The great universities of the world are wonderful places. They provide all the advantages of normality within an urban structure that is a special and memorable place. As part of a town, they avoid becoming hermetic and institutional and instead enjoy a reciprocity of influence between what they need to be and the place and context in which they find themselves.
They work best as places to study in when they are a part of a normal urban fabric - where day to day things happen, where interactions are serendipitous and where the pattern of uses are complex. Their whole is greater than the sum of their parts.
Our proposal seeks to make the University of Nalanda both practical and memorable. Practical because the buildings are simply constructed, straightforward in their planning and flexible in their use. And memorable not because the buildings are iconic architectural statements, but because the spaces between them are interesting, rewarding and legible.
This network of spaces will reflect the plan of a town.
A comfortable series of interlinked spaces will provide an urban pattern with a relaxed permeability and a clear hierarchy. A series of pedestrian routes will link every building and lead to directly to a primary street in which the major university activities are located. At one end is the library, the food court, the campus inn, the international centre, the administrative building and the faculty of historical studies, at the other, the museum and auditorium and a temple.
This is a plan that will have seemingly grown organically and yet it is a plan that is quite deliberate. Its central spine is a busy pedestrian street - its east-west alignment running parallel to the more distant topography of the escarpment to the north. This dramatic landscape becomes a constant reference as it is seen as the backdrop to all of the routes that link the residential and the teaching spaces which run perpendicular to the main street.
The landscape, the informal plan, the natural hierarchy, and the pattern of simply-planned buildings are the elements of a composition that, on the one hand, is inherently flexible and easy to make, but, on the other, has a clear urban pattern and a unique identity.
The plan for the new University will produce a place that facilitates efficient study and research and manages to achieve that within a calm series of spaces that are ordinary when required to be but which together are extraordinarily memorable.
SITE AND MASTERPLAN
UNDERSTANDING THE PLACE
Our approach starts with an understanding of the site, both in physical and cultural terms. Our proposal for the Nalanda
University Campus aims to a site specific response that creates a strong link with the place and the illustrious history of the ancient ruins.
The first step has been to analyse the different components the site.
One of the most impressive aspects is the constant and distant presence of the Rajgir Hills to the South of the site. They give a natural backdrop to the campus and we have decisively orientated the campus with the mountains in mind. The presence of the mountains counterbalances the relatively flatness of the site. The use of the site for cultivation in the past gives the plot an open field feel with few scattered trees.
The whole site is surrounded by a concrete compound wall that establishes a very strong limit with the surrounds. Beyond the walls there are several small villages that show the traditional configuration of the unplanned and spontaneous settlements of the area. Also towards the South there is the train line connecting to the city of Patna. The presence of the train line could play an important role in the future of the University Campus. Finally, towards the East there is the city of Rajgir, which is the main urban centre in the vicinity.
THE ASYMMETRY OF THE PLACE: Whilst the site is relatively flat and the vegetation is fairly uniform, the presence of the mountains to the South gives a marked asymmetry to the place. Rather than ignoring this important feature of the site, we have decided to organise the site plan establishing a constant reference to the mountains in the distance. The way in which the North and South edges are treated respond accordingly: the North side is treated as a ‘back’ with a continuous line of houses and court gardens which will create a buffer between the residential area and the compound wall. The South edge is a more complex border:
A series of reservoirs will deal with the water runoff from the mountains during the monsoon months. This will lead to a group of green fingers that open views from the centre of the site to the distant Mountains. The way in which houses and residential accommodation is organised will frame these views and create a sense of openness towards the mountains.
CROSSROADS AND GATES: The origin of cities was often the cross road between trading routes. The meeting point in many cases evolved to become a central gathering point, with a series of key buildings assembled around some sort of open space. The original cross road has in many towns a symbolic charge linked to the foundation of the settlement.
In the same vein, as cities evolved the need of protection from the outside threats lead to the construction of protective walls which define the clear limits of the town. The gates in the city walls were key points both in the defence of the city and its relation with the outside world. Whilst walls and gates might not be needed any longer, their symbolic weight is still present in urban culture.
Given the configuration of the site our first instinct has been to establish a system of connections with the immediate context through two main routes: one East – West and another one North – South. These routes organise the movement through the complex both for vehicles and pedestrians. Each route has a different character. The route East – West is understood as the main spine of the University and will be completely pedestrian. The route North – South connects the State Highway 71 with a potential new train station to the South of the plot. As in traditional walled cities, each of the routes will relate to four distinct gates on each side of the site which will serve as the entrance points for the university.
SIMPLE BUILDINGS – COMPLEX SPACES
One key aspect of Indian cities is the relaxed informality of their urbanism. Buildings are placed against each other in an almost casual way giving shape to the most exciting and interesting spaces: little alleys, pocket open spaces, gardens, etc. The space in between building is almost more important than the buildings themselves. However in most cases the character of these spaces is the by-product of unplanned growth over a long period of time. Is it possible to achieve the same character and charm of urban spaces that are the product of years of evolution and changes when building a scheme in one go? Is it possible to plan informality?
Without aiming to make a caricature of this informality, our proposal aims to reinterpret key aspects of the urban spaces we find in cities on this latitude. Two key decisions have been taken into consideration on this respect: the configuration of the buildings and the shape of the spaces in between.
In order to produce rational and flexible buildings that will stand the test of time, we have aimed to keep them as simple as possible. With some few exceptions all buildings are conceived as straightforward rectangle volumes changing in length and depth to accommodate the different types of accommodation. The few buildings that do not follow these rules are either special pieces (like the school) or the uses imply a particular form (like the sport facilities). The simple form of the buildings allows for efficient floor plans.
However, the apparent simplicity of the building shape is used to configure complex public spaces. Whilst the shape of the buildings is pure, the shape of the spaces in between is complex and rich. On this respect, the way in which the buildings are placed on the plot has been carefully composed to give specific form to the spaces in between. On this way a delicate balance is achieved between the desired rationality needed to build a complex project like this and the relaxed character that the public spaces should have.
DENSITY FOR PLACE MAKING
A great deal of the intensity and character of the traditional cities is India is given by their density: the proximity between the buildings produces recognizable urban spaces where multiple uses and buildings contribute to shape distinct places. Density is the by product of many different reasons: the value of the land, the forms of inhabitation, the response of the climate or the forms of property. We believe in the positive aspects of density to create functional and successful urban places.
As such, our proposal for the Nalanda University Campus has aimed to be as compact and dense as possible. We have tried to make the footprint of the campus as small as possible by locating buildings close together. The intention behind is two folded: one the one hand, it creates a place that could be defined the distance / time of a walk: ten minutes walk from one end to the other. We believe this will give human scale to what is a very substantial complex. On the other hand is the fundamental belief that density is intrinsically linked to sustainability in many different ways, in particular as motor transport will not be required on a day to day travel between buildings. A compact campus will definitely work better than a spread one.
Consequently the campus is organised around a series of free standing buildings which sit close together in a tight web of little alleys, streets and open spaces. The proximity will contribute not only to the definition of the open spaces, but crucially, generates a profusion of shaded open spaces. Furthermore, the proximity between buildings will also enhance the natural ventilation of both the open spaces and the buildings that shape them since the configuration will create natural wind flows. This is enhanced by two design moves. Firstly corridors have rooms to one side only, secondly each building has been designed to allow for omission of individual rooms within the footprint and enhance airflow through it.
TWO INTERLINKED OPEN SPACES
As in traditional cities, the two main open spaces of the Nalanda University Campus are structured around a series of special buildings defining the central gathering places for the complex.
The first space is located at the cross road between the two main routes of the campus. Most of the special buildings will be located here creating the civic centre of the University.
A large open space will be defined by the library, the food court, the campus inn, the international centre, the administrative building and the faculty of historical studies. One large water reservoir defines the West side of the open space whilst the East side is defined by the presence of two large public buildings: the library and the food court. These two buildings are intended as the centre pieces of the campus: one is understood as the focus of the knowledge (the library) whereas the other one will be an important gathering place (the food court).
It is important to note that this space will be built in the first phase of construction, giving the complex a recognisable centre from the inception of the University.
The second space is also located onto the main pedestrian spine and it is intended as a counterpoint to the main centre. This space is also defined by some special buildings: the museum and auditorium have been combined into one single building to give them more status. Also temple is proposed in this space. Finally the faculty of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religion and the bank will be also located here.
FAMILY OF BUILDINGS: Most of the successful urban spaces in cities around the world show a certain degree of cohesion. Rather than having different types of buildings competing against each other for attention these spaces tend to be an assembled chorus of relatively similar kinds of buildings working well together. The success of these areas seems to derive then from careful control over the typologies used and subtle variations on a few themes.
On this respect our proposal for the Nalanda University Campus is organised around a controlled number and types of buildings carefully placed together. Most of the buildings share a number of features: a family of buildings. There are two intentions behind this configuration. On the one hand a group of related objects generate a dynamic interplay between the pieces. Giorgio Morandi’s Still Life illustrates perfectly this relationship: the closeness of distinct shapes of bottles or kettles on top of a table, which crucially also highlights the importance of the space in between.
But also the ‘familiarity’ of the objects is important; the fact that they share some aspects that turn them into a cohesive composition and not a collection of disparate objects. In the same way in which in a family each individual is recognisable but they might share similar traits, the volumes of our proposal aim to create an harmonious family of buildings that work well together but are each one identifiable on its own right.
All the buildings in the campus will share at least four different aspects:
- COURTYARDS Following the lessons from the traditional architecture of the region, all our buildings incorporate courtyards. The use of enclose open space contributes not only to the spatial qualities of the buildings but is an essential measure for the natural ventilation and the environmental strategy.
- SHADING DEVICES In the same vein than the courtyards, different types of shading devices are essential part of the architectural language of all the buildings. The profuse use of shading screens, slab projections, window shutters or simply recessing the envelope will help to provide different degrees of shading at the same time defining the character of the architecture.
- ARCADES AND ROUTES THROUGH Most of the buildings within the campus with the exception of the individual houses will provide some sort of connection with the public realm. The bigger buildings like the faculties, the special uses or the student residences have arcades in the ground floor providing covered routes. Smaller buildings will also provide routes through their courtyards. This permeability will multiply the ways in which the site will be crossed.
- MATERIALITY Finally, all buildings will be built mostly from the same material: brick. This decision has several reasons behind. As is a common in the region, bricks could be easily obtained by digging in the ground. This will provide a locally sourced material which will contribute to the net zero’s aspirations for the campus. Having one main material will ease the construction process, allowing the application of similar details and construction techniques throughout the campus. Finally, we also believe the most successful urban complex in the world tend to have a degree on consistency in their materiality that contributes to their identity: Nalanda University Campus will have the redness and earthiness coming from the bricks of the region.
FIGURES AND BACKGROUNDS: The best cities in the world have an urban clarity that does not need any translation to be read and understood. These are places where buildings express their function and role within the urban space, being that the pivotal monuments of temples and town halls or the humble background of individual dwells.
In the same manner than in any opera there is a need for the main figures to be supported by a well assembled chorus, our proposal seeks to establish a carefully organised background around a handful of special buildings. Rather than aiming for every building to be special (which equals that none is) only the singular functions such as the library and the food court will punctuate the more homogenous carpet of more typical and background buildings. The difference between the figures and the background will give identity and orientation to each of the sectors of the campus.
SYSTEM OF RULES: The different degrees of consistency and variation and the delicate balance between figures and background will be underpinned by a simple rule: a numerical one
All buildings have been designed with a straightforward grid of 4 x 4m in mind. This has led to a series of multiple in which every single building is related to others by its proportional rules. The smaller unit (individual houses) is a simple square of 12 x 12m with a central courtyard of 4 x 4m. The next building in the series (block of apartments) is double the size:
24 x 24m with a 8m courtyard. A series of iterations relate one building type to the next one until we get to the biggest one (the library) which is a rectangle of 64 x 104m.
The numerical discipline allows to have a strict degree of control of the different types of buildings without constraining the desired level of variation that a campus this scale should normally have.
- Fanthome, Henri. Design Competition for Nalanda University Campus: Review In Design Competition for Nalanda University Campus. New Delhi: Architexturez Imprints, 2013.
- Ramachandran, Bijoy, and Graham Morrison. Design Competition for Nalanda University Campus: Report In ...to Construct, Photo Essays. New Delhi: Architexturez Imprints, 2013.
APARTMENT BUILDINGS: Accommodation for all residences between 150 m2 and 130 m2 is located in town houses, with each town house containing between 8 to 10 apartments. The basic size of the apartment buildings is with 24 x 24m twice the size of the villas, with a courtyard of 8x8m.
The key design driver is for each unit to have their own street entrance. All apartments extend over 2 stories and include a private internal stair, which organises the apartment between semi private and private areas. Furthermore every apartment has its own external breakout space, in form of a terrace, balcony, loggia or roof terrace. All rooms are connected to the below ground cool air labyrinth. All wet rooms have a window for direct ventilation of moist air.
STUDENT RESIDENCE: The buildings for students and scholars increase in size again by 12m to an overall size of 36 x 36m and a courtyard of 20 x 20m. All corridors face the courtyard with rooms to one side only to allow for cross ventilation by placing windows to both sides of the rooms. All rooms and apartments (for married scholars) are single storey with common stairs and lifts. The student rooms have been reduced in size slightly, with more areas added to the common facilities to encourage a communal engagement within the building as well as the use of library and faculty buildings to study. The bigger units for married scholars and communal areas occupy typically the corners of the building.
Individual student rooms are left out in different locations of each building to create a variance within this building type across site and encourage airflow through the building. All student residences have the same footprint. There are more units in buildings in vicinity to the central spine of the campus. Buildings become less dense towards the perimeter. All rooms are connected to the below ground cool air labyrinth. All wet rooms have a window for direct ventilation of moist air.\
FACULTY BUILDINGS: The seven faculty buildings are located along the length of the central spine, alternating to the left and right when walking along this axis. The buildings are 3 stories tall with lecture rooms and labs towards the public and representative spine. Activities within the individual courtyards differ from calm breakout spaces to lecture rooms and small gathering spaces. Same as the student housing, the corridor is located towards the internal courtyard with rooms to one side only for improved ventilation. All rooms are connected to the below ground cool air labyrinth.
SPECIAL BUILDINGS: All special buildings are located in three distinct locations within the masterplan. The west plaza of the spine (library, food hall, university administration, bank, campus inn) The east plaza (temple, museum, auditorium) and on each of the 4 roads before entering the village (sports and fire station to the north, faculty club to the west, medical centre to the south and school to the east). While following the principals of geometry of all other buildings, each building is designed distinctively to its function and importance, which adds to the vibrance of the masterplan and sets markers within the overall site. The towers of the library will be the landmark for the campus and be visible from a far distance due to the nature of the flat topography.