Wednesday23 August 2017

Cottrell & Vermeulen’s Krishna-Avanti School in Harrow

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The brief for Britain’s first state-funded Hindu school combined adhering to the traditional Vastu Shastra science of construction while creating an essentially modern building

It is midday and the deities are enjoying a brief respite from the world’s attentions. Krishna and his brother, Lord Balarama — as embodied in two spectacularly costumed statues — are concealed by a curtain which has been pulled across the entrance to the altar that represents their earthly home. In order that they might extend it their blessing, they have been left with a vessel containing a sample of today’s organic vegetarian lunch. After 20 minutes, a stocking-footed chef returns the deities to public view and shuffles off to the nearby kitchen to reintegrate the now sanctified sample with the main body of the meal that he is preparing.

This ritual is played out — as it is every day — within the setting of a diminutive Hindu temple, a white marble-faced structure built by a team of Rajasthanian craftsmen. Sitting on the floor of the darshan, the worshippers’ area in front of the altar, we can cast our eyes over scenes drawn from the Bhagavad Gita, carved all around us in high relief.

And what of the world beyond these walls? Well, the fact that we are not in India but in the London suburb of Harrow is perhaps not so very extraordinary. The 40,000 Hindus who live in the area — the highest concentration to be found anywhere in the UK — have lent their support to the construction of a number of local temples including one at Neasden that ranks as the largest outside India. Ours is a good deal smaller, and yet for Britain’s Hindus it has a significance out of all proportion to its size. This is because of the institution of which it forms the central part — Krishna-Avanti, a newly opened primary school that adopts a pedagogy based on the teachings of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (Iskcon), also known as the Hare Krishna movement. In a country that already provides state funding for Christian, Muslim, Jewish and Sikh faith schools, Krishna-Avanti is the first Hindu example of the type.

The demands that Iskcon — a minority strand within Hinduism — makes on its followers have informed the school’s admissions policy. All pupils follow a strict vegetarian diet while their parents are required to abstain from alcohol. Hindu teaching also provided a strong guiding hand in the development of the school’s design. That is not to say that the whole complex follows the language of the temple. As can be gathered from the names shortlisted for the commission — Marks Barfield, Walters & Cohen and the eventual competition winner Cottrell & Vermeulen — Krishna-Avanti’s governors always envisaged that the school would present an essentially contemporary and western expression, an outcome that the reliance on DCSF funding might, in any case, guarantee. However, they also wanted the design to communicate the school’s very particular educational philosophy and indeed to follow the principles of the Vastu Shastra, the traditional Hindu “science of construction”. Reconciling these ambitions has not always proved easy, but in Cottrell & Vermeulen, Krishna-Avanti fortunately found an architect fleet-footed enough to conjure something of real conviction from its competing demands.

The nursery playground features fruit trees and scented herbs.
Credit: Anthony Coleman
The nursery playground features fruit trees and scented herbs.

The school is accessed off a wide avenue by way of a gap in the parade of pre-war semis that line its southern side. Prior to Krishna-Avanti’s construction this route led to an extremely large field laid out as multiple football pitches. The school now occupies about half of this ground while the pitches that remain to the rear are reached by a road that cuts down the side of the school’s territory. On the street, we are therefore presented with two gates, the one to the school being a filigree affair in laser-cut plate steel, its pattern drawn from a traditional Mehndi design.

The school has been set down in the middle of its site but rather eccentrically so. This is because Cottrell & Vermeulen has honoured the Vastu stipulation that buildings should follow a strict north-south grid, with the consequence that it is twisted through near 45 degrees in relation to the geometry of its rectangular plot. Vastu also states that one should build on flat ground, something that this site was certainly not prior to the school’s construction — it really is hard to imagine how football was ever played here. There is no real practical reason why a scheme might not have been adopted that adjusted itself to the slope without recourse to major groundworks. However, given that the Vastu view found support in the planners’ desire to minimise the school’s impact on the surrounding houses, it was decided to establish a large level platform, framed by an embankment that rises to 3.5m at the back of the site. The obvious irony in all this is that while the Vastu principles — much like those of feng shui — are intended to direct works of architecture towards a harmonious relationship with the landscape of which they form a part, in this instance, they have conspired to generate a sense of maximum disjunction. The effect is not unhappy but there is a strong sense that the site constitutes a world of a fundamentally different order from the one that surrounds it. Indeed, as we are buzzed through the security gate and approach the main facade by way of a path lined with scented herbs, it is not hard to guess the tensions that must be faced by the children that have to negotiate that conflict every day.

Although this is essentially a low-lying, single-storey structure, the principal elevation has been lent greater presence by the trick of siting both the gymnasium and a suite of first floor staff rooms at this end of the building. However, the facade remains a determinedly horizontal composition: its lower storey faced in Eternit, screenprinted with another pattern drawn from a Mehndi design, while its upper storey is in larch. This top floor is also distinguished from the base by being set back a few metres. While, disappointingly, the roof terrace that the gesture makes possible has yet to be implemented, the implication at least is that the building and its surroundings communicate with one another easily.

The glass doors that occupy the centre of the facade serve as the visitor entrance. On reaching them we can see across a richly layered sequence of interior and exterior spaces, culminating in the large courtyard that occupies the centre of the plan. In the foyer — as in all the circulation spaces — we find mellow chanting being broadcast and also a locker where we are invited to deposit our shoes. The sense of arrival will soon be supported by the installation of a statue of blue-skinned Krishna, sitting on a mountaintop, in the little atrium that lies ahead of us.

The children are meanwhile siphoned off to a gate at one end of the principal elevation from where they enter the building by way of their individual classrooms. These are ranged around two sides of the courtyard, configured in sequence from nursery to year six. Ultimately, the school will accommodate 210 children of primary age and a further 24 at nursery level but has decided to restrict its intake of new pupils to nursery and first year with the effect that it will take six years for it to reach its full capacity. This decision was prompted partly by the local authority’s concerns about the effect that Krishna-Avanti’s opening will have on other schools in the area — it will soon be five times oversubscribed — but also by the school’s sense that it will be harder to establish the desired educational culture if some of its students have come from more multi-cultural environments.

The dining hall is overseen by the altar.
Credit: Anthony Coleman
The dining hall is overseen by the altar.

Although masked from the main approach, the temple has been sited so as to ensure its visibility from every public space within the school. Viewed against the building that encompasses it, its highly ornamented architecture makes for an undeniably surreal discovery but Cottrell & Vermeulen has mitigated the contrast by ornamenting the colonnade — or circumambulation to use the school’s preferred terminology — that forms the courtyard’s edge condition. To its soffit it has applied another Mehndi-inspired screen-print while it has CNC cut the skirt-like timber fascia that hangs all the way along its length with a repeated lotus flower motif.

The two spaces with which the temple enjoys the most direct relationship are the dining hall and the gymnasium that lies beyond it, rooms that are configured on axis and which are linked by retractable glass doors. I had assumed that the point of the arrangement is to allow the children to be able to see the altar at all times, only to discover that I was subtly but quite fundamentally wrong. The real concern is that all activities undertaken here — meals, yoga, drama, music, dance and religious festivals — should occur within the deities’ line of vision.

While requirements such as this may seem mysterious to non-Hindus, the pursuit of the Vastu principles has led to other outcomes of a more quantifiable nature, not least the highest Breeam rating of any primary school in Britain. Ground source bore holes provide 70% of the heating while the architect was asked to avoid the use of ferrous metals, steel included, which are considered particularly detrimental to meditation.

If all this seems lavish in comparison with the standards of other state schools, the fact that Krishna-Avanti’s £11.1 million of public funding was augmented by £2.4 million of community support goes some way to explaining why. Nonetheless, the contribution that Cottrell & Vermeulen has made to the building’s success can’t be over-estimated. This is an institution quite without precedent but the school’s design embodies its nascent sense of identity with remarkable clarity. Indeed, it is far from unimaginable that Krishna-Avanti will serve as a model for other British Hindu schools. Already, the I-Foundation, the charity behind its development, is investigating the possibility of building a secondary school either in Leicester or London. With luck the children who are now in their first year at Krishna-Avanti may, in six years time, be able to choose to continue their studies in a comparable environment.

Original print headline - Good karma


Readers' comments (1)

  • Of particular note is the reference to ferous metal, on the human system which only has a chance to come into its own full functioning when comfortably relaxed with mental alertness. In other words when put into a constant time frame situation. I believe the frequencies of vibration involving larger metal pieces are literally unerving to the human system.

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