Friday, December 24, 2010

"De-Schooling Architecture" by Christopher Charles Benninger, Architect.

“I wanted a different structure…one that would be like a monument. Of course if Christopher even designs a square building it will be a monument”, said Dr. Gunwant Oswal, founder of The Center for Life Sciences, Health and Medicine (CLSHM), a center that treats brain and neuro-developmental disorders, especially in children, based on a holistic system of medicine. From 1968- 2000, Dr. Oswal operated out a 800 sq ft clinic in Pune’s Bhawani Peth; however as word of the efficacy of his complementary system of medicine spread, he felt he needed a larger space to carry out research and treat children with special needs. For two years Dr. Oswal looked for an appropriate site, a place where children and their parents would feel at ease. Finally he found a quiet site on a hill in Kondhwa with a sweeping view of the city and adjoining forest land.

And then there was the quest to find an architect who would design premises that would be conducive to his practice and patience. Seeing Christopher Benninger’s design of The Mahindra United World College on the outskirts of Pune, Dr. Oswal, approached him carrying with him the tome ` Frank Lloyd Wright, a Visual Encyclopedia’, with post-its marking pages featuring different architectural elements that he wished to have in the centre. Dr. Oswal’s commitment to his cause of treating special children, not turning away any child for the lack of finances, and the fact that Christopher is also deeply interested in Wright’s architecture, set the pace for the project. Dr. Oswal invested his life savings into the centre, supported whole-heartedly by (NAME) his wife; as well as daughter Pooja and son-in-law Shrirang, both doctors, who also practice at the centre

“I realized this is a project for very special children. They are eager to live and to learn. They are lively, loving and observant. But they are deprived of the normal joys of childhood; growing up and coming of age. My first intention was to reach out to them, rather than to draw them into a dull, rectangular, monumental institution which says: “You don’t belong here! You don’t belong in this world!” So I wanted to make a very different kind of building, but not in a patronizing way, that mocks mental disabilities. I had to allow myself---my child-like self---to emerge, let go and to speak out. I had to de-educate myself from all of the Cartesian ways of thinking; the X and the Y axis; the squares, rectangles and boxes, which for normal children is called SCHOOLING. I realized that I too had been taught in squares and boxes; taught to think in parallel lines! It was very easy to stick in that tried and true path, but the result would be a box!”

“In my “letting go”; in my DE-SCHOOLING of ARCHITECTURE, I travelled through a trajectory which crossed the trajectory of my user group. This is how I very consciously took on the behemoth of CARTESIAN THINKING and tried to break that down the way an ancient army would attack a fortress wall: ramming the closed door of thought; breaking the walls of false knowledge; destroying the culture of thinking which would put me into a BOX! In my struggle to de-school myself, I could come up to the beautiful, uncluttered level of existence of these special children where they can see things putatively, naturally and in the essence. I realized that seeing things generically, getting a glimpse of the essence of things, is seeing beauty!”

After spending hours discussing the project, over several meetings, one day looking at a tile roof-courtyard scheme, Dr Oswal asked, “But how does the wind travel through this structure?” The question offered the solution for the design. “In the end it was the westerly winds which ordered the structure into a series of pathways for wind to travel in, which we would also walk in! Air and people would move in the same channels, which like the wind would meander about! The high walls on the south would provide shade from the southern sun! There would be pocket gardens and secret places. There would be plantation here and there, and each space would integrate with some outdoor space. The angular wind walls would form a honeycomb of indoor and outdoor spaces and places, generating a lot of energy”, says Christopher of the unusual (X sq ft) complex with a 200 ft frontage and spreading across a basement, ground and first floors.

A hint of the architectural approach of the complex is offered at the main entrance where flower beds seem to define the compound and the main boundary wall is set away from the road. “In Europe institutions are filled with people in the evenings. I wished to offer a similar expression. So the main wall is set within the premises and there are low broad steps for people and passer-bys to sit”, says Dr. Oswal. Beyond the steps, transparent gates offer entry into the complex graced with pristine white walls creating a sense of peace and space. “White walls are something I have always loved since my youth in the Aegean Sea where azure blue waters, shaded white walls, a touch of blue woodwork and shadows everywhere, caught my attention. I felt in this project- which is a small project -the use of stone might be dark and oppressive, and used white walls instead. Dr. Oswal shared this concern and the outcome is rather natural”, says Christopher.

The ground floor takes care of all the needs of patients-from the reception room, waiting areas, doctors clinics, dispensary, green spaces to relax, a pantry, an area for patients and their parents to dine, a lotus pond, statues of the Buddha as well as of a mother and child in open spaces –that are easily reached as the building runs along two meandering west-east movement lanes that offer shade and catch the cool westerly breezes and direct them through the structure. The first floor has a bedroom, a guest bedroom, terrace and lobby; while the basement, with direct access also with a ramp, is a venue for seminars. Along with the pockets of flowers and foliage within and around the structure (planted with a variety of exotic, indigenous and foreign plant varieties), the all natural flooring of Jaisalmer, Dholpur, Red Agra and Kotah stones make for a natural and soothing ambience. The gentle mist of water droplets being sprayed on plants cools the temperature, offers a soothing sight and its soft murmur is also soothing.
The bonding with nature is also conveyed in the slightly sloped water spouts that return rain water to the earth.

Walking through the building, space -enclosed and open as well as interior and exterior- engages and merges with another. “The idea was that each out-of-doors space would have two or three relationships with at least two or three indoor spaces! And each indoor space would relate on its sides with sequential outdoor spaces. Thus, there evolved a number of sequences, links, chains of experiences which would always be different in iteration, depending on the way you moved in the labyrinth. The skylights and the light wells and the light courts are all vertical and horizontal mechanisms to achieve this”, adds Christopher. The columns are triangular and were placed to turn spaces into arcades and make the spaces integrate as one. They are fitted with coloured ceramic tiles to enliven them and make them playful.

Apart from designing a center that would be child-friendly, there is also a commitment to being eco-friendly as no wood has been used in the design; solar panels have been fitted to warm water; and most importantly space and materials have been used to minimize dependence on electricity. While there are tall glass windows inside the building that bring in natural light, breeze and outside views, there is hardly any glass on the outside. “We really are not inconvenienced when the electricity goes off, because the rooms are all full of natural breezes and light. What else do we need fossil fuel energy for? Maybe the gadgets that clutter our modern life need power. But the architecture here is “energy free.” I think this can always be accomplished if one leaves openings on several sides; if one uses light shafts and wells; if one mingles nature in courts and walkways. These things come naturally in India where the climate is salubrious”, says Christopher.

The architecture and design of CLSHM conveys a meeting of minds and hearts of the architect and client, and their commitment towards creating a space and environment that offers visitors with special needs much needed solace, as well as a positive, enriching and meaningful experience during their visit.
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