The Garden Guru: Landscape designer’s true calling is teaching
CHAMPAIGN — From early in his life, Parkland College Professor Kaizad Irani, the horticulture program director, wanted to visit Illinois. Born and raised in India, he was a world away from the home of two of his biggest inspirations: Abraham Lincoln and Frank Lloyd Wright.
So it felt like a dream had come true — he was finally the Illinoisan he wanted to be — when he was named Outstanding Full-Time Faculty Member of the Year by the Illinois Community College Trustees Association this month. Irani will be honored Friday at the 2018 ICCTA Awards ceremony in Springfield.
“The first book I ever read was about Abraham Lincoln, and I used to pronounce it Illinois,” he said, emphasizing the s. “I told myself ‘I want to go there.’ And when I got into design, I found out Frank Lloyd Wright did a lot of work in Illinois, so I had to come here.”
It was Wright’s work that inspired Irani to become an architect and Danish landscape architect Jens Jensen who lead him toward the field of landscape-and-garden design. Wright’s and Jensen’s Prairie Style-design aesthetic drives many of Irani’s own landscapes.
Locally, he’s designed the labyrinth at Crystal Lake Park and the healing garden at Carle Foundation Hospital, both in Urbana.
But he’s proudest of his most recent design, a 6,100-square-foot triangular-shaped garden at the main entrance of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
“That’s a project I’ll take with me to my grave,” he said.
But he found design-and-landscape architecture wasn’t his true calling. That, he said, is teaching.
“If you see the look on these kids’ faces when they come into it not knowing the field and then they see the actual project come to life … I mean, it’s like watching a sketch or a drawing come to life,” he said. “I enjoy seeing the look of accomplishment on their faces. And I’ve been blessed that Parkland has given me the ability to do this.”
Irani started part time at Parkland in 1991 and went on to receive full-time professor status by 2002. He helped start the horticulture department at the college and now serves on its curriculum and sustainable campus committees. And through the years, he’s worked to beautify Parkland’s surroundings by designing and building campus gardens with his students.
“My whole philosophy is that you have to be able to talk the talk,” he said. “But you have to able to walk it too. So I teach you how to design and build a structure, too. I believe that once you learn a skill, you get better if you share. That’s why I teach.”
Irani calls himself a closeted philosopher and treats all his garden designs as organic things meant to conjure tranquility.
“With all my gardens, I want them to give you inner peace,” he said. “I call my gardens inner sanctums. I really think that we should spend the time to really analyze ourselves and who we are.”
And he’s not done designing, he said.
“I don’t think I’ve designed my last garden,” he said. “I have a lot of opportunities to work in the community and help the students. It’s all about empowering them. It’s for them to reach the full potential. So I’ll be doing it for them.”