The New York based architect Diana Kellogg builds a school in the mystic deserts of Jaisalmer. A spectacular stone ellipse, destined to empower women and girls from local communities
Blending into the sand dunes of the Thar Desert in north India is a fort-like structure, oval in shape and handcrafted from local sandstone. Its function? A school, the Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School to be exact. Designed pro bono by Diana Kellogg Architects, and built throughout the pandemic, to begin educating over 400 girls ages 5-16 from July 2021.
The architectural marvel is set to improve on the 36% female literacy amongst women living below the poverty line in the region. Diana Kellogg explains that she envisioned “a building about light and community – a structure that resonates with the soul of its people”. Continuing that “since the building was built for a non-profit to support girls’ education, every effort was made toward economic design. It was imperative that we incorporated authentic cultural elements, so the Center was a true representation of the region and its members.”
Kellogg told Dezeen “As a female architect designing for women, I looked at feminine symbols across cultures and specifically symbols of strength,” explaining that the school inherited its form as a representation of femininity and that it resonated with her “as the formulation of infinity”
The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School
The 836sqm structure comprises 3 circular elements; An oval-shaped courtyard at the heart of the building, an interior wall that is perforated to cool the central courtyard and create shade from the sun, and a large exterior wall that wraps around the perimeter of the school, containing 10 classrooms.
Each classroom is connected by a series of winding corridors and accessible from the courtyard through the wooden doors. The classrooms are illuminated by delicately dappled light that flows through the clerestory openings, which also provide ventilation throughout the day. The classrooms are represented by diyas – small stone flower medallions – that embellish the walls by a sweeping staircase at the entrance, leading you up to the roof terrace.
The terrace above each of the classrooms is an ovular walkway that follows the shape of the building. Finished with classic woven charpai seating, made with local rosewood, and connecting the courtyard via a sloping walkway and shaded corridor. The floor is paved in energetic blue mosaic tiles, a cool contrast against the warm yellow stone, and the perforated parapet that surrounds the walkway tapers in height. A reinterpreted design of latticed Jallis screens – traditionally used by women to provide privacy.
The building is oriented to maximise the breeze from the wind, allowing it to passively cool the elliptical form through every perforation when temperatures rise to up to 49 degrees Celsius (120 degrees Fahrenheit) and keep as much sunlight out as possible. There are also water harvesting systems to collect rainwater, using local ancient water harvesting techniques, and solar panels to supply energy for lighting, computers, and fans. The steel structure of the solar panels’ doubles as a shaded canopy area and jungle gym for the girls. Kellogg told Architectural Digest India “We installed them like a canopy on the roof, the metal armature works as kind of an old fashion jungle gym with seesaws, swings, monkey bars,”
Diana, having spent the previous 25 years working on many luxury projects, states “The school came at a time in my life when I was looking for it the most. I wanted my work to affect a larger audience, to have a sense of nurturing, comfort and healing.” After meeting with Michael Daube, founder and executive director of CITTA she was “impressed by his approach of knowing a community and not just superimposing a one-size-fits-all Western idea of positive change. He, in turn, responded to my non-formulaic, non-ego driven design sensibility”
Their shared values are reflected throughout this project, with Kellogg recalling a phrase she read whilst in India – ‘Educate a boy and you educate an individual. Educate a girl and you educate a community.’ Michael Daube sharing her values “To make a true impact for our students will mean changing attitudes of what girls and women are capable of. This is our first step in that effort.”
The school was built as part of a larger project by CITTA, a non-profit organisation that aims to support some of the most economically challenged, remote and marginalised communities in the world. Diana Kellogg has plans to build an additional two buildings next to the school for use as a library, museum, performance and exhibition space known as The Medha, and The Women’s Cooperative that teaches embroidering and weaving techniques. Collectively the three buildings will be known as The GYAAN Center. A healing and nurturing space for women through every stage of their lives. Built to empower women and girls in India, helping them to establish economic independence.
Photography by Vinay Panjwani