Bengaluru-based firm M9 Design Studio led by Nischal Abhaykumar and Jesal Pathak, explored the concepts of modularity, temporality and versatility of steel in the Admin and Academic block of the renowned CMR University’s new campus. Adapting to the challenges of time, efficiency and extensibility, M9 outline a possible precedent for the future blocks in the campus with a comprehensive design approach.
Nischal Abhaykumar discusses the processes, interests and ethos of the practice. The conversation dwells on the design and making of the project – CMR University Admin & Academic Block.
Within the hilly context of peri-urban Bengaluru, is located CMR University‘s newly developed 60-acre campus. In 2015, M9 Design Studio was approached to design the first building, initially to be purposed as an administration and academic block. The proposed block was programmed to be an ever-evolving space, and to be completed within a short timeline without compromising the quality of construction. This challenge prompted the architects to employ a design partly focusing on efficiency and flexibility to delineate the various learning spaces. A modular system derived from prefabricated steel emerged which follows a grid to achieve an idea of dismantling or expansion and speed of construction that was essential.
Designed in a greenfield setting, the design takes advantage of the ample open space in the site to take in the entirety of the building which has a long rectangular plan oriented north-south. It is planned to be surrounded by the parking, a basketball court, tennis court and badminton court. The architect mentions that the hilly terrain of the context is reflected in the long façade of perforated metal sheets forming a pattern. In the centre of the undulating elevation, a welcoming double heighted entrance is carved out which captures a vista of the sculptural presence of a staircase within. The north façade faces the courts while the south faces the landscape.
The whole construct is led visually and structurally by a basic grid that is repeated throughout the spaces in the effort to make the building modular. After experimenting with various proportions and scales that would serve the programmes, the architects arrived at a grid of 10m by 7m. The module eventually regroups as compositions to form the spaces – in some instances, one module shapes one room, or in others two or three modules form a larger room like in the library or the audio visual room. Having this flexibility was important for the architects to make the spaces adaptable to various methods of learning and different sizes of gatherings in an institution like CMRU.
Within the rectilinear layout, the circulation is divided along four main blocks. The north-south blocks contain the required spaces like the library, the audio visual room and the seminar rooms while the east-west blocks contain the ancillary spaces like restrooms. The decision to keep the blocks mostly disjointed from one another, Nischal emphasises is a strategy to allow for them to become a part of future expansions.
Spread over three storeys, the interior opens out to an uninhibited space on the ground floor – a core for gatherings and activities, and the succeeding two floors in the building are designed to cater to specific programmes. The movement designed inside is simple and lucid. While the grid may be very evident in the plan of the building experientially, it fades away within the lightness of the atrium. This triple-heighted space is enveloped by the four blocks and is covered by toughened glass supported on steel members. In the ground floor, entry to the atrium is enabled via the slits in the east-west facades or via the double heighted spaces in the middle of the north-south façade. The central space is broken into two by a staircase that is supported by a column.
From the outside, the staircase is visible, yet the courts are obscured. This way, the activities in the courts form an intimate and private realm, away from the public eye but the spaces themselves are not inaccessible. The courts are defined by a step further below; one of them acting as a formal assembly area while the other is an informal extension of the library and audio-visual room.
A structural column branches out in the centre of the plan in the form of a ‘Knowledge Tree’, embodying an almost sculptural presence at the core of the building. It lends support to the central stairway, the access bridges that cut across the main hallway and the atrium roof.
The architects envisaged the ‘Knowledge Tree’ as a necessary component to break the monotonous clean grid of the module and to connect back to the idea of learning in a Gurukul with students gathered around a tree. The roof of the atrium gently rests on the branches of the column which are higher than the roofs of the blocks. Louvres run along the offseted perimeter of the glass roof but they are not apparent from the ground floor which accentuates the idea of a floating roof.
Closed to the atrium, the classrooms open out with ribbon windows along the elevation giving an uninterrupted view of the landscape. The slab is projected out beyond the ribbon windows forming a service corridor that is wrapped by the second façade of perforated metal sheets. Thus, the grid seemingly disappears from the façade allowing the elevations to have a character of their own. As a speculative idea, Nischal presents an imagination that the green in the site may take over this double skin and the building may disappear completely.
The perimeter of the building is wrapped by the double skin sheltering it from the windy rains during monsoon and the glaring sunlight during peak summer. There are thin slits provided in the east-west blocks and double height spaces in the north-south blocks that funnel the wind into the inner court while the louvered panels near the atrium terrace filter out the hot air.
A strong attempt is made to keep all materials honest and bare. This required a strategy incorporating the services as part of the overall assembly of what is essentially a kit-of-parts as far as the on-site process of construction is concerned. “All the service elements had to be in alignment with the structural components with perfect 90-degree bends in pipes and precise calibration of slopes for plumbing pipes,” says Nischal. The idea of a grid is executed neatly with steel members as the skeleton of the building with non-loadbearing walls forming the skin surrounding the rooms. Lintels are avoided completely in the building. In the classrooms where the blockwork meets the steel beams they have inserted the ribbon windows in order to avoid two materials meeting.
The details of the building had to be designed in a way that they could build at the desired speed without compromising on the quality of spaces. To construct a building which may not have a definite future plan, they designed a nut-and-bolt-system with optimal welding so that members could be disassembled and reused elsewhere. In the atrium, the roof consists of toughened glass panels supported by steel members which slope slightly to meet a steel gutter. All the railings in the building have thin MS flat members except for the central staircase which has an opaque handrail. This adds to the sculptural heaviness of the staircase. Every junction anticipated in the overall structural design of the admin and academic block was detailed out ‘to a T’ to enable a quick assembly on-site.
The use of materiality not only completes the vision for a lighter construction but also enforces the notion of a building as a skeletal foundation for the programme to take over. In this foresight, the Block becomes a canvas, foregrounding the casual interactions of the students, the blur between inside-outside, and the glass-framed sky.
This block was initially built to serve the campus for only three years – the first year it was an admin block, in the second it served as a hostel and in the third, it was transformed into an MBA school. After five years, it is continues to thrive under the changing frameworks and is going to be added to the upcoming extensions in the CMR Campus.
Built in a site with nothing to dictate its architecture, the Admin and Academic Block belongs to a belief that the design intensity of newer learning spaces must be able to evolve by benefitting from newer techniques. While the overall design is largely conceptualised with a singular material highlighting clean geometries and grids, it is in the articulation of its ambient details that a certain language of architecture finds a commonplace at the interface of engineering and design.♦
Project: CMRU Admin and Academic Block
Site Area: 60000 sqft
Location: Bengaluru, India
Architectural Firm: M9 Design Studio
Design Team: Nischal Abhaykumar, Jesal Pathak, Rohan Panji, Pavan MG
Structural Engineers: Integrated Structural Associates
MEP: Electomac Consultants
Contractor: Cicon Engineers Pvt Ltd
Client: CMR Group of Institutions
About M9 Design Studio:
M9 Design Studio is an architectural practice established in 2016 by Nischal Abhaykumar and Jesal Pathak. Based in Bengaluru, it strives to impact people through spaces. No matter what project they are designing, the aim is to make a difference in the city’s landscape. They envision spaces that will inspire people, help them connect with one another, and enrich the human experience. They do this by embracing the life, love, and diversity of the city. Recognising that every great design is the result of a combination of ideas, they are inspired by the dynamism of urban life.