Architectural Digest India, a well-respected and popular magazine for architects brought out by the publishers of Vogue, GQ and Condenast Traveller, has featured a project done by architect Nishant Mehta – the reimagining of Sahyog, a building for Mamtamandir, the school for the differently-abled run by Vidyamandir Trust in Palanpur. Nishant is son of Falguni and Samir Shashikant Mehta.
Nishant’s great-grandfather, Thakorlal K Mehta, had made a generous donation to Vidyamandir to start school for the visually challenged in 1960s. Interestingly, the new building, though a state-of-the-art project in terms of its design sensibilities, as well as approach to incorporating technology and features keeping the needs of the differently-abled students in mind, is also a heritage building of sorts.
Many of the original elements as well as existing interesting landscapes have been retained and also modernised, while the structure draws on many of the classic features of traditional architecture followed in the city.
Nishant himself was deeply impacted by this process. He says, ““The process of designing this school impacted how we look at our other projects. It made us realise that how someone uses a space is more important than how it looks.”
We reproduce the article for the benefit of our readers.
This climate-responsive school in Palanpur is a masterclass in inclusive design
Crafted by Mumbai-based Studio NM, Sahyog is architect Nishant Mehta’s love letter to his ancestral town.
By Adarsh Soni
20 October 2023
They say places you knew as a child seem smaller when you see them again. The opposite is true for Nishant Mehta, founder and principal architect at Studio NM, who has always dreamed of big things for his hometown. A quaint little settlement in north Gujarat, Palanpur is best known as the birthplace of several prominent diamond merchants. Taking a breather from his design practice in South Mumbai, Mehta decided it was time to give back to his community—by reimagining a heritage building for the modern world.
“When it was first constructed in the 1950s, my great grandfather’s family had put in the initial donations to make this school what it is today,” says Nishant. Fast forward to the present day, the school in Palanpur now stands tall as a state-of-the-art facility for students with special needs. But it didn’t happen overnight—the architect and his team took three years of planning and construction to put the whole thing together. “We carefully took the building down and retained all the interesting landscapes,” Nishant adds. “We had to improvise a lot.”
Acting like a ‘living laboratory’, as Nishant puts it, the space is spread across a massive 35,000 square feet. The volume of the building is split between three levels with thin creeks between them. The ground floor houses workshop areas where students learn everyday skills, and the first two floors contain classrooms, and training centres for the teachers. Ceilings were modulated with double-height spaces and triple-height corridors, along with bridges, to achieve visual connectivity. This also helps control the echo, that benefits hearing-impaired students—one of the many thoughtful details one will find spread across the campus.
Crafting a learning space like this might seem like a quixotic undertaking for most developers but Sahyog blends into its surroundings almost seamlessly—camouflaging as a sand dune, while also acting like an oasis in the middle of the desert. Unbearable levels of heat were brought under control by building a long buffer space in the southern phase. Brick jalis were used extensively to allow hot air to pass from the central corridor, while letting cool air enter. “The Palanpur gymkhana and government municipality building with their jalis and jharokhas served as prime inspiration,” says Nishant. Skylights punctuate the entire space, allowing students with photosensitive skin to orient themselves in the school. Elsewhere, rough and polished kota stone floors have been used for a very practical reason. “This change of texture was picked up by visually-impaired students allowing them to differentiate spaces,” Nishant adds.
Located in the middle of a desert, the school’s colour palette is all earth tones, inside and out. Although hints of soft blue keep making occasional appearances. “This was done keeping in mind the needs of children with autism who get agitated with bright colours,” says Nishant. Climatically sensitive local plants sprout all throughout the campus, with highly fragrant flower beds signalling entrance areas—something that helps visually-impaired students navigate spaces with their heightened olfactory senses. Sign boards benefit from a Gujarati translation of braille—a feat achieved by no one else before. “They are mostly in English and Hindi,” Nishant adds.
If you had to pick one element to symbolise the beauty of this one-of-a-kind school in Palanpur, it would have to be the 150-year old banyan tree that the space was built around. It’s a testament to the fact that in nature, one must adapt to the environment, rather than forcing the environment to do otherwise. “The process of designing this school impacted how we look at our other projects,” says Nishant. “It made us realise that how someone uses a space is more important than how it looks.”
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