Drawing deeply on historic and typological precedents, this suburban arts campus in northern India inculcates a rich and dynamic culture of encounter and exchange
The urban fabric of contemporary India is a curious mix. While sensitively derived connotations coexist with self-prescribed dissonant chaos, inspired instances influence pastiches that often lose sight of the original’s onus and vision, which shaped them as exemplars for this particular milieu, such as the Capitol Complex in Chandigarh by Le Corbusier and Louis Kahn’s Institute of Management in Ahmedabad. With the recently completed Visual Arts Institutional Campus in Rohtak, Raj Rewal has sought to add to this repertoire of urban design precedents with his paradigm of a large integrated complex that fuses architecture, urbanism and landscape into one ensemble.
But while Corbusier and Kahn discerned their respective buildings with a presumably Western expression of strong forms in concrete and brick, Rewal deviates to apply his dexterity in interweaving a more traditional narrative of scale, space and materials through chapters of an elaborate education programme requiring the unification of four distinct institutes of creative arts. The ensuing amalgamation, as low-rise, high-density configurations punctuated with photovoltaic panels to generate electricity for the campus, presents a series of interspersions – individual with the whole, built spaces with the open landscape, forms with light, gravitas with porosity, craftsmanship with state-of-the art – revealing layers of linked experiences that work as much on their own as together, much like the intent of the overall curriculum.
Located about 70 kilometres from Delhi, the Visual Arts Institutional Campus is in the suburbs of Rohtak, a city waking up to its potential and undergoing massive changes as an envisaged educational hub for its youth. The mammoth scheme is not only one of Rewal’s largest projects but also, he points out, one of the most interesting project briefs after the Parliamentary Library in New Delhi (AR October 2002).
The ambitious programme combines state-of-the art teaching institutions for architecture, fashion, film and television and fine arts in a single campus. With the aim of being one of the best of its kind in north India, the project also sets out to build a cross-disciplinary culture of knowledge where students can intermingle and collaborate to expand their minds, ideas and resources. As well as discrete buildings for each academic programme, the 22-acre site accommodates a communal zone, accessible by all institutes and visitors, with a large auditorium, library and conference room along with hostels and other amenities.
The need to devise different identities for each of the four institutes and then collate them in a single setting provides a concept that simultaneously distinguishes and unifies. It also reflects the higher purpose of education where students seek individual goals but can come together for the greater good of shared enlightenment. Constructing a manifesto with this in mind, Rewal considered older Asian exemplars, notably Taxila and Nalanda, and European models such as Bologna University and Oxford where diverse study units are consolidated in rich educational environments through structured axes, clustered forms and defined interactive spaces.
Rewal’s generative concept for Rohtak is based on a sequence of four distinct quadrangles that give identity to the each of the different disciplines through varying renditions of programmes, spaces, patterns and materials. The sense of a nurturing learning atmosphere is generated through the intimate scale of the campus’s low-rise development where pedestrian movement is the dominant factor, borrowing its easy urban quality from Fatehpur Sikri, Rewal’s favoured precedent. An external peripheral road gives each institute a distinct entrance and scale from where a fluid progression of spaces percolates to the central area defined by communal activity hubs.
Realising the significant role of spatial enclosure in promoting social and intellectual encounters, Rewal differentiates each quadrangle through design and landscaping to enrich interactive experiences across the overall scheme. Dramatic views, created with shifting axes, from the separate institutes all link onto focal points in the main square and unite the concept visually.
Each arts institute came with a precisely detailed set of requirements that helped Rewal shape its spatial and visual identity. The Institute of Fine Arts includes studios, classrooms, laboratories, workshops and other facilities for sculpture and industrial design. An oval lecture theatre forms its focal element, while covered corridors or verandas extend around a central courtyard unifying the various spaces. The Institute of Film and Television is one of India’s largest film training centres and comprises a similar clustering of spaces around a courtyard. The most dominant element in the campus, the Institute of Fashion and Design, is organised around a central volume housing a double-height exhibition hall, display space and ramp. Both hall and modelling theatre are designed to professional standards and are accessible to external agencies. The Institute of Urban Planning and Architecture encompasses a varying sequence of fenestrations and outdoor seating capped by a tactile roof of stainless-steel panels strung on tensile wires. Integrating landscape with architecture, Rewal also gives each institute its own distinctive foliage, introducing laburnum, ficus, gulmohar and plumeria into the courtyards.
Colonised by students from all institutes, the central communal activity area creates porous zones of interaction that flow into each other. Inspired by traditional step wells, the sunken central court is used for water harvesting and also doubles as an outdoor seminar room. The geometry and placement of the main circular building – which houses the auditorium, conference room and central library – is clearly informed by archetypes such as the Nalanda archaeological ruins with the looming central temple, though the scale here is not as overwhelming. The steps climbing up to the library echo symbolic and historic connotations – for instance the encircling parikrama of the Sanchi Stupa housing Buddhist scriptures, the monasteries of Bagan in Burma and the famous monument of Borobadur in Indonesia. The library roof is a slanting solar disc with photovoltaic panels inclined at 22 degrees to capture maximum solar energy. The disc or the wheel with its concentric beams is reminiscent of its namesake from the Sun Temple of Konark.
An amphitheatre enclosed by a glass and steel roof forms the other main element of the central complex. With its structure reminiscent of basket weaving and cane works, an insulated glass roof is lifted above the columns to allow natural ventilation into the theatre space below. A circular foyer with sandstone seats breaks the stretch between the amphitheatre and auditorium. Rewal envisages the communal areas as a stage for the entire campus where students of each institute engage and interact.
Environmental control combines aspects of active technology, such as photovoltaic panels, with more traditional passive approaches. Responding to Rohtak’s excessively dry, hot climate, buildings are oriented on a north-west/south-east direction with a green buffer along the site periphery. The consciously urban form of the campus aims to minimise summer heat gain while opening up to winter sun. Courtyards create microclimates free from heat and dust while introducing diffused natural light and ventilation. Glazing is designed be in constant shade to help lower temperatures by 5 to 7 degrees Celsius.
A dual layer of low E-glass on inner surfaces and reflective green glass on the exterior helps to reduce heat transmission by up to 40 per cent compared with normal glazing. Materials were chosen to be both climate-appropriate and culturally sensitive. The reinforced-concrete frame structure weaves in exposed columns with external expressions of sandstone. Red sandstone cladding marks the quartet of institutes, while beige is used to distinguish the common areas and central zone.
The Visual Arts Institutional Campus shows Rewal’s exemplary skill in deploying forms, materials and light to create a constantly evolving interplay. Planes appear, merge and sweep away from view. Boundaries demarcate, intersect and overlap.
Throughout the day and across seasons, the prevailing sense is of a continuum subject to the constant of change, its interconnected imagery developed as a visual journey of myriad interpretations. But above all, it is a gamut of carefully crafted spaces of different social intensities – a terrace, a stairway, a ceremonial fire escape, a corner, a balcony, a veranda – all awaiting intentional or serendipitous discovery. ‘You discover your own passages, pathways, elements of surprise’, says Rewal, ‘and when you go up and down, you realise your own spaces.’
Architects: Raj Rewal Associates
Photographs: Sushil Khandelwal