The campus of CEPT University at Ahmedabad has a memorable and unique sense of place. The buildings and the landscape together form an ensemble that effortlessly allows a whole range of experiences of light and space, of material and tactility, of movement and repose – in short of a kind of poetic expression that has evolved as much as has been designed. Many of the buildings are of great value as representative works of outstanding post-independence architecture in India, and would arguably merit inclusion in the canon of great works of world architecture in the second half of the 20th Century. Yet the buildings are not objects in isolation, but weave together a texture inseparable from the land, the sun and the seasons.
The proposal for the new Academic Hub will have to be critiqued in relation to the existing excellent environment. On many counts, this proposal will be found to lessen the quality of place and this critique will attempt to elucidate this.
The CEPT Campus may be understood as two complementary parts. [see Figure 1, below]
About a third of the campus land, at the northern end, is a landscape of grassy mounds to the east and a seasonal pond surrounded by a sort of scrubby forest to the west. The seasonal pond allows rainwater draining the whole site and beyond to be absorbed into the soil, and it thus prevents flooding of the site. The line of transition between the eastern and western sides is marked by a huge, old, neem (azadirachta indica) tree. All together, this set of ground elements, variety of green foliage and varied screenings of view and light have made this part of the campus a magical counterpart to the built-up area and open spaces to the south. The neem tree is the pivot of this space, a veritable axis mundi gifted by the site.
The proposed new Academic Hub sits exactly on this line of transition, defying the perceptible poetic value of the location.
It crowds out the neem tree (it is unlikely that the tree can survive this brutal push). The building slices into the gentle slope of the lawn on its east and closing the path of rainwater, blithely usurps the woodland and perhaps part of the pond.
The building will make the campus vulnerable to flooding by destroying the drainage path and greatly reducing the area available for water to be absorbed.
The building, at one stroke, defiles and thoroughly disrupts the “sanctuary” of plant, soil and water that the northern edge used to provide.
All the buildings on the campus are oriented north and south. On the north are opening that bring in light, on the south are openings that allow the south-westerly breeze to ventilate the spaces. Structural walls make a series of spaces transparent in the north-south direction. This theme of space, combined with the cross movements and paths that weave under and over create an exciting haptic/kinaesthetic form and space that defies vision but privileges the bodily experience.
The Academic Hub, on the other hand, opens to the east and the west. In this way it isolates itself from the continuity of spatial experience. The building thus becomes an object in space.
Climatically too, in terms of the sun and breeze the building is now no longer a response and a simple accommodation to conditions of nature, but is a wilful imposition, using secondary devices to create a degree of comfort.
So, in terms of architectural composition and in terms climatic response, this proposal is of questionable value.
Shifting the Centre of Gravity of the Campus
The campus is characterised by the quality of open-to-sky spaces. The buildings almost become a backdrop for the main central square. This sandy expanse bordered by a variety of buildings and large and small trees is the heart of the campus, the place of social and festive activities.
The square is crossed by paths that go across the diagonal north-east to south-west and south-east to north-west. (This latter path is also the path of rainwater.) Thus the campus is a crossroads, a chouraha,that is unusual to find in an institutional campus. This structure loosens up the formality of institutionalisation, and opens the institution to the city.
Any displacement of this centre would weaken the idea of open institution with a centre of intensity as opposed to a boundary that contains or a series of axii that control.
Now, the proposed Academic Hub shows an east-west path swinging off from the northern entry path. This path is wide, completely paved, bordered with low edge-walls and on axis with the entry to the academic hub. The School of Architecture building is merely glanced at from the side, not walked under-and-through, nor do you first reach the central square.
By all these means, the Academic Hub draws attention to itself and diminishes the power both of the Central Square, the Crossroads; as well as of the sanctuary to the north. It puts into jeopardy the basic organisational simplicity of the campus plan.
Architectural Vocabulary and Detail
The architectural vocabulary used by the Academic Hub is conventional. That is not the problem. What is the issue is that neither in terms of scale, nor in terms of spatiality, is this vocabulary used to make unexpected expressions while using convention. There is a general minimum efficiency of architectural means, no leap of imagination. Concrete is good concrete, glass is straightforward glass, metal louvers are no more that that.
Here opportunities to surprise, to astonish, to create unusual juxtapositions, to make material expressive and detail pungent – all these are lost. In contrast to the bold and sculptural use of brick and concrete, light and shadow, mass and texture along with the generosity and ingenuity of detail that is exhibited in the older buildings,, here the architectural expression is pedestrian.
However through a certain flashiness the building loudly proclaims itself “contemporary”, drawing attention to its technical finesse and its championing of efficiency over all other values.
The Dominating Object vs. The Weave of Form
Overall, one is left with the impression that the building strives to dominate its surroundings. It does this by its location, orientation, its weakening of existing structure and finally by its flashy evocation of sophistication.
The Academic Hub does not attempt to add sensitively and wisely to this rich campus. In fact, it destroys some of the best qualities, and adds nothing of real value.
It does not add anything significant to contemporary architectural discourse, in fact it does not appear to have any such ambition.
It would be a pity if it were to be built as designed. A thoroughgoing reconsideration is necessary in order to preserve the universal value that CEPT Campus has given to society and to the world of architecture.
Neelkanth Chhaya, Architect
Former Dean, Faculty of Architecture, CEPT University,
Alumnus, Batch of 1969.