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Hitesh Mehta, Kenya’s award winning designer

By | August 4th 2011

By Ferdinand Mwongela

1. You ARE a Landscape architect, photographer, adjunct professor, author, researcher and eco-architect among others, how do you juggle all these?

There are few design practitioners (architects, landscape architects, interior designers) who work full-time and are able to write their own research papers and books. It indeed is a difficult task and many times I have asked myself why I do this.

I guess it is because of the belief that on this planet, I will only live once, therefore, I want to make use of every minute. I want to make a difference in this world, so over time I have developed a special skill as an extreme multi-tasker or juggler as you have stated. But don’t be fooled, juggling all these comes with its own fair share of sacrifices. Nothing good in life comes for free.

2. What did you study?

I have a Bachelors degree in architecture from University of Nairobi (UoN) and a Masters in Landscape Architecture from University of California, USA.

Studying at Jamhuri High School and then at UoN helped build a strong theoretical and philosophical foundation for my designs and for the way I treat people.

I study to learn about life and the building profession that I was so passionate about, to meet new people around the world and to learn about how other people approached life.

3. Your blog talks about you spending eight years in 46 countries. What were you doing in all these countries?

I was researching and photographing ecolodges for my latest book, Authentic Ecolodges, which was published by Harper Collins in October last year. After four ecolodge visits in 2002-2003, this personal project was placed on hold due to work commitments.

My dream jumpstarted in 2007 when I left my full-time job to focus on the book. After a journey that took me to 46 countries spanning all six continents and at a cost of Sh45 million and lots of time, I am delighted to have written the first chai-table book in the 32-year history of ecotourism, which is now the fastest growing segment in the tourism industry.

I say chai because the number of people taking tea is twice the number of those taking coffee in the world.

4. You have done numerous projects abroad. But have you worked on any in Kenya?

I have worked on over 20 projects in Kenya and I’m currently working on two projects just north of Masai Mara. Here is a list of a few of the projects, some of which won Architectural Association of Kenya Awards (AAK):

• Diagnostic Centre, Nairobi (AAK award winner).

• Chestnut Groves, Nairobi with Mehraz Ehsani and Associates (AAK award winner).

• Vanguard Building, Nairobi with Mehraz Ehsani and Associates.

• Wilderness Lodge, Naboisho Conservancy (currently working on it).

• Naboisho Conservancy Sustainable Tourism Master Plan.

• Sustainable Tourism Master Plan for Western Province.

• Sustainable Tourism Master Plan for Nyanza Province.

• Consultant to Sarit Centre expansion.

5. What prompted you to go into eco-architecture? And how different is it from the conventional architecture?

I chose eco-architecture as it combines three of my main interests — architecture, landscape architecture and conservation. I grew up in Parklands in a family that practised Jainism and the principles of ahimsa — non-violence — were instilled in me. In my family, we have been vegetarians for over 40 generations.

This has influenced the way I design, think and live — a low impact approach.

I must add, though, that in the initial years working as a lecturer at the University of Nairobi and practising architecture part-time, I had to work on traditional projects to survive. I began focusing on eco-architecture in 1994, after five years of working in conventional architecture.

As regards differences with conventional architecture, eco-architecture is intrinsically a state of mind; a design approach that needs to come straight from the heart.

6. Which is your best project to date and why?

It is difficult to pinpoint one single project, but if push came to shove, I would pick Crosswaters Ecolodge in Northern Guangzhou Province, China, because I was able to put together what is now considered the ecolodge design dream team and the final product was extremely satisfying.

The ecolodge has now become the most published lodge in the world in the last three years and has won several awards in the field of landscape architecture.

I was the project manager for EDSA who were the lead consultants and landscape architects. I also was part of the architectural team.

What was unique about the project was that we had a Feng-shui master (with 20 years of experience) as part of our team and Crosswaters was designed using Feng-shui principles. The project is also the largest celebration of bamboo architecture anywhere in the world.

I have also done a few master planning projects that have protected sensitive areas. I have to my name many dream houses in Nairobi, a couple of eco-lodges and designs that have not yet been built.

7. Isn’t green design overrated?

Not at all! It is my hope that one day all designs will be green. It is the right thing to do. If we do not care for the earth, we are eventually going to destroy ourselves. Green design in Europe and USA is making a huge difference as regards the protection of our fragile planet.

Indeed, green design has evolved in leaps and bounds. In 1998, there were very few green designers in the world. William Macdonough, a CNN Hero and eco-architect was becoming known for his alternative philosophies of design.

In the last seven years, green design has taken a quantum leap because of climate change concerns, rising oil prices and most importantly, increasing awareness.

Design in this global age of heightened cultural and environmental sensitivity needs to be holistic and sustainable in all aspects. For the past 15 years, I have practised what I call a ‘quadruple-bottom’ line design approach — one that balances economic, environmental, social and spiritual issues.

8. Where would you rate Kenya’s growth in the physical planning arena?

I love Kenyan indigenous planning, but I’m critical about the contemporary physical planning. I can understand that Kenyans want to keep pace with the Western world, but it should not be at the expense of our beautiful parks, playgrounds and architecture.

One just needs to look at new city planning, which is unfortunately lacking in context and sense of place and most importantly, is not environmentally or socially friendly.

In 1995, I wrote a paper titled The History of Urban Space in Nairobi and the research results were disturbing. The few green spaces that were in the original physical plan had been encroached by buildings. Nairobi has the fantastic opportunity to turn the Nairobi River (along Kijabe and Kirinyaga Streets) into a world-class urban waterfront park and it is my hope that the new physical planning dispensation allows for this to happen.

9. It is obvious you have achieved a lot. What more would you like to achieve or would you say this is it?

I judge myself by what I am capable of achieving while others judge me for what I have achieved. I look at myself as being in the infancy of my career and I see myself working and making a difference even when I am on my deathbed. The word ‘retirement’ does not exist in my vocabulary.

In every project, I try to create something that has never been created. Each design is a response to the local context and physical, metaphysical and cultural needs.

In everything I do, I strive to live the lowest-impact lifestyle on the planet. I am a vegeterian; I drive a hybrid car; I only use second-hand furniture at home, I use solar lights, a cruelty-free bathroom and health products, bio-degradable cleaning detergents and so on.

10. Do you plan to settle in Kenya permanently at some point?

I feel strongly connected to Kenya and even now consider it home. I am still a Kenyan citizen though I live overseas. I hope to return to my spiritual home. Who knows what the future holds?

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