19.09.12 | initial designs

19.09.12 | initial designs

Having been given some clearer guidelines from Alok, we spent the last week concentrating on design. Unanimously, our favorite thing about the school is the density of trees in the playground, and we’d like to add to the sensation that you’re entering into some kind of sanctuary when you arrive. At the moment the school buildings (two blocks of classrooms and the caretaker’s house) are positioned along three of the site’s edges. By placing the building at the top of the site along the fourth edge, which is currently empty save for a rarely-used outdoor stage, we are proposing to more fully enclose the open space in the middle – creating a protected courtyard.

One of the most intriguing (and depressing!) urban phenomenon that you can see in almost every Indian city today is road widening. Rapidly increasing car use is placing pressure on traffic routes, and the solution is simply to knock down the buildings lining either side of the existing road. However, only as much space as needed is taken, so that the remaining halves of the buildings remain  – revealing fireplaces, staircases, and other signs of habitation. Occasionally these architectural carcasses offer the possibility for reoccupation, and you can see families getting on with their daily routine in a real-life cross-section.  As fascinating as these structures are – we’d prefer that this doesn’t happen to our building anytime soon! We therefore positioned the kindergarten about 9m from the current site boundary – ensuring that even if the road is widened in the future, there will still be an open space between our structure and the street.

In a sense the new building would become an entrance or gateway to the courtyard – and we’ve been looking at different ways to shape this experience. One traditional Southern typology that Clem became very familiar with at the Rural Studio in Alabama was that of the ‘dogtrot’ – essentially a log cabin with a breeze-way in the centre, which cools the building and acts as a divider between the domestic (bedroom) and functional (kitchen) spaces. We thought we could use it in a similar way here, to separate the classrooms from the kitchen and toilets. It would also provide a covered space for parents to wait for their children, and could act as an occasional outdoor classroom. Although we’re focusing on one new building, we’re also thinking through the longer-term plans for the site, and hope to have developed a master-plan by the time we leave. Experiencing the intensity of the rainfall here has convinced us of how important it is to have a covered walk-way, or veranda to link all the classrooms – as well as reinforce the sense of an enclosed courtyard.

In terms of structure, as much as we love wood, it’s becoming more and more apparent that it’s not a viable option for the main structural system. The only types of timber that can resist the threat from termites and damp are very expensive hard-woods such as Sal – and even these are traditionally used in conjunction with stone or brick, rather than on their own. Although bricks are very prevalent, they are cheaply made and not rammed properly – meaning they are porous and need to be rendered with plaster to ensure buildings are water-tight. We would prefer to use a higher-quality material, and avoid having to add an extra layer, so that the materials and structure are visible in all their natural beauty! For this reason, we’re really interested in using the large river-bed stones that you see all over the surrounding countryside – and are looking at ways of cutting these to create a smooth, flat surface.

We also recently discovered that we’re in an earth-quake zone (good to know!), which is prompting us to look into strong and seismic resistant structures such as arches – a form that is very common in the older buildings you can still glimpse behind all the hoardings and electricity pylons in Dehradun’s old markets and bazars. We had a chance to go into one of these recently, and were shown around by the owner, whose grandfather had built the house in the 19th Century. Climatically, the house was very well designed- with courtyard at the back (which had now been covered with metal grilles but still acted as a big ventilator) and a deep verandah at the front, shielding the windows from direct sunlight, and protecting the walls from the rain. The quality of the craftsmanship – in everything from the carving of the balustrades, to the plaster-cast decorative floor-tiles, to the wooden cupboards set into the thick stone walls – was so beautiful. Admittedly, like every old building, it needed a lot of repair and the owner was struggling to keep up with the work — but the bare bones of the structure were still strong – and so worth looking after! Although many of these craft skills are being lost in India, they haven’t disappeared yet – and you can easily find rows of wood-carvers, for example, working away around the corner from the timber yards. Although we want to design a spacious, useful, and affordable building, we’d also like our structure to speak of quality – and not be afraid of taking the time needed to make something really beautiful and unique. We see our role as designing an over-all structure, or physical framework, for the local community (parents, artisans, craftspeople) to complete. Our immediate priority, however, is to submit the basic plans for planning permission, so we can get approval to start building next month!