Architecture that nurtures, heals, protects: the Gyaan Center in Jaisalmer

Architect Diana Kellog tells STIR about the use of elliptical forms and symbols, and the coming together of her entire career in the creation of The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl's School complex.

by Meghna MehtaPublished on : Jan 23, 2021

The Gyaan Center is a unique example of architecture meeting noble intent to directly impact the lives and well-being of inhabitants – in this case, women and children. The Gyaan Center in Rajasthan is a complex of three buildings: The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl's School, The Medha (performance and art exhibition space/ library/ museum) and The Women's Cooperative (embroidery, weaving and marketplace). Initiated by Rooshad Shroff with Michael Daube of the CITTA organisation in 2018, the space has been created with a goal to educate young girls and empower women in an otherwise imbalanced demographical ratio in the state. The project involved 12 designers from across the world to design coffee-tables and help in the fund-raising for this school for girls. Designed by New York-based architect Diana Kellogg, the Rajkumari Ratnavati School is now open while the other spaces are under construction.

Diana Kellogg on site at the construction of the school | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
Diana Kellogg on site at the construction of the school Image: Bharath Ramamrutham

STIR speaks with Kellogg about the purpose she found through the design of the school, her role and the heart-warming outcome.

Meghna Mehta (MM): Architecture holds a greater purpose over and above serving private clients. How did this manifest as the architect of the Gyaan Center?

Diana Kellogg (DK): When I met Michael in New York, he was telling me about the programs he was working on in India and Nepal, and I was telling him about the projects I had done, and I had reached a point where I wanted architecture to have a more expansive audience. That was the sort of focus I was interested in. Five years ago, Michael was talking about this project, and I came to India for the first time with my daughter. And, we loved it. I was so struck by Jaisalmer, the beauty of the place and how difficult it is to build in the climate. There was something very captivating about Jaisalmer and I also learned more about the situation of women and girls in that area. I was affirmed by the fact that education is better not just for individuals, but for the society as a whole. It changes the whole dynamic in societies.

Young Girls using the school premises | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
Young Girls using the school premises Image: Bharath Ramamrutham

MM: How did you decide upon the site and the form of the space?

DK: I was highly struck by the desert - we looked at 3 or 4 different sites, until a local hotelier donated the land which was close to the dunes. I came up with the idea of the ‘ellipses’, mainly because I was looking at specific forms that had to do a lot with feminity and strength where the ellipses/ovals reflected across all cultures - in some ways it's a shape of a womb.

The concept sketch of the Gyaan Center by Diana Kellog | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
The concept sketch of the Gyaan Center by Diana Kellogg Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg architects

I also felt it was very practical because I knew I had to include a courtyard as I did not want to completely do away with the Indian customs, and also an ellipse shortens the distance of the courtyard. The idea of the dune is infinite with the desert and so is the horizon, and hence I was looking at the symbol of infinity and two shapes where the links could go on infinitely.

The plan that reflects the idea of a womb and the symbol of infinity | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
The plan that reflects the idea of a womb and the symbol of infinity Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg Architects

Upon discussing these ideas with Michael, he talked about how Mother Teresa started small and the generosity grew multi-folds and that the idea of helping people was also expansive and infinite, and that aptly aligned with the vision.

  • The plan of the Rajkumari Ratnavati School | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    The plan of the Rajkumari Ratnavati School Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg architects
  • Library in the new phase of the Gyaan Center | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    Library in the new phase of the Gyaan Center Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg Architects

MM: How was the program of the building decided?

DK: The program of the center was already given to us because it had to comply with the government regulations where we required to have a library, separate science rooms and computer rooms. The program has largely changed over the last 9 months because of COVID, and we have had so many villagers wanting to sell their textiles, and hence we set up a textile museum to give back to the community. It works as a living museum, like an artefact communicating the story of the region. We did not make the spaces small, we did not change the design and now we have people interested in donating, too. We have been in touch with the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, and they have been very helpful to us.

  • The plan of the Medha Hall | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    The plan of the Medha Hall Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg architects
  • Performance area in the Medha Hall of the Gyaan Center | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    Performance area in the Medha Hall of the Gyaan Center Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg Architects

The community building is going to have a library and computer rooms with special classes and performance areas. It will be an area where larger group of people can get together to become proponents of Indian crafts, music and dance of the region.

  • The plan of the Women’s Cooperative | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    The plan of the Women’s Cooperative Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg architects
  • Marketplace for textiles at the Women's cooperative center at the Gyaan Center | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    Marketplace for textiles at Women's cooperative center the Gyaan Center Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg Architects

We also visited various factories and workspaces of block printing, weaving, embroidery art, and I found the interactions here very interesting. We had the opportunity to go into some people’s homes too and while working they were having a lovely exchange while sitting on the floor. They were stitching trying to show us the process, and it was such a wonderful exchange that I hope will go on in our buildings. We did not speak the same language but we spent a lovely afternoon and were able to communicate with art.

Art across cultures is such an inanimate object that becomes an ice-breaker.
Egg shaped courtyard in the School building | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
Egg shaped courtyard in the School building Image: Bharath Ramamrutham

MM: How does the design aesthetic keep women in mind?

DK: I designed an egg shape courtyard where women can work. Those interested in sharing their work and techniques with people who come to visit can be in this outdoor space. Rest of the women would be separated by a courtyard- so you can see them working and they can close off the shutters if they want privacy. I wanted to create a sense of respect and dignity for these women by letting them have their own privacy and decision-making.

Courtyard in the Gyaan Center | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
Courtyard in the Gyaan Center Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg architects

MM: At the Jaisalmer fort, you have the women’s area with the jali openings. Were you trying to bring that into the design consciously?

DK: Yes, imagining a women’s face through the jali was a very fascinating visual. An architectural phenomenon for Indian architecture, I was very interested in reinterpreting the jalis in a modern way, which is why we did a basket weave shape. It is also a metaphor for weaving, also functions to hold up our sunshade and solar panels.

The phenomenon of jali and exterior that resembles the fort of Jaisalmer | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
The phenomenon of jali and exterior that resembles the fort of Jaisalmer Image: Bharath Ramamrutham

The curves of the building metaphorically resemble the exterior of the Jaisalmer fort. There is a sort of comfort in these shapes that holds you. Children in this elliptical space would feel comfortable and nurtured.

Girls using the space | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
Girls using the space Image: Bharath Ramamrutham

MM: What is the feedback that you have received?

DK: The comments that have come in are heart-warming. The girls find the space to be free and comfortable. I wanted to do something that contained, nurtured, and healed (if required). I think girls are more vulnerable - and so I wanted to make a safe place, and they have now been dancing and skipping around. They also love their uniforms.

MM: What do you have to say about Sabyasachi designing their uniforms?

DK: I think it is great on many levels; these are beautiful, comfortable, and the fact that he combined different techniques that brought together Muslim and Hindu styles, and the fact that it does not look like a British uniform, is commendable.

  • Classroom interiors | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    Classroom interiors in the school building Image: Bharath Ramamrutham
  • Gallery space in the new phase of the project | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    Gallery space in the new phase of the project Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg architects

MM: Any particulars about the interiors that you would like to share?

DK: I came to know that reverse migration is happening in India, and that many men left their homes to work in Mumbai to make furniture. I was certain that they could make furniture for us. We eventually met this father-son duo who made this very simple desk and I wanted to use these and the local weaving benches. I thought these would be more comfortable and seemed more relevant and durable. Aside from this, we made customised fixtures from basket weave and lights from stone.

  • Solar panels compliment the yellow sandstone structure | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    Solar panels compliment the yellow sandstone structure Image: Bharath Ramamrutham
  • Sectional Elevation of the school building | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    Sectional Elevation of the school building Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg Architects

MM: What about energy consumption of the building?

DK: Right at the beginning of the project, I had decided that we must include solar technology into the project because we were in the middle of the desert and there is an abundance of sunlight. The contractors were reluctant as there was no solar power used before in Jaisalmer. I said, “I do not want your solar panels to hide but be like the jewellery on top of my building. I want it to be something that is an added accent.” I thought the yellow sandstone was very beautiful next to the cobalt blue panels and we worked out a solution together.

  • View of the School at sunset | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    View of the school at sunset Image: Bharath Ramamrutham
  • The Gyaan Center in its entirety | Rajkumari Ratnavati School and Women’s Center | Diana Kellogg Architects | STIRworld
    The Gyaan Center in its entirety Image: Courtesy of Diana Kellogg architects

MM: What were the differences you felt between working in New York and India?

DK: First of all, for an American architect to be building out of an engraved stone is not common. Many of the concepts from my days at Columbia came back to me.

I was not interested in an architecture that had a timeless or lasting design - rather something that comes naturally from the feeling of the space and the community, generated by the women and girls.

In many ways I feel my entire career came together here, it seems that I have turned unimportant. Also, there is a sense of community in India that is so strong. To me, it is so heart-warming and fantastic, because we have largely lost that in our country. So these interlocking circles were more about unity.

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