What if a school could physically walk us back to the 8th century?
That is when our Bengal region boasted Buddhist monuments like Paharpur, Mainamati or Mahastangar. These terracotta-sculptured archaeological sites were built, among other things, with red bricks, which happen to be a classic aspect of architecture in this part of Bengal.
The Aga Khan Academy, which is still underway, bears all the aforementioned marks of that architectural heritage. The buildings of the institution are connected with nature. They are designed to breathe through another definitive feature of Bengal architecture: 'Jali' screens and windows. This lets fresh air in, but still shelters residents from natural elements, as opposed to many contemporary schools, which are enclosed and often lack any open spaces. The classrooms with glass louvre windows, however, are still air-conditioned.
Remember a time when you hastily took notes before the teacher dusted it off the board? In this academy, teachers will write on an electronic board, which automatically transfers the notes to electronic tabs provided to the students. Students are also allowed to take the tabs home with them.
With seamless architectural blending of historical facades and interior modernity, the school is a perfect edifice constructed for the pursuit of not only academica, but also empirical and intuitive knowledge.
Assigned in 2010, the project is a joint effort of Professor Rafiq Azam of SHATOTTO Architecture for Green Living and Peter Clegg of Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios. It will be completed sometime in 2025, with many years of planning, designing and construction. Both firms are award winning architectural design firms.
We asked Azam how the work was divided up between the two parties.
"We did the whole project together, dividing the work between ourselves internally. Even though Peter is less familiar with Bangladeshi perspectives, he has a vast knowledge on educational institutions, and he is meticulous and detail-oriented. So the project was made possible by SHATOTTO's deep knowledge of Bangladesh combined with Peter's vast knowledge."
Throughout their discussions, Peter once asked Professor Azam what type of schools we have here historically.
"If the British can take pride in their heritage and education through institutions like Cambridge, we can too", Professor Azam said. "It was probably the 11th century when Cambridge was established. But in Bengal, we have had such universities since as early as 300 BC, possibly earlier. Thirty of these universities are mentioned in the writings of the Chinese pilgrim Hiuen-Tsang."
One could say these were schools for Buddhists only.
"Paharpur, Mahastanghar, Shalban Bihar, these were basically Buddhist schools. But the same can be said about Cambridge; it was for priests wearing cassocks and birettas. So in the same vein, these edifices of enlightenment date far back into the past and are inextricably linked to the thousand-year archeological landscape history of ours."
The brick patterning and artistry around the perimeter bordering the 300 feet road, just outside of Bashundhara Residential Area in Dhaka, pays homage to locally manufactured brickwork and traditional skills.
As you enter the premises, you will find 'Palash' trees all around it.
"Originally these trees used to be called 'Dhaak' trees. When the Mughals came to this region, they were amused to see so many of these and the name 'Dhaka' actually originates from here," says Professor Azam.
The brick walls will welcome you with a language you and any other Bangalee has known for thousands of years. The four-storied senior school building has a courtyard adjacent to it. There is another courtyard in-between the two buildings of the junior schools.
The courtyards are decorated with a symmetric layout of plants, brick seats and wooden tables. The students can even do homework sitting there; there are plug-in options in each seat. In the courtyards, there is a central space with pebbles and a drainage system which will harvest water in the rainy season and use it in the future for different purposes.
The buildings are designed in a way that when the sun sets, light enters the premises in a playful manner. The whole point of jali walls was that - to create a series of thresholds between air-conditioned classrooms and the sweltering summer sun.
"With these jali walls we have been able to regulate the sunlight inside the buildings. And
so, the children are not directly exposed to the sun when they come out of the class, rather they can pass through a threshold to open air," he continued.
In the academic buildings, there are physics and chemistry labs with vibrant decoration and all safety measures. All rooms have cross ventilation, as the whole architecture facilitates air movement. In between the classrooms, you will find a corridor. Just beside the corridor there are a few stairs which will be used for seminars, or any kind of announcements or assignments involving the students.
To foster a sense of harmony between academic and non-academic pursuits, the architects wanted to create an educational environment that successfully balances academics with sporting activities, cultural events, and community life. There is an amphitheatre between the two junior school buildings, which will work as a gallery-like space for students to spend time in the open air.
As you move up the school buildings, you will find a garden-like rooftop designed to be used
by students for doing assignments sitting there, as the open sky could potentially enhance students' intuitive knowledge.
You will find the logo of Aga Khan Academy on top of the building placed beautifully on the roof. In the Commons building, there is space for a cafeteria, indoor sports, nursing section and auditorium.
Like any other school, there is a huge field for the kids to play in, which they have named 'Maidan'. Separate courts for basketball, tennis and football sit adjacent to the Maidan, which is in the centre of all the academic buildings and residences.
To the west of the Maidan, there are residential facilities for students and teachers. As the academy is going to arrange teachers' development programs for government and non-government schools, there is an accommodation facility for teachers as well.
Two of the residences are already under construction and they are planning to build
three more. To develop leadership qualities, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) are planning to provide scholarships to many students who come far from the city.
The Aga Khan Development Network is a group of development organisations with mandates regarding the environment, health, education, architecture, culture, etc, inscribed in their guidelines.
Being involved in education and development around the world for over a century, the academy is one of their crucial projects to build new leaders.
The foundation is aiming to establish 18 academies all over the world. So far, they have already established four in countries like Mozambique, Kenya, India and now in Dhaka. These schools and academies are part of the Aga Khan Education Service.
Although the construction is expected to be finished in 2025, the project has already won the World Architecture Festival Award 2017 in the Future Projects (Education) category.