When the Druk Trust approached Arup Associates in London in 1992, they came with an ambitious plan: to build a school in Shrey, situated in Ladakh at 3,700 m above sea level. Most importantly, this was going to be a school that embodies sustainability by giving due respect to the harsh mountain desert conditions and a steady commitment to preserving that way of life, with a focus on the future. In other words, this was a school that was going to fuse traditional Buddhist and cultural systems of knowledge and identity into a technologically forward-looking perspective.
After an initial survey that impressed upon the architects the scale and sincerity of the project, Arup Associates began designing in 1994, a process that, along with construction, would stretch upto 6 years, till 2000. Architect Jonathan Rose stepped in as the principal architect.
As a high altitude desert in a remote stretch of the Himalayas and surrounded on every side by mountains that can go over 7000m above sea level, Ladakh presents very specific, harsh challenges not only in terms of climatic conditions, but also in terms of access, water availability and so on. On harsh landscapes like this, it is practical to opt for constructions that fit into the landscape easily, rather than resisting it.
One way of doing this, of course, is to make optimum use of local techniques of building and construction that have evolved over hundreds of years, and have adapted efficiently to the landscape. This was reinforced with the help of cutting edge technology that optimized a passive structure that is able to use solar power and ice melt efficiently. Moreover, Arup undertook the development of software to help prepare for common natural disasters, since this whole belt is susceptible to frequent earthquakes and floods from the Indus river that flows nearby. Another significant aspect of the construction that was woven into the brief was the emphasis on use of local project teams and the optimum use of local resources.
The main guide, however, was the ethos of the school itself, which was to preserve and fuse local, traditional values and learning, and the practical needs of this developing community with an academic rigor that matches global standards. The end result of the process was a construction that is highly significant in the global effort for environment friendly development.
It is not surprising that the final plan that was arrived at lays the complex out in the orientation of a mandala- a commonly used geometric pattern in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions, the mandala is claimed to be representative of the geometry of the cosmos, charting it through energy flows, which also include the four elements (think of the mandala, not as a physical shape, but a geometric representation of rituals and the metaphysical ideas underlying them). This layout has been studied to reveal several parallels in architectural configurations endorsed in many places in the world, revealing its universality.
For Druk, this pattern becomes relevant in another way since the earthquake prone area of Ladakh does not allow any tall buildings. The Druk White Lotus School, thus, is a horizontally extended, flat layout that very few buildings that have a second story. Most classrooms extend out into the exterior to allow for balanced learning. The solar powered dry latrines are perhaps the most visually features with their slanted energy boards.
Flat, single-storey buildings are arranged like a small village or monastery. The plan includes two main sections- the daytime teaching area laid out in a nine-square grid, and the residential spine, which culminates in a temple. Notably, this was an addition that was not part of the Druk brief to Arup.
The school comprises of the Nursery and Infant School, the Junior school, and the administration section, each of which has a central courtyard that the classes open into. School courtyards are peppered with low walls to create spaces for play.
A solar pump irrigates the self-sustaining complex’s vegetable gardens, which form part of the green cover that has been introduced. The school can accommodate upto 750 students.
Energy efficiency was incorporated through designs that take full advantage of the enormous solar energy potential at this altitude. The buildings in the daytime teaching area are turned 30° from the south towards the morning sun in the east. The rest of the buildings, including the residential complexes, face South and heat the complex for evening and nighttime living. These are further reinforced with Trombe lining, for which the glass was exported from Kashmir.
Water use is optimised through solar powered pumps that collect and transport ice melt into different reservoirs. The toilets follows the local dry-latrine design, with circulation vents contributing to natural ventilation. The waste-water is recycled and stored to water the vegetation that breaks the bleak, barren landscape. The domestic waste is used to make fertilizer and humus to feed the vegetation. The landscape also includes a traditional Dragon Garden (the Druk in the name translates to Dragon).
Considering its location in a volatile ecological environment, the school has been optimised to persist in the long term on low maintenance. The idea was to harness both the cultural and ecological strengths of the region. Accordingly, the traditional riparian rights that decided how much water was allocated to members of the community served as a model for planning the practical distribution in the school’s topography. This spontaneous fusion of knowledge systems is seen as an effective instrument in landscapes like this, where there is much pressure on change.
Even the classrooms were built to be conducive to flexible, high-standard learning spaces, with minimal furniture, and blank white walls. Each classroom also includes a corner with a stove. Even the minimalist furnishings in the residential dorms not only manifest the external aesthetic distinctive in this complex, but also reflect traditional zen principles.
The project, notably, won much international acclaim, winning awards like the British Council for School Environment Award for “The most inspiring building globally” in 2009.