The AJALA Project
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The AJALA Project

…the school with the red stairs

How an Hyderabad-based design practice turned a decrepit school made out of a makeshift shed into an award-winning center and a community space.

Bright Horizon Academy, also Hilltop School. (Supplied photo: DesignAware)

The Hilltop school officially called the Bright Horizon Academy, is located on a hill top in an unplanned settlement within the walls of the majestic Golconda Fort, in the city of Hyderabad, India. It started when a charity school which had been functioning out of a large makeshift shed for years, finally managed to raise enough funds for a properly built school. This project was weighed by multiple challenges: a tight budget (as it is run by a non-profit educational trust), a highly contoured rocky site (a topographic trait of the Deccan Plateau), dense urban context and heritage zone regulations.

Addressing the difficult and peculiar site topography and its surroundings posed a major challenge, due to its proximity to the heritage structures and a dense urban context, most of it being residential in nature. However, the 250 million-year-old natural rock heritage and over 800-year-old built heritage of the fort added to the beauty of this project. The site itself was sectioned into two parts by a sheet rock wall, with one part located 20 feet above the other.

Contrary to a conventional school building, the existing school was just a large hall with partitions for classrooms, making for a dark, cramped and uninspiring space. Unfortunately, this is how most charity schools are. Despite the challenges, Takbir and her team of architects from DesignAware saw this as an opportunity to design an inspiring space that would encourage learning. They decided to preserve the openness of the existing playground (rocky hilltop), which is a rare green lung space in the heart of a low-rise, high-density, unplanned neighbourhood; by not building over it. The entire school project was conceived, designed and constructed over a period of three years.

Panoramic view of Golconda Fort Area (Supplied photo: DesignAware)

The school is situated in a way that engulfs the rocks within it. These rocks are incorporated into the building by forming walls of some classrooms and creating level differences. Stepped seating on the floor of the library forms informal space for sharing and learning. A bright red staircase all the way from ground to the top floor, forms the building’s central spine. This staircase connects the existing playground to the roofs, which form play courts.

The surrounding context of the school could be seen as kitschy and over colorful, with walls of bright blue, pink and yellow. To balance out the use of color on neighbouring houses, the school building is left unfinished with exposed concrete walls. Nevertheless, the color palette of the surroundings is reflected and applied on the windows, doors and grilles of the school building. To make the space vibrant, accents of red, blue, yellow and green have been added along with the grey of the concrete.

While the building stands out from its surroundings by virtue of the colors used, it adapts to the scale of adjoining courtyard houses through a small entrance into the kindergarten, suitable for the younger students. Shared walls of surrounding courtyard houses were seen as an opportunity for creating ventilation in the form of light wells, which run through the height of the structure, as an homage to the courtyard concept. Two skylights and voids expand the space vertically by bringing in natural light and air. A series of bridges lead from the wider section of the school to the narrow far end overlooking the road, where staff rooms and labs are located.

The surrounding views from the school remind us about the rich heritage of the city, but the school needs support from each and every one of us in any way possible to continue developing sustainably. The question arises, how are we going to help the community we are a part of with the resources we have? Are we going to take a step forward and lead by example or lay back and be mere observers?

The choice is ours if we want to walk the path less travelled and bring about a positive change in the society by doing exemplary work like Fatima has done. DesignAware was established with a vision and mission to raise awareness through liveable, accessible and responsible design. It is an experimental architecture and interdisciplinary design studio.

Architects have an integral role to play in the upliftment of society, by producing better living conditions through well-designed spaces, which are accessible to different sections of the society. Takbir Fatima and her team strongly believe in the saying that, “together everyone achieves more”. Let us all believe in the same by encouraging Fatima and her team to do more of such ground breaking work that could be an inspiration to many others.

Written by Fredrick Xavier. Edited by Ankita Garg.

More media features about the school:

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