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May 08, 2018 Tuesday 01:07:07 PM IST

THE LOST SCHOOL

Cover Story

The ‘GURU-SHISHYA’ parampara, so integral to ancient Indian ethos, was characterised by the image of the disciple seated at the feet of the guru under the shade of a tree. The learning space here is the ambiguous shade — in the open but sheltered; with light streaming in, between the dappled leaves of the banyan, while a lazy, sensual breeze soothed the senses.

 

Such an arrangement also accommodates the fleeting inquiry of a creative student who might find his interest elsewhere, may be a squirrel scurrying up, or ants marching, or most likely the distant sky. Learn-ing is a verb, hence a continuous process. Schools require aesthetically designed spaces that instigate a child to learn, but more importantly make her intuitively to continue learning and nudge her on to seek more.

 


So then is a school more than the sum of its classrooms? Yes, as much as it is about the physical, built space, it is also about the space/s in between. As the Chinese philosopher Lao Tse puts it: “The reality of a cup is not the cup, but the space within it”.

 

This is the realm where great architecture finds its ‘soulfulness’. Architecture then touches the user, enables the coming together of people, invoking unplanned exchanges of ideas and the ensuing discussions. Such become the places of dreams dreamt together, of smiles, of thoughts, and of those ‘stolen winks’!

 


Such are the places that make the young learn, but these are also the places where teachers are made. Great places of learning always have had the concept of ‘order’ and ‘discipline’ ingrained in its architecture. Verandahs, colonnades, and courtyards are formal devices of order, axis, and centrality, which rub their character on to the users. The identity of an institution is centred a lot around these shared spaces and the memories associated with these shared spaces.

 

SCHOOL UNBOUND

 


A few years ago, we were asked to add some class rooms, a library, and some faculty rooms to a functioning 100-year-old school at Aluva, Kerala. On site we realised the problems were manifold: the built fabric was extremely dense, with very less usable open space/s; buildings were dilapidated; toilets were inadequate; there were no clear access roads; and to top it all, there was hardly any place for the school assembly. To put up few classrooms into an existing school seemed a simple enough answer, but the questions we confronted were many.

 

How does one critically intervene in the fabric of a functioning school, with pre-established programmes and movement networks? How can one add to the identity of an institution, without breaking away from images of accumulated reflections of shared spaces?

 


As part of our initial study and research, we also observed how children moved through or around the existing buildings, where they frequented more and why. We understood that the active currents of movements had to be deepened, whereas the congested ones had to be liberated. We also discovered ‘lost’ spaces in between the haphazardly planned buildings. So, was it possible to sweep together those left-over lost spaces in order to increase open spaces, thereby allowing children to break free?

 

We then carried out a study to understand pre-existing movement patterns. So, while layering our deductions over the cleared-up or ‘found’ lost spaces we formulated a new design. For example, a shed was taken off to create a new access road to the school, or another where a toilet block was relocated which helped to create a beautiful, stepped court around a mango tree. The mango tree became the focus that defined the entry on the primary axis.

 


The old school anganam (courtyard) was retained but extended to create a larger gathering space. Verandahs that flanked the existing anganam were retained as part of institutional memory but became strong defining axes of the entire design.

 

The new block (the classrooms) was planned as an extension of the existing block. The library block was planned as a bridge, stilted over the central assembly courtyard and straddling the open spaces on either side. The library was located across a very active movement corridor as we speculated that one might pick up reading, intuitively as one passed by.

 


The design scheme provided for a large open space articulated by several sub-spaces characterised by function, landscape, levels, and sensory attributes.

 

MANGO TREE COURT

 


The mango tree, earlier a part of the lost space, defined an outdoor learning area around it, thereby negotiating the existing level differences on site. This was done by deleting the toilet block that divided the two spaces. It served to connect the lower court and the upper larger assembly courtyard.

 

The Lower Court: It was kept as it was, so as to maintain the familiar sense of enclosure.

 


Assembly Court: With the library block on stilts, one continuous space was created, which could be used for assembly or games.

 

Rain Court: Reminiscing about our own school days, rains were the time we had most fun. Celebrating the monsoon with paper boats, splashing water, and hunting for tadpoles… The rain court was thus meant to be a place to connect to the child’s innate emotion of play while evoking a sense of place and season.

 


‘Lost school’, was about finding the lost spaces left over between buildings and finding images we had lost in our childhood as an effective precursor to making architecture. This was done by linking space, time, activity, and the memory of shared spaces that form the essence of an educational institution.

 

The project sought to invigourate existing currents of flow while not losing the connect with memory and place.



Jills Philip

Co-founder of Soumya & Jills, a multiple award-winning architectural practice.

The project “Lost School” won the IIA State Gold Leaf Award 2014.

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