Monumental

Scale is not only about the size of things, it’s also about the size of space. Scale has a surprisingly strong influence on the landscape design process and it’s outcomes. Getting scale right is sweet. Get it wrong, and no amount of fancy footwork will save you. This blog post speaks about a challenging and uncommon scale – monumental. The project was the new Parliament House of Oman. A foreboding assembly of rock-strewn mountainsides flanked the parliament compound on three sides. This is the defining landscape of Muscat, Oman’s capital city. “Muscat” in Arabic means, “place of falling down”. It is a landscape of steep and barren slopes cascading into gravel plains, or the clear waters of the Arabian Sea. The building complex spanned almost half a kilometre through rugged landscape. Architecture clad in meticulously planned and detailed stonework dwarfed the exterior spaces. Architecture was second only to the mountains. Everyone who has designed monumental scale will know the urge to repeatedly check the scale rule, to keep measuring dimensions and thinking “this can’t be right”. In the end, we resorted to moving a human figure around the digital 3D model. The Eureka moment came when we placed a human outside the main entrance “door”… Okaa.a..a...a....a.....a......a.......a........y. Yep. it’s monumental. Digital models never lie, but they also never seem to tell the whole truth. Once built, the main entrance was every bit as big we thought it’d be. But it wasn’t just big. It was big and embellished - with amazing and intricate detail. Bravo architects! Designers of the built environment learn about human scale, and the importance of creating spatial experiences that people relate to. We didn’t have that. At all. We had to make it. How to carve out pockets of human-scaled spaces in the presence of such a monumental building? The external spaces needed tall landscape elements to frame views and provide a sense of enclosure. Trees and palms were the perfect candidates.  In the beginning there was strong opposition to any tall landscape elements. Trees or palms near the building were out of the question. Initial plans showing palms framing the architecture were rejected. The plans were put aside – it was not a good day. We decided on a different approach. Throw away the plans. Focus on the digital 3D model. That first model communicated the design intent beautifully. The palm groves framing important building elements were approved. These palm groves were later sunken slightly, to strengthen the sense of enclosure, and provide places for people to sit around the edges. The model demonstrated that human-scaled elements could peacefully coexist with the architecture. It turned out to be a very pleasing outcome. Other areas around the building complex offered more generous opportunities to create human-scaled spaces. The greatest opportunity with these spaces was to remove the original degree of segregation between footpaths and vehicular surfaces. First task – remove road kerbs and surfaces. Second, design subtle segregation and shared surfaces. Third, convince the client. The client understood the principle of shared surfaces and welcomed the approach. Parking lots and driveways were transformed into a series of linked pedestrian courtyards and seating areas that will eventually be shaded by trees. Designing the campus for the new Majlis Oman was a very rewarding experience. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a role in creating an important national symbol. We thank the Government of the Sultanate of Oman for awarding Verdaus this amazing project.

2 Comments

  1. Laith Wark

    Soumya. I’ll never forget those peaceful walks along the jebel overlooking the site. I remember the fine layer of delicate vegetation that only became visible close up. From a distance the jebels appear completely barren. Most of those walks I remember was before the construction started. During construction we only met on site or in your office over your drawing table. What an amazing project it was (and is), and it was great to work with you on it.

  2. Soumya Dasgupta

    Was great to have you as our Landscape Architect! Great job, Laith…. perhaps someday in the near future, we will work together again. Miss those walks……

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