M:OFA Studios imagines a junior school in India like a subterranean ‘soft fortress’

Drawing from the idea of holes inside a block of cheese, the studio envisions a set of fluid, open and semi-open learning spaces in an educational campus for the Delhi Public School.

by Zohra Khan Published on : May 22, 2020

An unbuilt junior school from the Indian town of Tarn Taran by M:OFA Studios is conceived as a subterranean structure with spherical courtyards, green amphitheatres and open playscapes facing the sky. Through a small video, principal architect Manish Gulati illustrates the project in a playful narrative and speaks with STIR about the nuances of its distinct architecture.

04 mins watch  A video illustrating the concept behind the project | DPS Tarn Taran | M:OFA Studios | STIRworld
A video illustrating the concept of the project Video Credit: Courtesy of M:OFA Studios

Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Zohra Khan (ZK): What an imaginative start to a project: to draw from the idea of mice playing with a block of cheese, which melts entirely to reveal the story behind a school. How did you translate this narrative into architecture?

Manish Gulati (MG): We imagined the school like a cluster of soap bubbles held within a three-dimensional mesh or holes inside a block of cheese, where the voids are separate, yet seamlessly connected either visually or physically. This idea of 'subtractive spaces' was translated in creating these scoops (spherical courtyards) that became the generators of informal life within the school, connected with learning spaces clustered around them; shaped as resultants of the scoops.

ZK: How was the project introduced to you? What were the parameters addressed while designing the various spaces?

MG: The brief asked us to design a junior school, from kindergarten to class 5 as per the CBSE norms in India. The layout needed more emphasis on the open and semi-open spaces, to designing classrooms with a flexibility and a balance between informal versus formal learning programmes, while seamlessly connecting them with secure play areas segregated between kindergarten and junior sections.

The school is define as a series of scooped out spaces connected in a rectangular layout  | DPS Tarn Taran | M:OFA Studios | STIRworld
The school is defined as a series of scooped out spaces connected in a rectangular layout Image Credit: Courtesy of M:OFA Studios
We designed the school like a soft fortress for kids where the spherical courtyards would be turned into stepped, green amphitheatres with sandpits. – Manish Gulati, M:OFA Studios

ZK: How did the design philosophy evolve from the original thought at inception?

MG: The design philosophy evolved more with functions and structuring coming into place, yet keeping the initial idea intact. We were inspired by Punjab and its rich history in brick architecture, especially buildings like Khalsa College, Amritsar and Gobindgarh fort, and thus proposed brick as a construction material. We designed the school like a soft fortress for kids where the spherical courtyards would be turned into stepped, green amphitheatres with sandpits.

A visualisation of the green terraced amphitheatre | DPS Tarn Taran | M:OFA Studios | STIRworld
A visualisation of the green terraced amphitheatre Image Credit: Courtesy of M:OFA Studios

ZK: What are the various spaces within the project and how have you connected them together?

MG: We have designed a secure subterranean architecture, where the reception block and the administration areas (the functions that comprise public spaces) sit at the upper level near the entry point alongside the auditorium at the extreme corner.

From this edge, one moves more towards semi-private play spaces to more private spaces such as classrooms. The kindergarten vs junior school division is made by placing them at different levels and separate entry points taking the advantage of two levels available on site.

Open and semi-open spaces for children | DPS Tarn Taran | M:OFA Studios | STIRworld
Open and semi-open spaces for children Image Credit: Courtesy of M:OFA Studios

ZK: What material palette and construction methodologies did you seek to build these fluid spaces?

MG: The key material used in the project was brick; shaped into compression arches and domes, much like our traditional architecture reinforced by a grid of RCC frame structure that would hold, interject and surround these informal spherical brick domes like a mesh holding soap bubbles within itself.

ZK: Any challenges through the design journey that you wish to highlight?

MG: Every project of such nature involves its own set of challenges, especially budgets when it comes down to public projects of these kind. Over a period of time we have been able to take care of staying within the budgets defined for the project, by using as much traditional techniques available with the local craftsmen, and shape our design language and work flow based on the resources available on site (of materials, skills and techniques) rather than the other way round. The translation of scoops into brick domes and arches was a result of a collaborative thought process between our designers and the local craftsmen responsible for the execution of the project.

An aerial view of the layout plan | DPS Tarn Taran | M:OFA Studios | STIRworld
Visualised aerial view of the school Image Credit: Courtesy of M:OFA Studios

ZK: Can you describe some of the significant features that would have differentiated it from other projects of the same nature, if it were built?

MG: The tight linearity of the plot and its existence at a subterranean level with respect to the approach road was the biggest advantage and a key transformator for the project. We could imagine the school like a soft secure fortress from outside, yet extremely soft and fluid set of spaces from inside.

Project Details

Name of the project:Delhi Public School
Location: Tarn Taran, Punjab, India
Built-up area: 4500 sq m
Client: DPS, Amritsar
Design Team: Manish Gulati, Vasudha Maiya, Tonoy Sarma, Vrinda Jariwala

Special credits:
Video voiceover is by Manish Gulati’s seven-year-old niece, Anyra.

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