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Architectural Catalyst

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Mumbai based architectural firm, Collaborative Architecture won “Socially relevant design of the year” award at the NDTV National Architectural Award 2014 for Stacked Tectonics-JDT Islam Primary School at Calicut, Kerala. The architects Mujib Ahmed and Lalita Tharani of Collaborative Architecture starts with the basic question about architecture and its role in the educational campus. As the architects explain, the building from thereon assumes its shape around the answers to this question.

The project is part of JDT Islam campus, the very first Muslim orphanage in India situated in a quaint village in north Kerala, India. Formed in early 50s, the orphanage carried its legacy of philanthropic goodwill to orphans from around the country over the years. Unfortunately the built-environment was not a priority for major parts of its existence resulting in highly disparage styles and mediocre buildings on the campus. The firm was invited to address this in a much localized way of designing a prototype school for primary grade, which could be assessed for its performance and physical setting on the campus. The school was to house classrooms, staff area and Principal’s room apart from ancillary facilities.

The Site

The site was identified as a linear left over track between a girl’s school and existing old school building in the 20-acre site. The location of the building was decided on the regrouping of classes on the campus, in an attempt to bring in some kind of basic organizational structure to the haphazard planning of the campus.

Primary Architectural Concerns

As architects, we do share the efficacy of a localized intervention on a campus of this nature, but at the same time are fully aware of the impact a good design could trigger as a catalyst for future development and policy actions. The new projects is conceived to bring a new stimulus to JDT Islam campus and is designed as an ‘Architectural Catalyst’.

The project explores new possibilities of educational spaces to generate more interaction among student community and faculty, emphasizing on ‘no-regimented’ spaces- a complete antithesis of the generally adopted rectilinear block design. The new buildings meant to redraw the quality of campus in a significant way. The sandwiching of the building in the narrow plot between two buildings posed the challenge of getting enough natural light throughout the class hours into the classrooms. The existing buildings also created a wind barrier. Moreover, the project had to be realized on a shoestring budget in a village with limited skills and resources.

The Lego Design

One of the fundamental attributes of designing for children is to keep the ‘intrigue’ intact for a longer span of time, whether it be living, play or educational spaces. Self-discovery and playful complexities are vital part of the project. As in building blocks of Lego, where a child beginning to grapple with the possibilities of three dimensional form and the limitless variations by simple shifting of the blocks, the building is designed to create a multitude of sensorial and formal attributes. Like a Lego, it changes form in dramatic ways as one encounter it from different locations / vantage points.

The school building is formed by stacking up its programmes across three non-typical floor plates. Each of the classroom is articulated with a large and uniquely shaped fenestration which besides offering a pragmatic solution to the need of daylighting also generates a sense of identity for the students towards their classrooms.

“The building is a RCC framed constructions with paint as exterior finish. Semi-skilled labour was utilized for the innovative value engineering used in the project. Training and workshops were conducted for the workers and extreme detailing with round the clock site assistance by the project team ensured that the design details were followed to a fair degree.”

– Lalita Tharani


“A significant rewarding experience has been to get a project of reasonable architectural complexity approved by the management, whose priorities were anything but design innovation.”

– Mujib Ahmed




The classrooms are disposed around fairly loose ancillary spaces to encourage interaction among the students and teachers. Corridors become meeting points and entries to the open classrooms. A huge window puncture the classroom space streaming daylight for most of the part of curriculum hours, saving substantial share of dependency on artificial lighting. Each classroom window is uniquely shaped, and coloured extending the ‘intrigue’ inside the building and giving each class it’s on quirky character.

Interactive Spines

The design of School is shaped around the latest developments and directions in designing educational spaces. Rather than monolithic functional blocks, the building is designed as porous and inviting assemblage of classrooms and spaces for interaction. This arrangement enlivens not only the spaces within, but also drastically changes the quality of architecture on the campus. Generous spaces are provided for circulation, transforming them from passages to ‘Interactive Spines’.

Project Significance

The project has been transformative for the JDT management to relook at the way educational spaces are designed. It sort of created a benchmark for its future projects. The much ignored and wasted ancillary spaces became embedded in the daily interactions of student community and faculty, making those spaces an integral part of future architectural direction of buildings on the campus.

Another significant rewarding experience has been to get a project of reasonable architectural complexity approved by the management, whose priorities were anything but design innovation. To be fair to the members, with the limited resources and too big an orphan community to support, design innovation was just not on the radar as they thought it was un-achievable in their budget.

The project is an attempt to underline the firm’s ethos – good designs need not be expensive. The architects value engineered the initial concept to do a fair justice to the budget allocated, and finished the project well within the allocated budget. The whole project was executed with semi-skilled workers from the village who had no access to modern modes of construction.

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