeshk. It opened his eyes to the beauty of preserving the old. It also lit in him a desire to experience the new. He gave up his job, after working for three years, and undertook a year long sabbatical wandering to distant and remote parts of Africa and Europe. His camera was his only companion, for photography is a deep love. “I had a dark room in my house then and I would print photographs. I still carry my camera everywhere.” During that year of travel, Ravindran collected more than 10,000 colour slides of vernacular forms in African architecture which he documented.
He also spent three months in the medieval Italian city of Perugia where he stayed in a very old building. Remembering the stay, Ravindran delves into the haze of those years and recalls standing on its inverted balcony looking beyond Assisi. “St. Francis of Assisi was one of my idols as a youngster. He was a rebel, he spoke to birds…he was an attractive figure for a young mind. I kept going to Assisi many times.”
With that a certain romanticism began to take shape in his eager mind—the desire to preserve the old in the new context. Later that was to become an important element in his work. Back in India in 1979, he began to work with an NGO in Kolkata, driven by an urge to do something “socially purposeful”. He worked in a slum, in schools in rural Bengal and even built houses hands-on. “Architecture becomes an instrument to do something larger,” says Ravindran, recalling the social dimension his profession was acquiring.
His entry into academia was per chance. He began teaching ‘landscape architecture’ at JNTU Hyderabad, at the behest of a professor. It was a subject he had not studied. “I used to prepare for three hours to teach an hour. I realised teaching was my real call.” He moved to Delhi and joined as teaching faculty at School Of Planning and Architecture in 1982.
Delhi stirred his profound love for history, heritage and culture.
He became one of the earliest consultants of Intach and still chairs its Architectural Heritage Division. He formulated the Fort Kochi-Mattancherry Heritage Zone plan, impressed by the way a city is built organically by its different communities. As a trustee on the Indian Heritage Cities Network Foundation, he opines, “The idea is to allow heritage to live, to conserve in such a way that it reconnects to society through what is called adaptive reuse.”
Kerala has played an important role in the build up to Ravindran’s architectural principles.
“Kerala inspires me through a mental process. I now recognise that it has given me an extremely critical sense of everything, a high degree of scepticism, a certain love for Nature. All this has shaped my urban design.”
Ravindran speaks of “egoless” buildings that meld with the landscape without conflict and credits the matrilineal system to which he belongs for sensitivity and creativity in design. He reasons, “Because of it one’s relationship to the environment is not of aggression. It becomes one of care, something that you get from your mother.”
His interest in the environment too stems from his roots, just like his deep love for vernacular architecture. Comparing it to the mundu worn by Malayalis, he says, “It is the most appropriate garment for hot humid climate. Vernacular architecture has that kind of beauty. It sits without conflict in the landscape.”
Away from this tranquillity, which he cherishes, he loves the urbanity of the Capital, his karmabhoomi.
Between the two different landscapes that he negotiates Ravindran bridges conservation and development. “Why do they need to be at cross purposes?” he says gently, “conservation and greed can be at cross purpose sometimes,” he remarks about the blatant misuse of environmental clearances.
Currently Ravindran is thoroughly savouring the start-up venture of Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS). He is also designing the Headquarters of the Central Information Commission (RTI) office building and completing the second phase of Kottakkal Arya Vaidya Sala in Delhi, redesigning the NSD campus, working on plans of new cities in Jharkhand and Haryana and writing chapters in books on urban design, history and architecture.
“My hands are full and I am enjoying every bit of it,” he says disclosing little about his wife Amba Sanyal who recently starred in the landmarkfilm, Ship of Theseus, daughter Ammu and his love for cooking.
On Kerala cities
Kochi has an inexplicable charm. It appeals to your instinct more than to your reason. You are in touch with the sky. The Metro Rail should have connected Kochi to the moffusil towns. It should have been strategised as a sub- regional network instead of intruding into MG Road.
Thiruvananthapuram has a more heroic presence — larger buildings, bigger public spaces. It has an elegance as a capital city, but things can be improved enormously. For one the pedestrian pathways should be improved. It will increase connectivity and cut down speed. One will gaze at the beauty of the city.
Kozhikode is a bazaar city, a trading port. It has some very elegant vernacular buildings, a completely different scale but you cannot walk in the city. It needs better pedestrian pathways to allow people to enjoy the landscape and buildings.