The Northstar School by Shanmugam Associates amalgamates the ideologies of exploring contemporary design with local materials, using regional references to define built form, and finding simplistic solutions for complex design problems to shape children’s education through a definitively contextual spatial experience. The architecture at The Northstar School has been planned such that as the building ages, the landscape enlivens the space, therefore taking ownership. Presently, an Indian owl resides in an unused truncated duct, the Gulmohar trees lay a red carpet for the main pedestrian entry, and Northstar’s horticulture programme engages learners with courses on the importance of flora and fauna.
“School is an enjoyable and enriching part of life where students can safely explore their true north,” reads the vision of The Northstar School, a progressive institution established to transform the educational ecosystem. The initial brief from the client was that a very important part of every child’s experience at Northstar would be shaped by the architecture. The project sits on the southeast corner of a 17.8-acre barren site located adjacent to the RK University campus on the Rajkot-Bhavnagar highway. The semi-arid climate of northwest India, dusty yet windy site conditions, 20–30 days of monsoons in Rajkot, and the supply of STP water from RK University were influential contextual pointers. Overall master planning was conceived, integrating three phases of development, of which only Phase 1 is built. Open-ended corridors, building orientation, and future development were factored into the overall planning. Key functions are accommodated on the ground and first floors to keep the built space child-friendly.
The primary intent was to find ways to learn from nature. The fundamental units of schools are classrooms. So, the design process started with programming a single classroom module with cross ventilation, its private garden, and an open-to-sky courtyard enclosed by jaali. This module was iterated to arrive from a part to a whole. Between two classrooms is a large garden that is easily monitored, has a performance space, and provisions for conducting classes. Drawing inspiration from the stepped wells of Gujarat, a central courtyard ties all the spaces within each module and is replicated in all phases. This centrally-stepped, vegetated courtyard serves larger gatherings as a multi-purpose space for circulation. Integrated within the courtyard amidst the green pockets, creepers, and vines is a stage, used by children or staff to perform.
With due credit to the structural engineer, the massing on the second floor sits lightly on the floor below and houses a 250-person capacity multipurpose hall. The structure visually creates a presence as one walks along the heavily canopied main entry walkway. A secondary skin—jaali on the ground floor and an ambitious creeper screen on the first floor—has been planned on all floors to allow natural light, shield dust, and provide security. When exploring the material for the façade, the criteria were for it to be locally available, have an earthy tone, reflect an institutional character, and be economical. Bella, a natural hard limestone in terracotta colour was used to blend the built form with the existing surroundings.