The Northstar School in Gujarat designed by Shanmugam Associates breaks the stereotype with its thoughtful design

NOV 27, 2020 | By Aneesha Bhadri
The Northstar School in Rajkot, Gujarat, by Shanmugam Associates; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
View of the facade from the playground; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
Another view of the cantilevered module; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
Seen here is the juxtaposition of the Bella stone on the ground floor with the green creepers on the first floor; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
The cantilevered, first floor classrooms create a shaded play area for the floor below; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
A virtual class session in progress in this courtyard; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
The main courtyard is used for circulation, as a gathering space and green relief; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
Treated water from the STP is used as nourishment to the green landscape, as seen here by the lush climbers that have taken over the corridor areas; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
Private gardens are provided for all spaces as seen here in the library area; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
Classrooms have their own garden pockets that are used also for learning; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala
Basic shapes and forms are introduced as a part of the architecture; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala

‘School is an enjoyable and enriching part of life where students can safely explore their True North,’ reads the vision statement of The Northstar School in Rajkot, Gujarat. Spread over 33,000 sq ft, the progressive institution has been designed by Chennai based Shanmugam Associates.

To create a learning experience that’s shaped by architecture, the firm endeavoured to design an environment where learning is fun and occurs through interactions with the surroundings.

Space is an essential factor for a playful and productive setting. The Northstar School sits on the southeastern corner of a barren, 17.8-acre site on the Rajkot-Bhavnagar highway. “The semi-arid climate and other local considerations were influential contextual pointers,” says Santhosh Shanmugam, partner at Shanmugam Associates.

The first-floor classrooms have a natural screen of creepers that filters harsh sunlight; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala

The spacious entry plaza ensures a dramatic first impression for visitors. It is from this point that the entire campus is pedestrianised with big natural canopies creating shaded paths. “The walkways have been carefully planned, taking into account tropical climatic conditions and the possibility of future expansion,” explains Raja Krishnan, another partner at Shanmugam Associates.

Detail of the facade, which includes vegetation in its design; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala

“My favourite is the entry courtyard, which we call the Harbinger of Hope. It is inside the school but also makes you feel as if you’re outside the buildings. It is shaded by a large tree and highly favoured by learners and educators alike. It accommodates 15-20 and exudes a cosy vibe. I have had many memorable discussions in this courtyard,” smiles Mohit Patel, the founder of the school.

The terracotta hued Bella, a natural hard lime stone, has been used to blend with the surroundings; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala

Drawing inspiration from the stepped wells of Gujarat, a central courtyard ties all the spaces within each module. This central stepped and green courtyard performs the function of a multipurpose space for larger gatherings as well as circulation. Integrated within the courtyard (amid the green pockets, creepers and vines) is a stage that is used by children or staff to perform dramatic arts.

Surrounded by creepers and vines in the courtyard is a performance stage for the staff and children to use; Photographs by Ishita Sitwala

“The primary intent of the architecture of the building was to find ways to encourage learning with nature. Since the fundamental unit of schools is the classroom, the design process started in programming a single module with cross ventilation, its own private garden and an alfresco latticed courtyard,” says Shanmugam. This module is iterated so that two classrooms flank a larger garden that is easily monitored, has a designated space for activities, along with provisions for conducting classes.

“The earthy material palette is thanks to the use of indigenous materials. The terracotta hued Bella, a natural hard lime stone, has been used to blend the structure with the surroundings,” says Krishnan. Natural colours and textures augment and merge with the landscaped surroundings. “The ground level uses Bella, the first has a neutral palette of white with green creepers and the second has a brown textured finish on the exterior,” he explains.

“The design foundations at Northstar lie on the ideologies of exploring contemporary design with local material, using regional references to define built form and finding simplistic solutions for complex design problems,” adds Shanmugam.

The architecture of the school and landscaping has created a thriving natural environment that breathes life into the space, creating an atmosphere that promotes learning and growth. For instance, an Indian owl resides in an unused truncated duct, the gulmohar trees cover the main pedestrian entryway with a brilliant red carpet and Northstar’s horticulture programme engages the learners, inculcating a reverence of flora and fauna.