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  • Shimul Javeri Kadri

Learning from Schools!

I wrote this as an architect, but I have worked in education, wondered and thought about and designed for the intersection of the two. I hope you enjoy my ruminations across personal memories, design, and popular culture.

I went to school at the age of three. I still recall the confusion I felt over being amidst many crying children in the basement of the former palace of the Maharaja of Kutch. The next ten years of my life were spent in this rather remarkable edifice as I slowly ascended upwards through the hierarchy of classrooms towards the senior schools which was just four classrooms forming the corners of the large terrace of the palace. My memories are primarily located in the many terraces of the building, where playtime happened. Of light and sunshine and lock and key and shared break boxes. The luxurious architecture of the home of a maharaja was conducive to growing up even if the institutional intentions were more conventional.

walsingham house school

I was moved to BIS in the 9th grade for a better education. To a small residential building with no terraces, humble balconies for corridors, and little space to play. But what the school lacked in amenities, it made up for in spirit. We used the city as our playground; Wilson College for basketball, the Chowpatty Gymkhana for football and those balcony corridors for much chatter and fun. Years later, when I was a parent in the same school in charge of school building architecture matters, I asked two successive principal about their dream for the physical infrastructure of the building. I recall their answers vividly – “a space for children to dance” said one, and the other said – “breakout spaces for kids to just be themselves; retreat, or engage between classes”. Progressive visionary principals!

building with a balcony

I have just received a brief for a large 2000 student school building in Hyderabad. While it speaks of playgrounds and dance and music, it will be airconditioned and it does not speak of the space between activities. It does not recognize that memories friendships and dreams happen in the interstitial spaces, outside of the rigid frameworks of classrooms and curriculums. In a world where home schooling and No schooling are trends that have large followers, how will India build educational architecture that will create dreamers and visionaries? As parents recognize the folly of putting their children into boxes, literally and figuratively, will institutions risk the experimentation needed? As schooling becomes a lucrative business, will we build innovative buildings that will allow free thinking or will we create mass produced match boxes? Will we allow school buildings to bring the sun and the wind into their terraces and corridors; will we prove that natural sustainable environments nurture similar learning in children?

When we were approached in 2002 to design a residential school in Warangal, it was a dream opportunity. The pressure on the land was low, our client, Madhukar Reddy was willing to dream and the Bengali principal Mr Tagore (no relation to, but a believer in “where the mind is without fear”) was well synergized to the idea of a school where shaded streets allow classrooms and non-formal learning to be the backbone of the environment.

map of school

The ground plus one storey buildings were aligned so that all classrooms faced north, verandahs south, and movement between them all through 20-foot wide streets, scaled so that they remained shaded for most of the day.

The children painted the walls, the bouldered landscape of Warangal intermingled with the school and its activities, though it took many long years to build at shoestring budgets.

The school exists – is much loved by its students and teachers, but here’s the rub: Mr Reddy, the promoter of the school, feels the school would have been a runaway success in Hyderabad – but in Warangal, where the “IIT Coaching Class mindset” prevails – parents are more wary of the free flowing atmosphere of this school. And in the larger cities, where more open mindsets towards education exist, land prices and priorities for land usage make it difficult to build educational architecture rooted in nature, sunshine and curiosity.

Ivan Illich wrote “Deschooling Society” in 1971, describing in detail “Why we Must Disestablish School” and how the “institutionalization of values leads inevitably to pollution, social polarization, and psychological impotence: three dimensions in a process of global degradation and modernized misery”. This process, 50 years later, has only worsened. Schooling is not even an institution in most countries, its an industry. And in India, with a young and growing population where the need for schools is urgent, the solution has been to grow the ‘low cost private school” industry. These are schools that meet the minimum requirements of classrooms and common facilities and roll out an education that is standardized, generally based on rote learning and often demoralizing for kids who can’t crack the system – in short, it can be highly polarizing. Kids with alternate abilities, which is often more than half the classroom, grow up believing they “can’t”. And kids who crack the system often submerge their other abilities in the race for success in the classroom.

So as architects, when we are called upon to build “institutions of progress” - large schools with standardized curriculums and testing that doesn’t account for individual and diverse abilities, do we participate, deviate, or transform? What is our role in building the educational capital of the country? As with all other institutions and policies, I see our role as three-fold – as ADVOCATES, PARTICIPANTS and DESIGNERS.

As ADVOCATES for neighbourhood schools that children can walk to; smaller schools with larger land parcels that allow for playgrounds and sports facilities which can become common to the community after school hours; music rooms and theatre halls that work similarly. Effectively schools can be community centres, and land allocation for this in city master plans and smart city programmes is critical.

As PARTICIPANTS, our role can be to participate in community and city activities that promote the creation of better school building architecture. Our office renovated 10 BMC schools through a long and rigorous process that battled mindsets and mundane processes. Much as we abhor the idea of grills on windows and verandahs, we realized that headmasters were loathe to lose them. We designed grills with butterflies and flowers, opened up play spaces out of defunct storage rooms, and played with colour and texture wherever we could. Small gestures – but some relief in an otherwise rigid system. There is a group of designers that paint foot rules into the floor, scaled solar systems mobiles into the ceiling and design sun dials into existing schools. Gestures to loosen up the idea of how learning happens.

As DESIGNERS and education architects, maybe we can gently bring happiness and harmony into the school environment. Finland looks at education as an instrument to balance out social inequality and a space for individualized guidance – all of which they profess can only happen in happy environments. The current New Delhi government schools have had much success with the Happiness curriculum. I recall the Hindi film “Mohabbatein” from 2000 about a school called “Gurukul” run by an almost fascist headmaster who was intolerant of love and joy. The school was set in a 16th century Elizabethan building called Longleat House. The dark, gloomy British setting aptly describes the atmosphere created by the disciplinary headmaster, played by Amitabh Bachchan. And in contrast, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, the 1998 runaway hit film by Karan Johar, set a new level of style by validating love and happiness on the sets of a college campus.

Indian schooling is at a point of inflection. Many more schools will be built than ever before, and the era of government and missionary schools is over. Private education is here to stay and architects will be called upon to build the schools of tomorrow. The new trend of IB education portends the advent of more open research-based pedagogies, which will allow for better briefs. Will we build the glass and Alucobond schools with pastiches of colour that are testimonies to the ego of the promoters or will we build sensitive, personalized environments that allow children to tune into their own souls? For learning, as the best educators say, is a natural process, inhibited by what we often call education.


This article first appeared in Unbuilt 2.0 published by ArchitectureLive


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