There are some key questions that crop up when talking about architecture. What do we mean by space? Is it a result of the walls we build or are the walls an outcome of the kind of space we want to dwell in? What do we have in mind when we say space? Indoors, outdoors, a combination of the two or semi enclosed outdoor areas? Tough questions to answer. And even tougher when we talk about educational spaces. A 21st century learning space, the Pupil Tree Academy in Bellary, exemplifies the answers to these questions and a little more.
In the quest for that illusive perfect design for a school, the children and the teachers are often forgotten. Forgotten is the fact that essentially the school should be a place where children can open their mind. Just as a home should be a space conducive to a healthy and holistic life, a school should be an instrument towards what the institution aims to achieve.
The Centre for Vernacular Architecture aims to build “sensitive and sensible, culturally relevant buildings”. This chain of thought has resulted in a building that doesn’t stand out but instead merges into its surroundings. It feels as much like a part of it as our hands are a part of our body.
R. L. Kumar believes that a building, when you see it, should have a meaningful effect on you and one that continues to stay with you. This is exactly what he has done at Pupil Tree, with the use of various materials and techniques like random rubble and cob walls.
He wanted to make artisanal work viable, one which is a tribute to the practices that have stood the test of time, and to the work that is hand-made – to ‘architecture as a craft.’ It comes naturally to him, like a gut instinct and manifests itself in the use of materials which are ‘least industrially processed’.
To design any space it is essential to imagine how you would have liked it to be if you lived there or worked there. Thus we see a free flowing and well spread cluster of small buildings and not just one big box with rooms stuffed in it. It is as if the structure has wings and would set off in flight at any given moment. It is not just about the ideas having wings.
The clear application of principles is apparent and obvious in this school in many ways. The first instance of it is the way it has been built or rather hand-crafted. The masons and artisans have have given shape to a fine piece of art. Each wall is a witness to the ownership the workmen have over their tools and the control they have on their resources. So they become people who already have a specified skill in a craft and not people who have been employed to do any manual job.
This is a structure that opens our eyes to a whole new meaning of the word ‘ambulation’ and the way Kumar sees it. It shines in every little detail, starting from the arches, the thatched roof, the water body in the courtyard of the office block to the oxide flooring in the dance halls and the niches in the random rubble.
Maybe this is really what is considered out-of-the-box thinking. It is a proof that nature is not just something we enjoy looking at from a window. We need not limit ourselves to that. It should be so integrated that it becomes difficult to differentiate the indoors from the outdoors.
When Laurie Baker, an architect who pioneered vernacular sustainable eco-friendly architecture in India, used the term ‘artistic environment’ when talking about educational spaces, he didn’t mean pretty facades or furniture. He meant that the walls, the roof, the windows and the floors of a school building should be well designed as they are the “containers of space”.
The child should be encouraged to unravel and learning should not restrict itself to classrooms and blackboards and notebooks. The flame of curiosity should be lit early. It should not be forced. Thus the introduction of elements of surprise and also those of relief became essential while conceiving the idea of this school.
Kumar says, “I have contempt for design”. And sure enough you see something very simple and yet extraordinarily moving. Like a magic trick his team has created a beautiful composition of materials, aesthetics and simple physics that goes into building. It has a rhythm and a pace just like nature itself. And that is what vernacular stands for. After all the term ‘vernacular’ won’t do justice to itself if it were just about buildings. It extends into the clothes we wear, the food we eat, the traditions we celebrate and of course the way we learn and educate in turn.
Text By Nimmy Joshi
Photographs Shalini Sehgal
Architect: R.L. Kumar
Built by: Ami Mehta, Kuppa, Basu and Team