Dear Rahul and Bimal,
I have just finished looking at the presentation for the Library. Thank you for recording this and sharing it with others who could not attend. I also assume that the purpose of holding the presentation at this juncture of the design process is to invite comments that may further and enrich the design. While we must accept Rahul’s authorship for this design, I also feel twin responsibilities; as an architect and also as a CEPT alumnus (as a teacher for 40 years, if not as a student) I feel I have something to contribute which Rahul may accept, reject, modify, incorporate in any way he feels appropriate. This is meant to open up possibilities which may have been missed in the exigencies of the moment. Or to push the designer for deeper explorations.
The initial presentation / display, which I saw several months ago, created some apprehensions and concerns. Many of these are now addressed as the design has developed: bringing the skin to the edge has improved the building in a significant way. But with the enlargement of the brief to include plaza, new and related issues have cropped up. Following is my critique, more as observation / reflection than as criticism.
Of differences and similarities.
Your sensitivity toward the historic context is well placed but I believe you are not going far enough. In a fast moving time we live in, six decades indeed is a historic gap and the new addition may not follow the same corporeal language and I know that you want to be different without being violently different and be similar without being imitative. The identity of the campus is derived not only from its corporeal aspects of materials (brick and concrete) and the rigorous language of parallel planes, both brick walls and concrete fins, pivoted doors and skylights but also its qualitative aspects of interpenetrating spatiality: inside and outside are indistinguishable. You enter the building, or many of the inner spaces, before realising that you have entered. Though floors are clearly articulated, one is never conscious of horizontal layering. While your brick base is a gesture of similarity, in the corporeal way, it is in the qualitative aspects that you may have to do more. I shall limit myself to the enclosure only for two reasons; 1) a library demands to be more closed and secured and penetration of the outside has to be controlled, and 2) I do not have the detailed drawings of the library itself to comment intelligently.
Classical form gives you gravitas and the required dignified presence, but it also tends to be static; it does not want to go anywhere. And that is jarring in this location besides the building remains unanchored within the site. That and the uncompromising horizontality of the base, with hole-in-the-wall openings, the continuous catwalk over it and the virtual floor line in the “skin” above reinforces the horizontal layering. This may benefit from a critical reappraisal.
The axial alignment of the entrance on the plaza side with the iconic twin stairs of the old buildings, offers a possible resolution of the above concerns. Your presentation is rather casual about this alignment but I think you may have hit upon something profound. Look at this entrance differently. Not all four entrances have to be similar. I question the desirability of “Neutral orientation” in this context. To think about the library as a formal “temple” (an Institution with a capital “I”) makes it “untouchable” and that is fatal in this campus. You need that just the right amount of informality so that the building is not immediately typecast as “oh, that’s classical” and taken for granted. That precludes any further engagement. It’s conversation with the twin stairs must be hinted at with a better design gesture.
Think about this bridge not only as a link between the plaza and the inner volume but also as a place: a place of arrival and pause, wider at the outer edge and narrowing down inside (may be asymmetrically). It will have the necessary area but the volume requires careful design attention: its ceiling may be higher (continuity of the catwalk is a problem but it can be resolved). I will refrain from suggesting any design solutions; you must retain your sense of authorship and I am sure you and your team are perfectly capable to attend to the concerns I have raised. The point is the two buildings facing each other must engage in a architectural dialogue that may raise questions in the minds of the scholars there about the similarities and differences at a much deeper level. Both old and the new must act as a foil against which the other can be critically evaluated. Such intellectual engagement with architecture is inescapable and must be attempted (where else if not in this campus?). Use of brick to hint at similarity smacks of lip service and is not enough. Learning should be through critical awakening and not just by demonstration of brick bonds.
I consider this campus as a microcosm of the City. One of the interesting things about urban design is that an insertion in an extent situation may sometime, by establishing a relationship with an existing element of the city, reveals values in that element so far unknown and thereby adding meaning to the city. The alignment of your entrance with the twin stairs has this potentiality. Not exploring this will be a missed opportunity. It offers a possibility of a street connecting the two buildings at least as wide as the stepped street connecting the north entrance of the campus with the office porch. The north entrance of the library should be generous enough architecturally and large enough in scale to receive it.
Workshop and nostalgia.
The structure you refer to as workshop also houses the students’ council (at least as I remember). While the centrality of the later is important, it does not have to be at this particular location and may be shifted near the new canteen. As for the workshop, nostalgia is connected with the activity and not the building, which has no significant qualities. But nostalgia should not be the sole reason for preserving something; it must embody lasting values. And this place does. To the best of my knowledge, this school of architecture was the first in the country to have such a dedicated full-fledged workshop freely available to students. And it has had a huge impact on its pedagogy, the significance of which is not often appreciated. It brought in three dimensional thinking and an attitude to craft. In other words, “making” became integral to the training of architects. Students from CEPT have always taken this facility for granted and therefore do not think of it beyond nostalgia. But even today, most schools do not have it and the result is apparent in the work they produce. It is with such perspective that you realize what a pioneering innovation this was. This is a value which deserves memorializing.
Vintage of the machines is the original of 1960s and they are now shifted to the new workshop near SID. It is time Bimal might think about replacing them with much better and safer equipments available now. The building itself is of no great value except one; this is one of the only two buildings (canteen is another) whose walls were available to students to express themselves once a year. And if the photographic record of the “painted walls” is made available, it will show the changing culture in the campus, e.g. in the politically charged 70s, one found Che Guevara adorning these walls. May be the blank wall of the new canteen facing the plaza continue this tradition. In that case, the present workshop building should be removed except its footprint on the ground. But retaining just the footprint is not enough to evoke the memories of it use. In its place a stainless steel tubular edge frame hinting at the profile of the building should be erected, as a virtual workshop. The old machines, instead of being discarded, should be permanently kept in their original location, painted metallic gold, and preserved as repository of the memories of an important activity. It will remain there as a ghost structure without much presence; only its thin stainless steel outline as a gentle hint of what it once was. Let the students built it as part of their structure and construction exercise. It will add a lighter element in a campus already beginning to be too serious.
Plaza and Bodhi Tree.
But you seem to have missed another, more important repository of memories, which will become important when you take the design of the plaza forward. I refer to the Neem tree by the canteen. More things have happened under this tree. The tree (actually there are two trees) has been a witness to countless encounters of intellectual, social and romantic (I should know about that) kind. Arguably, more creative ideas have been born here than in any classroom or studio. Many students have reported (at least to me) insightful revelations (enlightenment???) while sitting here with a cup of tea. I consider this tree as the Bodhi tree of the campus and believe this and the ground under and around should be preserved, maintain and celebrated. Elements like this speak about an institutional imagination. And yet, I am disappointed to see that you have completely ignored this important heritage and do not even show it in your “Proposed Site Plan”.
Even though this may not be part of your brief for the plaza, the proposed “Shrenikbhai Plaza” should be conceived of as a part of a larger network of public places in the campus. Your site plan looks at the campus from the air and sees the “fragments” of buildings and open spaces. What you do not see are the basements and porches that also form public places. If you see the campus walking on two feet with eyes attached to your face (not hovering in the sky) and draw a Noli like plan of the campus with all such public places demarcated by levels, it might reveal a different structure.
A possible structure might be as follows; as you enter the campus from the north and pause at the bottom the stepped “street” facing the office porch, you know that this is a public place by the virtue of its architecture. In good weather it is used for exhibition and other displays. It connects, on the right, with the Sagra basement and, at a slightly higher level, with the terrace in front of the twin stairs. I visualise another stepped “street” connecting this terrace with the library entrance (the long steps proposed in front of the library may be moved by the new canteen blank wall). Also from this terrace one finds a way westward to the new canteen, the Bodhi tree area and the north lawn.
Notwithstanding the legal status of the amphitheatre by the VAC, I sense that you, and possibly the building committee, are inclined to remove it if it can be. That will be a mistake. Apart from the fact that it provides necessary seating for activities on the plaza, it is also an invaluable counterpoint to the otherwise rigorously geometric architecture of the campus. It’s playfulness is it’s value. The importance of this point cannot be underestimated in a school of architecture. Yes, it does block the uninterrupted view of the library. But such temptation should be resisted. In fact, if you stretch your imagination a bit more and think about the amphitheatre as given, you might want to integrate the architecture of the north entrance of the library with the mouth of the passage that leads to the SID plaza, and the eastern corner of the amphitheatre. You may actually end up anchoring the library more to this location.
The “Shrenikbhai Plaza” then is defined by the new “street” on the east, the library on south, the canteen on the west and the terrace / path to the canteen on the north. At another level, the plaza is defined by a triangular space made by the “virtual workshop”, the existing amphitheatre and the Bodhi tree. All three embody the past. Reasons for retaining the past should not only be nostalgia. We are dead if we erase traces of the past while making something new. In order for the “Shrenikbhai Plaza” to become the heart of the campus, it will have to be a generous heart.
Rain water harvesting.
This should become part of the brief for both master plan as well as plaza design. This is a large campus with flat roofed buildings. A series of underground tanks, located at various places throughout the campus should be thought of. This would imply ground level channels connecting higher level paved areas, and also water collected from roofs, and these tanks. These channels demand a certain geometric discipline and may impact the design of the plaza. But this will be invaluable for providing water for utilities and for keeping the campus green during the hot summer months.
To conclude, I want to stress that whatever we do, we should be informed and guided by an institutional imagination: an imagination that helps us distinguish an institution from an organization, however efficiently put together and run. By and large, I am happy with what both of you have achieved in this project and offer my blessings and best wishes for its completion.