In a Class(room) of His Own

An American architect wins a global design award for a futuristic Kerala school.

Published: 23rd April 2016 10:00 PM  |   Last Updated: 23rd April 2016 09:07 AM   |  A+A-

As 7 pm approached on April 12, Elsa Jose, a trustee of Kochi’s Choice Foundation, felt 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 foundation’s upcoming Choice School in Tiruvalla, 88 km from Kochi, was in the Global Top 5 in the ‘Unbuilt Institutions’ category. It was designed by American architectural firm CetraRuddy, led by co-founder John Cetra.

Around 350 judges had selected the five finalists in each of the 115 categories. Thereafter, they would select a jury winner in each category. The names of the finalists had been listed on the website for people to vote. It was in this voting category that Elsa hoped for good news.

When she visited the website, it had crashed due to a surge of visitors. A few minutes later, she got through. “I saw that the Choice School, Tiruvalla, had been declared the winner,” she says. “I jumped with joy and called my dad (Jose Thomas, president of Choice Foundation, who was in the US), and informed my family and colleagues.” The school had defeated competitors from the US, Russia and Tanzania. “To me this is not just our achievement, but a major success for our country,” says Jose. “All Indians should be proud.”

The design of the school is indeed something to be proud of. Spread over two lakh square feet, the school will have five interconnecting blocks—a hostel, a performing arts centre, a primary, middle and high school. “The design resembles five fingers, which crisscross and reach out in different directions,” says John, who took a year and multiple visits to Kochi and Tiruvalla to come up with the design.

In the junior section, the familiar table-chair seating will be replaced with eight to 10 larger tables with chairs to seat students in groups. “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.”

Another important attribute is the way the school will be protected from the relentless monsoon rain. “We have provided a covered area outside the building where children can play or do other activities,” says the 62-year-old architect who charged $500,000 to design the school. “This will make the environment an interior classroom space as well as an outdoor space.”

To shield students and staff from the harsh summer sun, a trellis-like woodwork outside will 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 sunlight into the building.” Other materials to be used include reinforced concrete and perforated aluminium cladding.

In his research, John discovered that fans in Indian classrooms create a lot of noise, making it difficult for teachers to be heard. In some schools, fans were installed under the light fixtures. This created a strobe-like effect. “To counter that, I got rid of the fans and provided air conditioning,” says John.

Malayalam actor and superstar Mohanlal says, “The style closely reflects what Kerala truly is, while integrating modern amenities and using sustainable resources.”

In the first phase of the Rs 80 crore day-cum-boarding school, Classes I to V will be inaugurated in June.

When asked how he selected CetraRuddy, which was recently inducted into the architectural Hall of Fame, Jose says, “Their standard fees would not have made it viable for a school project in India, but 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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