This note is in response to the presentation made by Prof. Christopher Charles Benninger on the proposed academic hub and briefly on masterplan made by Dr. Bimal Patel at CEPT campus, Ahmadabad. The intent of this note is to share an array of thoughts, suggestions; voice concerns which it is hoped would add some value to ongoing conversations and the enterprise at hand. Any inadvertent instructive flavour to the argument may be ignored in favour of the intent.
The campus expansion in addition to creating more usable space is also an enterprise in extension and addition to existing assets. In reading the scope of the latter may lay the promise of producing rich works of architecture.
Ground plane, public space, permeability, master plan, indoor and outdoor spaces
The enterprise in one part needs to be read as an extension to the ground plane, an endearing feature of the campus with its myriad variations knitted with architecture of buildings, covered and open public spaces of varying scale, landscape, and the earth with its store of memories that always seemed to have held the campus as one piece. The master plan may lay down respecting this feature as an added objective.This would ensure making of built forms with an appropriate degree of visual and physical permeability at the ground level in particular and deter the creation of self-referential buildings oblivious to opportunities in connecting with the ground plane and public space making.
While what is referred to as the hinge space has the promise of becoming a generous transition to a congregation facility and a vibrant public space by the canteen connecting the campus centre with proposed kund,the proposed building seems to divide the ground plane into disparate segments thwarting the latter's potential continuity and public space linkages in other directions. The auditorium's eastern retention wall seems to act as a dam stopping the greens and the runoff from the lawns meeting the proposed kund. Proactive engagement between a good part of indoor and outdoor spaces akin to extending the auditorium tiers to its west into an amphitheatre is missing in plans at upper levels with circulation areas looking inwards oblivious to the outdoor setting.
As an option considering the location of the auditorium as a given, creating tiers cut into greens sloping towards the eastern edge of the congregation facility with visual prospect and access from the latter’s interior space could be examined. The auditorium will then become a conduit of space connecting the landscape setting on its longer sides. Transition spaces like colonnades along the periphery of the auditorium would also soften negotiation of the sharp cubical building edges with surrounding open space at the ground level in particular while shading inner walls.
Built form character, interior spaces, materiality, guidelines
The design proposal for the academic hub is of course also an extension to the nuanced spatial configuration, built form, legible vocabulary, scale and proportion of the faculty of architecture block. A section through the faculty of architecture block demonstrates its relation to the ground plane, connection of studios to lawns and skies through the tall north glazing creating airy studio spaces to work in. The proposed academic hub building seen from the east seems like a porous screen wall which may glow like a lantern by night with an air of sober lightness though but without sectional variation of built form and proportions akin to the faculty of architecture block. Such a screen wall without voids or relief blocks views and spatial continuity too in the east-west directions across the lawns.
It is a matter of concern if the homogeneous, continuous and a blanket like a layer of screen wall without variations in the plane of the facade would lead to the making of a “scale less envelope” of sorts restricting the opportunity to create a built form with legible proportions and nuanced character. Given its orientation, as an option, adding on a layer of deep vertical fins or slender portal frames as sun breakers over the layer of screens with through voids cut in, combined with sectional variation of building edges, could add relief, shadows and depth to the built form besides visually connecting the opens on either side of the building.
The sectional relation of work spaces in the faculty of architecture block connected with day light could inform the making of interior spaces of the proposed academic hub which in the present plans seem stacked falling short on more interesting spatial connections in the third dimension. Creating thermal comfort in work and circulation spaces is also dire need, given the climatic conditions and its variations in Ahmadabad across a year. However, it is a matter of concern that the proposed orientation of academic hub maximises exposure of the building volume to solar radiation notwithstanding louvres or screens shielding its fenestrations.
Details notwithstanding, the formal resolution of the proposed building does call for refinement to make it more contiguous with the physical context and built form character of existing faculty of architecture block even if it is chosen to be a statement in contrast or as a backdrop to the latter. Further, it may not be mandatory to totally differ from the vocabulary and materiality of the faculty of architecture block. It would also be pertinent here to mention that encouraging plural approaches to the making of architectural productions on the campus could be augmented with a broad framework of design guidelines that could bring greater coherence and harmony amongst the former while respecting existing works of architecture. Such guidelines could be integral to the master plan for the campus expansion.
Circulation, campus expansion, scale of streets and public spaces
The idea and need for creating an extremely wide promenade of sorts to the North of the faculty of architecture block in part clearing the greens may be reviewed with respect to day to day circulation pattern of students and faculty between various facilities. Notwithstanding the fact that the proposed route would become an active connection between upcoming facilities to the east and west of campus, a widened grandiose walkway could adversely impact not only an existing intimate connection of certain scale and character between the lawns and the faculty of architecture block but of the former with the heart of the campus. It may also take away the opportunity of approaching the proposed new block on an informal route with humane scale to reach a defined shaded public square. Reinforcing the diagonal linkage from the central activity area of the campus to the proposed hinge and beyond will then be an aspect to be further worked on.
Further, movement patterns of users with contingent footfall volume are unlikely to converge on the proposed wide promenade from different areas of the campus as indicated in the diagrams. The scale and character of the existing beautiful stepped street which is a natural extension to the north entry of the campus bridged by the faculty of architecture block could inform the character of the proposed route which is in perpendicular relation to the former. It may help to craft the circulation spaces of the proposed academic hub as a fluent and seamless extension of existing routes and pedestrian movement networks.
A reading of the ground floor plans of the proposed building shown with the ground floor plans of the faculty of architecture block, canteen and the plaza hint the changing scale, the character of public spaces, streets and routes on the campus. It is a matter of concern if the campus expansion would eventually lead to the withering away of a certain intimate, informal and open-ended quality of open spaces that seem to have held the buildings together. The growth of campus as a city of learning and knowledge dissemination should be tempered with spontaneity restraining it from becoming a predictable geometric construct.
Nature and landscape, built up area and master plan, reading the programme, options
Given its proposed location this work will need to be also read most importantly as an extension to the old woods and the sprawling green lawns of the campus. Creation of an artefact blending with nature could then be an objective to be met with as against pitching it as an object against the latter. The proposed academic hub, however, seems to have an obtrusive presence in the landscape restricting the freedom of the latter, inadvertently fencing and shrinking what always seemed like a limitless expanse of space endowed with an eternal tide of greens flowing towards the western end of the campus at this location.
If it is an imperative to build here, it would be an equal imperative to keep any building intervention on this precious canvas of landscape ethereal, as subtle and low as possible. This may as an option call for re-examining the scope of programme combining the proposed research centre to enable shifting building mass from the present plans of the academic hub to the proposed research centre zone. For instance, keeping the auditorium as a single storey structure, the lecture halls can then be turned along the east-west axis going through the hinge topped by other facilities to make a hybrid tower of sorts. Alternatively, the research centre subject to feasibility may be moved behind the canteen block facilitating distribution of some functions in the academic hub to the former’s proposed footprint area as to ease the concentration of building volume on the greens.
Such a proposal could also free the auditorium to adjust fluently with the landscape around. As an option a part of the single storey auditorium could then be raised on stilts much like the faculty of architecture building allowing the lawns to meet the proposed kund with ease, making the latter more “public” in its access. This will also ease the roof of the auditorium to take on a distinct form. Alternatively, a tiered green terrace could be created above the auditorium roof topped by free-flowing shaders or the ilk. This approach is likely to add a sense of joie de vivre and innovation to the process of making the artefact besides keeping this part of the building complex low and less obtrusive in the given landscape setting.
As yet another idea and as a bolder extension to the proposed idea of partially sinking the auditorium into the ground, the structure could be conceived as an amphitheatre embedded in landscape with flexible roof nay walls too. It could also be read and designed as a stepped well submerged in landscape by a kund to make for a rich introspective experience and ambience imbued with deeper meaning. Even as the ground plane flows down into this ensemble an aura of search, contemplation and discovery are then likely to inform the making of this “place”.
Given its size and volume, the auditorium as another possibility could be turned along the east-west axis going through the hinge space topped by other facilities or relocated in another part of the campus! In brief, rethinking master plan with thrust on restructuring this area combined with an integrated programme and its deeper reading could be rewarding. This will enrich the quality of architectural production at hand and create a unique place, humane in its countenance, and meshed with nature. While the architecture of buildings and the master plan as we know inform and enrich each other, a continuous review of the latter with thrust on its guiding values, goals, objectives and the horizon of the enterprise at hand is also simultaneously most needed.
Expansive scope, horizon of the enterprise, search for an Indian idiom
The scope and horizon of the enterprise on yet another plane are more expansive, yet relevant to the responsibility at hand. The city has overtime accrued a wealth of masterly works of architecture and the proposed extension of the academic hub is an addition not merely to this oeuvre but also to a rich repository of thought on the discourse of architecture, explorations into its essence, meaning, contextuality, relation to the city and others. Many fine works of architecture in the city by renowned architects transcending need to address specific functional programmes are realms holding rich content pertaining to the discourse. The seeds and inspiration for the manifest form after all lay in the intangible realm of the search for meaning and desire to produce profound works of architecture.
Farfetched as it may seem this work could also be treated as an extension to the search of many pioneering architects in early independent India who while being exposed to the international style attempted to find an Indian idiom in the making of diverse architectural productions suitable to varied local contexts. Somewhere down the line discussions on this aspect seems to have disappeared from our discourse and no longer heard much in the architectural media too, save being a rare objective on architectural commissions! However herein lay the promise of an introspective stance, one that can perhaps resonate with the making of an Adalaj, a Sarkhej or a Jaami, an array of outstanding and inspiring architectural productions.
Even as the morning light touches the tall delicate stone colonnades of the Jaami rendering them with a golden hue casting long shadows towards the mihrab, even as the skies, earth and water meet in an uniquely crafted theatre of celebration at the Adalaj, even as a Sarkhej stands in poise by the waters with its rich composition of built and open spaces, one would muse in humility if a good share of our subsequent and present works in institutional architecture is fully informed by the spirit that guided the making of these artefacts.