Tuesday, April 26, 2016

An Eye-Catching Design

The American architectural firm, CetraRuddy, led by co-founder John Cetra, wins the Architizer Awards for the Choice School at Tiruvalla, Kerala

By Shevlin Sebastian

As 7 p.m. approached, on April 12, Elsa Jose, a trustee of the Choice Foundation, at Kochi, could feel her heartbeat speed up. The results of the Architizer Awards, which celebrates the year’s best architecture globally, was about to be announced in New York.

The design of the new Choice School, at Tiruvalla [88 kms from Kochi], by the American architectural firm Cetra Ruddy, led by co-founder John Cetra, 62, was in the Global Top 5 in the ‘Unbuilt Institutions’ Category.

Around 350 judges had selected the five finalists in each of the 115 categories. Thereafter, they would select a jury winner in each category. Meanwhile, the names of the finalists had been released to the public so that they can vote online. And it was in this public-voting category that Elsa hoped there would be good news.

So, she logged on, but the site had crashed due to too many visitors. A few minutes later, Elsa managed to break through. “I kept scrolling down and suddenly I saw that the Choice School, Tiruvalla, had been declared the winner,” says Elsa. “I yelled and jumped with joy and immediately called up my dad [Jose Thomas, President, Choice Foundation, who was in America], and informed my family and colleagues.” The school had defeated competitors from the USA, Russia, and Tanzania.

Says an elated Jose: “To me this is not just our achievement, but a major success for our country. All Indians should be proud.”

It is, is, indeed, something to be proud of. The school, which has an area of 2 lakh sq. ft., has five interconnecting blocks: a hostel, a performing arts centre, a primary, middle and high school. “The design resembles '5 fingers', which crisscross and reach out in different directions,” says John, who took a year to come up with the design, following multiple visits.

One major change is that in the junior classes, the familiar hall-type classrooms, with benches, one behind the other, has been changed. Instead, in each class, there will be eight to ten tables and chairs, where students will sit together. “I feel that students need to interact with each other in a more direct way,” says John. “Thus, they will be able to learn social skills, share ideas, and learn from each other, apart from the teacher’s contribution.”
One important attribute is the way the school has been protected from the relentless monsoon rain. “We have provided a covered area outside the building, where the children can play or do other activities,” says John. “Thus, the environment becomes, not only one of interior classroom space but also an outdoor space and there is a connection between the two.”
Another aspect which John has tackled is the harsh summer sunlight. So, he came up with the idea of creating a trellis-like woodwork outside the building which would help reduce the glare. “It becomes a great decorative element in the design of the building,” says John. “We have large windows in the classrooms, but these are protected on the outside by the decorative screenings. It will reduce the direct sun coming into the building.” The other materials he has used include reinforced concrete and perforated aluminium cladding.

In his research, John discovered that fans in classrooms in India made a lot of noise. He wondered how the children could hear the teacher. In some schools, the fans were installed under the light fixtures. This created a strobe-like effect. “To counter that, I have got rid of the fans and provided air conditioning,” says John. “So, it will be a pleasant experience for the children.”

And many people are happy, including superstar Mohanlal. “As a lover of art and design, the style closely reflects what Kerala truly is, while integrating modern amenities and using sustainable resources,” says Mohanlal. Incidentally, the first phase, from Classes 1-5, of the Rs 80 crore day-cum-boarding school, will be inaugurated in June.

Meanwhile, when asked how he selected CetraRuddy, which was recently inducted into the architectural Hall of Fame, Jose says, “Normally it would not have happened because their standard fees would not have made it viable for a school project in India [John was paid $500,000]. However, because of my close friendship with John, I told him that he should do something to radically alter the face of education in India.” 

And this is what John has done. 

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