In our campuses, little attention goes to the creation of an environment
WHeN I was asked some years ago by the then Director of the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research at Chandigarh, Dr B. K. Sharma, to suggest the name of some artist, who could be commissioned to fashion a large sculpture for the PGI campus, I was most agreeably surprised.
No one had thought of this before. The theme he had in mind was mother-and-child, and the intent was to install the work — entirely appropriately — just in front of the newly built Department of Paediatrics. We did locate a talented sculptor from Orissa, Adwaita Gadnayak, who came down with a small group of assistants, and the team carved, virtually on the site, a splendid work in stone — a mother standing holding a small child in her arms and gazing intently, Yashoda-like, into his eyes — which stands today at the very spot for which it was intended. Whenever I happen to pass in front of that building, I see some people — children, parents, visitors — looking up with interest, even affection, at that larger-than-life work of art.
Whatever thoughts the viewing may bring to them, the sight delights me. For, the work does more than beautify its surroundings: it has the power of reaching out and affecting minds.
Speaking of this, why is it, I sometimes wonder — as I walk sadly through one bare, even barren, campus after another — that so little attention goes to this aspect of designing in our land: the creation of an environment that fuels and encourages thought or underscores feelings? True, that one occasionally sees places where ‘beautiful’ objects of art are gathered or scattered as after-thoughts — some public park, some sprawling campus — for want, generally of a place where they could be stored, or ‘modern-looking’ buildings designed to serve a specific, limited purpose in mind.
Ordinarily, however, on campuses that should be devoted not only to gathering and disbursing knowledge, but to generating it, to stimulating thought, one walks from one soul-less building to the next along one soul-less path or the other. It is as if physical environment bears no relationship to the manner in which creative minds work.
While questions such as these keep reverberating in my head, I landed, purely by chance the other day, upon a publication that addresses itself — cogently and insistently — to these very issues. Its focus is the campus that houses the headquarters in Basel of Novartis, that giant Swiss pharma concern, which came into being through the merger of two famous earlier companies — Ciba and Sandoz — not more than 15 years ago. It is an unusual volume.
There is nothing in it that deals with the drugs that the company makes or the research that distinguished scientists do for it; there is none of the usual public relations pitch; one cannot even find in it anything of the structure of the company or the names of its burgeoning staff. It deals exclusively with the chain of ideas that led to the campus being conceived in 2001 as a ‘Campus of Knowledge", an attempt to "create a location tailored to human beings" in recognition of the fact that "physical environment has a very substantial significance" for creative people. What they need is ‘interaction’ and ‘openness of communication’.
As, in his introduction to the volume, the CEO of the company says: the Campus "places human beings and their well-being at the centre", it also "signals expectations of creativity, diligence, and flawlessness in the work of all concerned" — whether scientists, architects, designers or artists — for each one makes the workplace what it is. Here, therefore, there is constant talk about ‘work-life balance’, and the conclusion that the two cannot really be separated.
Once the planners — visionaries one might call them — had their concepts worked out, it is with admirable clarity that the company set about the task of realising the ideal. Famous urban designer, Vittorio Lampugnani, was given the overall charge of planning the campus and it was he, who began engaging different architects, the list reads like a ‘Who’s Who’: Peter Markli, Kazluo Sejima and Ryue Nishizawa, Frank Gehry, Alvaro Siza, Renzo Piano — and assigning them different projects. To them was thrown, as it were, the challenge of creating an environment for creativity, even the celebrated Frank Gehry terming it as "the rarest of opportunities".
From buildings to benches, from walkways to parks, everything had to be thought out. An ‘Art Programme’ was launched under the highly respected Harald Szeemann, who saw art on the campus "not merely a superficial addition, but rather a component of the spatial concept as a whole", for its task was "to offer perceptual aids".
Szeemann knew exactly what he wanted on the campus and where. Here, in his mind, should the famous sculptor, Richard Serra, be asked to raise a monumental piece, for example. And Serra did: constructing Dirk’s Pod, 10 torus-shaped elements made of weatherproof steel, each 5 metres high and 13.2 metres long, with a weight of approximately 29 tons each. There they stand on the campus now, raising their heads skywards, lifting the spirit of anyone who sees them. Jenny Holzer created a piece called 1000 Sayings, consisting of an LED scroll, 3 metres in height, which flashes sayings and aphorisms from around the world on glass walls, some wise, some challenging, others witty or simply riddle-like. Eva Schlegel constructed a 48-metre-long Walkway leading from one section of the campus to another: light and transparent, filled with ‘a lively rhythm created by the irregular intervals of the glass panels on the sides’, featuring pages of texts blurred to the point of illegibility. And so on.
This is the way it goes on in the entire campus: surprises round every corner, something to absorb and internalise at every place. Scattered all over at the same time are culturally different restaurants and cafes where colleagues meet in ease and comfort, bouncing ideas off or finding analogies in the art that surrounds them.
An eminent scientist working on the campus is reported to have said, "Long-term research flourishes most often when it is scribbled on napkins in cafeterias, rather than when it is set down in position papers in conference rooms."
True that nothing can be
replicated and there are significant differences in the resources that
‘we’ and ‘they’ can command. But how many people even think
like this in our own land, I wonder? How many campuses are planned and
built with at least the beginnings of visions such as this?