Hilltop School featured on Volume Zero magazine // October 2016


“How far that little candle throws his beams! So shines a good deed in a weary world.” -William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice

A mere glimpse of the present day scenario of the world portrays a picture which suggests a state of worry and sorrow, as negativity rises, wars are broached and hate is at large. Yet one other look depicts the good in the world. By no means does the bad overpower the good, but unlike negativity inducers, people doing good do not create chaos and cacophony, but quietly go about their work, driving away the dark with their light, and changing the world, little by little, with every endeavour they embark upon.

One such example is that of the charity based school, which functions due to a Zakah funded, non-profit educational trust. The school has been creating an impact for the last six years, and thereafter it was finally deemed that a new building was required for its functioning. The location of the site for the new school building is atop a hill, in an unplanned settlement which itself is confined within the stately walls of the majestic Golconda Fort, situated in the city of Hyderabad. Earlier, the school and its programmes were conducted within a large sized shed which consisted of partitions dividing the large space into classrooms. Ever since the conception of the project of building a new school, there were challenges along almost every step of the way. Firstly, the school depends solely on individual donations for its functioning, therefore making the budget constrained as compared to an ideal scenario. This insinuated that the choices that were made by the design team, such as choosing the material, would need to be as economic as possible, while not compromising on the durability of the material. It should be noted here, that the ensemble team that worked on this project has devoted its time predominantly on a pro bono, that is, a non-profit basis.

The site itself, being situated on top of a hill, has the topographic characteristic of being not only highly contoured, but also enshrouded by sheet rock and boulders, a fundamental feature of the Deccan Plateau. Adding to the intensity was the fact that a blanket of piled garbage had formulated over the decades that the site remained vacant. Articulation of a site as peculiar and difficult in terms of topography truly posed as a major challenge. Between the choices available, blasting the rock was a non option, seeing as the site itself in such a close proximity to not only a dense urban context, comprising of residential unites but also to invaluable heritage structures; and other methods stretched beyond the budget constraints. Conformed to being in the Heritage Zone, there is also a height restriction imposed. However, when thinking beyond the challenge it presents, the site itself is the most beautiful aspect of the project. The view apparent from the topmost point captures the entirety of the city, right from the regal Golconda, the serenity of the Qutb Shahi Tombs, the skyscrapers perched on the Lanco Hills, to the vibrance of the unchecked low-rise, high-density abodes beneath. The school itself is situated in a manner as if engulfing the rocks which lie within it. The topography of the site has been skilfully adopted into the very design essence of the school, where the rocks have been taken into the building and have been moulded to form the walls of some classrooms, as well as the undulating floor of the library, adding to the sense of quiet and mystique into the informal space.

The site surroundings include vernacular courtyard houses, and the design of the school has been formulated to share walls with these. Therefore, there arose a need to bring forth natural light into the premises through the top, which concluded with forming light wells, which run through the height of the structure and introduce opportunities for natural ventilation as well, which is an idyllic scenario in terms of environmental friendly design, sustainability and economy. It truly forms an appraise worthy scenario as a series of skylights and voids invite light and air and in turn enhance the space by depicting expanded verticality.

The context reflects vibrance, with a myriad of bright colours ranging from blue to pink to yellow. The adjoining courtyards play a pivotal role in the definition of the school form, as their scale has been taken into consideration and respected by creating a small scaled entrance which leads into the kindergarten, thereby resonating it with the scale of the younger students. The exterior of the building has been designed with exposed concrete, treating it as unfinished deliberately negating colour and opting for a neutral shade. This goes perfectly in accordance with the colour palette of the context being adopted to reflect in the elements of the buildings, such as windows, doors and grills. It is the brightness and striking effect of the reds, blues, yellows and greens which act as popping accents in stark contrast with the grey of the concrete. The colours have been adopted in relatively subtle pastels to complete the ideal in the classroom interiors.

A highlight of the project includes the considerate and ideal usage of the contoured topography by ensuring that each of the lowest as well as the highest levels of the school have abutting streets. Therefore, it is the varying levels that have allowed reduction in vertical circulation and there entrances into the ground and first floors, which can be accessed directly from the streets.

A large atrium has been designed to act like a courtyard, allowing the constant flow of air, and ensuring a suffused coolness through Stack Effect. There is a central staircase that winds its way around the atrium, which is painted in bright attention grabbing red, and it leads all the way, right from the ground floor to the topmost floor, where the roofs on the school are transformed into playgrounds. The top level has been designed to maximise the space and has not been cluttered with objects or elements. It is an open space, with its sole enclosure being permeable hollow block walls and a trussed roof made in glass. It is surrounded by a number of play areas. It has been so designed that older students approach inside directly from this level, therefore the access point has been deemed more spacious with regard to scale. The separation in the entrances for the students on the opposite end of the age spectrum has not only allowed for division of the traffic that enters the school but has also ensured a definite severance for students according to their ages. There is a series of bridges, designed to lead from the wider portion of the school to the relatively narrower far end, a shape whose geometrical evolution has been a direct resultant from the nature of the site and its context, which overlooks the approach road, and the staff rooms as well as the laboratories are located here.

The entire project has been conceived, designed and constructed over a span of about two years, as the school came alive this academic year, towards the end of July 2016. The building so designed, with clarity in thought, leaving no stone un-turned, opting for the most viable and ideal solutions in the face of the challenges thrown during the execution of the design, and in fact, moulding a design so apt that it is in complete harmony with the surroundings, is truly a testimonial stating that in the face of all the negativity that difficulties denote, true dedication allows one to face through the ordeals and achieve the ideal, which then casts a bright light, allowing hope, goodness and positivity to pervade.

DesignAware is a multi-disciplinary experimental design studio that was born of a desire to create awareness through livable, wearable, usable, accessible design.

In their own words, DesignAware is not a business, it’s a movement.

The firm remains young regarding the years of their practice, but their projects, including the school, reflect the principles that act as a guiding force in their practice. Not only do they firmly believe that the ideas of designing are not limited to houses, or spaces, but to every facet, including objects, clothes and accessories, which form a part of our lives. Their ideals are based in community enhancement, as they organise workshops in various realms, in order to ensure that design is not a learned skill, but forms a basis in the thought process of everyone, right from the school level. They opt to provide customized solutions, not motivated out of the idea of the end profit, but by the process, which in itself is a reward for true practitioners. The design of the school speaks of goodwill, evolving concepts from contexts, ensuring optimum gain from opted solutions which stem out of the ideals of sustainability, and achieving the vital result. It truly is an inspiring design team, with a special mention to the Director of the firm, Takbir Fatima, who hold conviction and integrity, as they accomplish.