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How to Have an Inspired Landscape

Award-winning landscape architect Kunal Maniar talks about what to and what not to do while designing your landscape

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Kunal Maniar. Photo by Neville Sukhia

Kunal Maniar is the mind behind some of India’s finest landscape designs –  having crafted masterful landscapes for clients including Mukesh and Nita Ambani, Shah Rukh Khan, and Mahendra Singh Dhoni, and in sectors ranging from hospitality to luxury residences. In a conversation with India Design ID, he reveals his key insights for effective landscape design, which he likens to an art form that brings together strategic spatial thinking, ecology and design. 

Podium garden in Mumbai. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar

What should a good landscape design achieve?

I think a key objective of residential landscapes is to bring nature into our immediate living environment to reconnect with the elements. They should serve as sanctuary spaces where one can forget the burdens of the outside world, and feel a sense of healing and relief from the stress of hectic schedules and fast-paced life. It’s also a way to do your part for the environment – mindfully designed residential landscapes can support biodiversity, and contribute to microclimate creation and local flood risk mitigation. 

Podium garden in Mumbai. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar

What are the key features in landscaping? What should one look to bring in?

Instead of constantly trying to ‘add’ or bring in elements, one should prioritise ways to exploit the existing conditions – the views, natural light, the topography, or even any interesting rock formations. Secondly, one should try to conjure a multi-sensorial experience of nature for users of the space – this could be through scented plants, the sound of water or footsteps on gravel, and pit stops to take in views. Ideally, there should be a seamless blend between the landscape and the built form. 

Villa in Alibaug. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar 
Villa in Alibaug. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar 

What are the essential elements for an inspired landscape? 

1. A well-curated planting plan that prioritises indigenous varieties, plays with scale and layering, and perhaps has a colour story or olfactory scheme.   

2. Mindful hardscaping that allows water to percolate into the ground, for instance a driveway made of gravel from repurposed construction debris, or pathways made of locally sourced natural stone slabs laid loosely on the ground without any cement and mortar fixing. 

3. A plan that plays with the dualities of light and shade, hide and reveal.

4. Tastefully selected outdoor furniture, be it an al fresco dining table, a bench, day beds, or the right cushions for a sunken seating area.

5. Décor elements to tie the space together – this could be as simple as boulders from excavation littered strategically across a site.

House in Delhi. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar
House in Delhi. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar

What is that je ne sais quoi that elevates any landscape design to an inspired one?

I believe in taking the approach of a storyteller whilst designing. Having a strong spatial narrative that binds disparate elements into a cohesive whole, and guides one through the space can really set a project apart. 

What not to do in your outdoors?

One should definitely avoid a big lawn space – not only is it expensive to maintain, it’s also a waste of water, which is highly insensitive given the proportion of our population that is facing water scarcity. It’s also crucial to avoid choosing the wrong hardscape materials and creating too many impermeable surfaces on a site. As water isn’t allowed to percolate into the ground, it adds to stormwater runoff and exacerbates local flood risk.

What’s the biggest misconception about landscape designing? 

People often relegate the field of landscape architecture to glorified gardening or merely horticulture, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a rare form of living art that combines strategic spatial thinking, ecology and design. 

Villa in Alibaug. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar 
Villa in Alibaug. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar

What are your greatest landscaping inspirations, and why so?

I mainly draw inspiration from my travels, different craft forms, fashion, and of course, diverse landscape typologies from different cultures across the world. That being said I do love to explore the work of others, be it Luis Barragan’s bold compositions, Piet Oudolf’s inspired plant palettes as seen in the NYC Highline, or  Geoffrey Bawa’s genius oeuvre in the tropical realm. 

What is an ideal outdoor space? 

According to me, the ideal outdoor space is one that is designed with the intention of fostering symbiotic relationships, and being in sync with nature rather than sitting within it as an imposition.  

What positive trends are you seeing in India? What would you like to change?

I think one positive trend is that people are trying to be more environmentally conscious, instead of only being concerned about aesthetics, or getting caught up in vanity. Something I would definitely like to see more of is ‘xeriscaping,’ an inherently sustainable approach to landscaping that requires minimal maintenance and conserves water. This goes beyond merely using succulents- it also involves prioritising native species, minimising lawn space, and using resource- efficient techniques like drip-irrigation. 

Terrace garden in Mumbai. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar
Terrace garden in Mumbai. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar

Could you share a design intervention that has surprised you? Something that worked wonderfully, something that didn’t… any anecdote that was a source of great insight to you?

A challenging yet very exciting project that I was surprised we pulled off was a private terrace garden at Ceejay House in South Bombay. The terrace had to take about 1500 kilograms worth of plants and mature Frangipani trees to create a microclimate, and a rich habitat for local biodiversity. This seemed like an impossible task at the time, but we introduced structural changes, and made it happen. It all paid off because despite being located at the beachfront, exposed to strong winds, the garden has really stood the test of time, is still just as beautiful and serves as a haven for birds.  I guess the insight here for me was that no dream is too big and an ambitious creative vision doesn’t always have to be compromised! 

Terrace garden in Mumbai. Photo by Gajendra D. Mandrekar


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