The Indian sub-continent has been the site for one of the oldest civilisations in the world. Home to diverse civilizations, cultures, traditions, and geographies, there is a lot of intangible heritage that we ought to be proud of; due to globalisation and the emerging trend of skyscrapers, architects must ensure that the design does not strain the cultural and the historic environment. 

The concept of sustainable development is a very sought-after idea today. But some architects have been flag bearers of this practice for decades now. Ar. Brinda Somaya is a revolutionist architect who considers sustainability as one of the cornerstones of her works. Her deep love for travel took her around the world, which in turn gave her tremendous exposure to history, archaeology, art, culture, and building from various countries and cities. Her fondness for reading helped her to acquire knowledge of historical and contemporary forms of art. All of her ideologies and beliefs were majorly shaped by her personal experiences when she visited these places. This knowledge is employed in every one of her projects. 

Out of her numerous projects, one that is absolutely awe-inspiring for me is the Nalanda International Junior School situated in Vadodara. Her extensive interests in art, history, architecture, archaeology, and tradition, have been reflected in the planning and aesthetics of the design. Along with the classrooms, ancillary spaces such as audio-visual rooms, art rooms, and music rooms have also been incorporated. The administration building was planned along with the junior school.

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Exterior view of the Nalanda International Junior School. ©https://www.austria-architects.com

Evolution of the project

This project is the Winner of the Leading European Architects Forum awards (LEAF) in 2006, under the category ‘Use of traditional methods of environment control.’ The design intent was to depict Indian heritage and culture and provide a space for growth and learning in a tranquil atmosphere.  Ar. Brinda Somaya proudly states that,

 “I have built in every part of my own country, and that’s been my greatest fulfilment.”

She was thoroughly impressed and fascinated by the brick ruins of the ancient Nalanda University as a kid. Interestingly, she drew inspiration for the design of the Nalanda International Junior School from the historic Nalanda University of 5th century AD, which once upon a time inspired her to become an architect.

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Site plan of Nalanda International School campus. ©https://www.akdn.org

Constructed in 2004, the relationship between architecture and the environment has been woven seamlessly together in this building. The 40,000 sq. feet building is strategically seated with lush green surrounding it in all directions that create a serene atmosphere. The idea of outdoor learning spaces and designing spaces close to nature such that indoor and outdoor spaces blend together form the core of planning. The essence of gurukul was carefully captured in the multi-core centralised planning of the building. 

The spaces evolve around a central courtyard with four smaller courtyards planned in each corner. These smaller courtyards become the design core for a cluster of 4 classrooms. Each of these smaller courtyards acts as a sort of semi-private open space, where the children can grow vegetables and nurture their plants, giving them a sense of belonging. The central courtyard, a private enclosed outdoor region, acts as an assembly hall for the whole school.

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Bird’s eye view of a smaller courtyard. ©https://www.snkindia.com
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A view of the central courtyard. ©https://www.snkindia.com

Architectural language

“ Architecture is about places, it is a collective memory. ” – Brinda Somaya

True to her words, the architecture of the campus is influenced by the local vernacular practices, environmental context, materials locally available, and the local labour. The architectural language established was based on all these criteria, spearheaded by the knowledge the architect had acquired in her four-decade-long career. Wide open courtyards, corridor spaces with high vaulted ceilings that connect all the classrooms to one another, shaded classrooms, jaalis, and pergolas blur the edges between the indoor and outdoor harmoniously. The jaalis create a beautiful play of light and shadow on surfaces, which enhance the aesthetic quality and user experience of the spaces.

Locally produced bricks are used for load bearing masonry structure, natural stone floors psychologically and physiologically create a colder indoor atmosphere. The smaller areas are accentuated with patterned cement flooring. The corridor spaces are designed as arcaded spaces that create a transitional semi-open space, thus seamlessly creating a hierarchy of spaces. The brick piers and vaults along the corridors were built by local craftsmen, with the revived traditional construction technique, thus associating an intangible heritage value to the building. Exposed brick surfaces combined with the terracotta tiles roofs create vistas that are true to the material and are effortlessly alluring.

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Internal wall of the classroom facing the courtyard. ©www.akdn.org
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Arcaded corridors with high vault roofs. ©www.akdn.org

Climate responsive design

” The Architect’s role is that of guardian- his is the conscience of the built and un-built environment. ” -Brinda Somaya.

Applying the concepts from our ancient scriptures that tell us to tread the land lightly long before ‘green’ became an essential ideology for an architect. Detailed and extensive analysis of the site features, local climatic conditions, and the site context was done before starting the design. The spatial planning was fashioned based on sun movement and the wind direction. Mutually shaded spaces coupled with the roof design cut down the high angle sun and let in low angle sun. Adapting the vernacular planning principle of using courtyards brings an abundance of sunlight and aids in regulating temperature. The corridors act as a buffer space that cuts down the heat that would have otherwise entered the classrooms. Only filtered sunlight and wind enters the classrooms, hence cutting down the need for artificial lights and extensive cooling devices.

Cavity walls in the classrooms act as a thermal mass, creating a time lag that facilitates maintaining the spaces cool in summers and warm during winters. The headroom tower over the staircase doubles up as a wind catcher and causes a funnelling effect, which circulates cool air along the corridors. The resurrecting of the ancient roof technique of vaulted ceilings aids in flushing the hot air circulating on top. Meticulously crafted details ensured a culturally identifiable building that people instantly identified. Thus, naturally resulting in architecture that is sustainable in the environmental, social, and economic aspects.  

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Arcaded corridors with the high vault roofs. ©www.akdn.org
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Wind catcher tower over the staircase. ©www.akdn.org
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Bird’s eye view of the corridor. ©https://school.careers360.com

As an architect and urban conservationist, Ar. Brinda merged architecture and conservation homogeneously and involved the social participation of the people in this project. Strongly believing that every new project comes with new challenges, she transformed the challenge of reflecting the ideology of the school into an opportunity with her design principles. She intelligently meshed the old and new to create a piece of architecture that is truly for and by the locals. Juhani Pallasmaa once explained,

“A profound design process eventually makes the patron, the architect, and every occasional visitor in the building a slightly better human being.”

The Nalanda International School project is a quintessential example of these words. Through design, the spaces in the building teach the children quite a few crucial life lessons and values. The building was not intended as an architectural piece alone but also conceptualised to improve the quality of our lives. The students taking care of their courtyard and advancing towards keeping the environment clean fosters a sense of responsibility. Such an idea that targets the transformation of society and steering it on the right path.

Srinidhi Sriraman
Author

Srinidhi Sriraman is a climate responsive architect who believes in giving back to the environment. A travel enthusiast who strongly believes “what is life worth if there are no stories to tell.” She took to writing to share, learn and also grow in the process.

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