A timeless quad and colonnade are the highlights of Ahmedabad University’s new building
The Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) building of Gujurat’s Ahmedabad University is part of a campus containing many other colleges, most of which are low-rise and well blended. It is disadvantaged because the limitations of the site and the demands of the programme necessitate a single, four-storey building with a large footprint and disproportionately high ceilings. This induces a formal spatial arrangement and an imposing scale, like many university buildings of the early 1900s. The plans of such buildings are invariably destined to be generic. Despite that, with students in mind, the architect has here designed portions that are commendable and make up for what otherwise might have been repetitive and monotonous.
The northern, short edge of the site abuts a central piazza, the western side has a pedestrian path and the southern a road. The eastern boundary adjoins a site to be built on in future. Entrances sit at the western, eastern and southern sides. Of these, the eastern would logically have provided a direct, eye-catching entrance for students and visitors. The east–west corridor could have set a strong axis had it culminated in a flight of wide steps. Instead it is blocked with a high parapet wall.
‘The central idea of the IET building is that it sits as a quadrangle surrounded by a colonnade from which teaching spaces are accessed’
The central idea of the IET building is that it sits as a quadrangle surrounded by a colonnade from which teaching spaces are accessed. It is a simple enough solution for a programme clearly designed for the efficient implementation of a teaching programme. Large halls, varying in width but with a constant depth, serve multiple purposes – lecture hall, laboratory, computer room and the like – and occupy most of the area, leaving little or no space for small study groups, discussions or experimental work. The design and its shortcomings, however, fall in line with the brief.
The main thrust of the design is the quad and colonnade, which the architect says is a recall of the timeless image of cloisters and their accompanying solemnity. Certainly, it is the high point of the design. It is a communicator – the columns set a rhythm but neither their spacing nor disposition is consistent. On the west, they are skewed to suit the layout of rooms on the upper floors. Galleries around the quad extend to the external faces, helping the free flow of the breeze. Their height is impressive but, come the afternoon, the sun streams in adding to the heat, which becomes a problem. Apparently ‘how it looks’ prevailed over ‘how it works’.
‘The main thrust of the design is the quad and colonnade, which the architect says is a recall of the timeless image of cloisters and their accompanying solemnity’
Ceiling heights for rooms off the gallery are unjustifiably high and, in many cases, out of proportion to their areas. The argument that the extra height provides for future expansion is untenable, however – provision for adding a mezzanine is not visible; this could not be built without seriously compromising on light and ventilation. The extra space available for future use is not planned for but merely a passing idea. There is no barrier between the gallery and quad on the ground floor so students can easily spill over from covered to open space. They usually love this, especially if the court is green with shady trees and grass to sit or ‘horse around’ on. But the entire quad is paved in granite and the floor sculpted with steps and walls that, as well as radiating heat in the afternoon, also restrict use and free movement. The quad also does not allow for multiple uses. Often tempted to make something of a large internal courtyard, architects, by and large, are reluctant to leave it alone and let it play its part.
A four-storeyed block of meeting rooms and a stair to the first floor are placed in its south-eastern corner. The space below is good for students wishing to gather during breaks while a generous stair projects into the quad on its north-west corner. All these elements are built in concrete, adding to radiation of heat. Hopefully, trees will provide shade in the years to come.
In general, the extra attention paid to the quad and the elements in it reveals a degree of anxiety to make the place intriguing – which also makes it somewhat self-conscious. The final verdict will come only with usage: either it will be extensively used and loved or it will be used for formal occasions only, dead at other times.
‘What pervades throughout the building, inside and out, is the profuse use of sandstone, which gives a pink glow when light bounces off its surface’
Stairs – major elements in the design – are manifold. Logically placed, some are designed to be seen as objects. Flights are arranged for a leisurely climb so different views of the landscape can be taken in. Users look for rhythm in movement and regularity of breaks. Movement on the stair at the north-west corner of the quad, however, appears jerky, with steps in unequal numbers and frequent, long breaks. The logic of the rhythm is unclear.
The stair on the eastern face of the quad is striking but, being uncovered, of limited use. It is used only in the mornings, students said – at other times, it is too hot. When it rains, it is unusable. It does not connect all floors but starts on the first floor, ascending to the third in a straight sequence of steps. One could argue the logic of its placement and utility but all will agree that, despite its limited use, it is a dominant element in the courtyard’s design. The architect can sometimes be excused for being impractical.
Rooms accessed from the galleries through very tall doors are substantial, with depths of 12-15 metres. Most are lecture halls for large numbers of students. Their size and proportion rule out uniform natural daylighting and ventilation, so all are artificially lit and air conditioned. Accessed via cut-off lobbies, their seats face windows in the external walls. The glare compels the use of blinds that shut out the view, making the large windows redundant. This serious drawback could have been avoided.
What pervades throughout the building, inside and out, is the profuse use of sandstone, which gives a pink glow when light bounces off its surface. Used for screens, wall cladding and benches, it copes with heat better than most materials as it is porous and neither retains nor radiates heat. The screens are elaborately designed but the lower third, repeated for parapets around the quad, is higher than normal, with a design that does not permit views of the court. In general, use of sandstone is commendable but the design of the screen is repetitive, which does not work in all cases.
What impressions would one carry after spending time in this building? Despite its debatable shortcomings, the size, scale and imposing facades do make an impact. All users see and use the space differently. The gap between the architect’s dream and reality will always remain.
Ahmedebad University Institute of Engineering and Technology
Architect: vir.mueller architects
Project team: Saurabh Jain, Priyam Ballav Goswami, Avneet Kaur, Mansi Maheshwari, Prashant Singh Hada, Bhavika Aggarwal
Structural engineer: Himanshu Parikh Consulting Engineers
Photographs: Edmund Sumner