The Sonadia School in Moheshkhali is an unbuilt project, but the idea and the dialogue it wants to create with the land and the people is exemplary.
Architect Ador Yousuf says architecture is not about beautiful buildings or structures only; it is about the relationship between the land and the people living on it.
Ador was born and brought up in Chattogram. He is an alum of Chattogram Collegiate School and graduated from the University of Asia Pacific. His notable works include the mausoleum of Shah Abdul Karim, Cumilla Rup Sagar Dighi, Houseboat katpai, and Hatkhola.
The Sonadia School project was more of a journey for him. So, where did this journey start from?
In 2010, he went to the Sonadia island on a tour. With an area of about nine square kilometres, it is a small island off the Cox's Bazar coast in Chattogram.
It is divided into two parts. The community living in the western part severely lacked basic civic facilities. There was no proper healthcare or education system there. Children walked eight kilometres to go to a school in the eastern side of the island. So, the number of dropouts was huge.
Ador realised he did not want to confine the tour to just travelling purposes. Rather, he wanted to do something for the community.
"I could see that the children there would eventually turn into fishermen. They would go to the sea. But we wanted to teach them about the world. So, we decided to establish a school there," said Ador.
At first, Ador and his team started a school in two small rooms of an abandoned house. But later they decided it could be turned into a community development hub. In 2011, they started the initial design.
An organisation named Youth for Change intended to start a schooling system for the community. The primary target was to educate children as well as their parents by offering night classes, vocational training, etc. The training was aimed at helping the community earn a better livelihood by manufacturing and selling products in tourist markets.
Keeping in mind their health, a weekly medical camp was also set up in the school. So, it was functioning as more than a school. It was developing a community.
"Instead of building a structure that will serve only education purposes, we thought we could build a community hub that could serve the total community as a whole."
Design of the school
The design incorporates a circular structure with a round courtyard in the middle. On an elevated platform, the circular structure stands. It is made of bamboo frames, a straw-thatched roof, wood and mud. The classrooms are separated by bamboo partitions.
It was built using ropes and strings rather than nails and clamps. The roof is made of local thatch deployed over the bamboo structure, which is resistant to heavy rainfall and reduces high wind force.
The primary objective for developing the building in a rural area is low cost of labour and availability of local resources, such as earth and bamboo.
In the exterior wall, windows were designed from floor to the beam with a one-foot sill level. So, light and ventilation are abundant.
The day school can function fully without any extra artificial energy because of the light pouring into the shaded void entrance to the open courtyard. For the night school, solar panels have been used as the source of electricity.
The idea was to create a social upbringing through this school which will aid the life of the local community. Education, climate, shelter, health and community were the prime concern for the design," said Ador.
Low cost and sustainability
All these features allow the structure to be a low-cost maintenance one.
"We have used locally sourced components like bamboo, straw, mud and wood. The structure was kept simple so that local artisans can work on maintenance. We had to make a real-life model to show to artisans before they built it. They are not that educated, but they have the skills to work with bamboo and straw."
"If you can season bamboo, it will last with its shine for more than 20 years. Straw on the roof will have to be changed every five years, but that would not cost a high amount."
But why a circular structure was preferred? It could have been a solid square one, just like those we see around. But Ador emphasises the relationship between a landscape with its people and nature.
He explained, "Being a coastal area, this is a very windy land. If we build a flat surface, it would face more wind pressure on every square feet. But as it is rounded, there is no sharp edge, and the wind bounces in an angular way. It makes the structure more stable."
In his design, Ador followed that of the traditional homes in our villages or elevated structures of homes in hill tracts. According to him, in our traditional villages, everything is connected with an invisible string.
The home has a relation with the trees around it, and the garden or the vineyard raising to the corrugated roof – everything develops a dialogue within itself.
"We have a courtyard in the middle and the homes surround it. It allows residents to have a common ground for everyone."
He continued, "It is an understanding, a commitment among houses and the people residing in them. That is why we wanted to build a structure that would convey this value of sharing, of having a relationship with the place."
Then in dry season, the stairs could be used as gallery seats. After school, when the elders would join vocational classes, they would be able to sit there.
The school has an open entrance without any obstacle of gates. The entrance goes through the courtyard. It is situated right in the direction of tidal wave, which allows boats to reach the school platform so that students can directly step on it.
Ador says, "We also wanted to give the message that it is open for all. We wanted to have an open space for children and women so that they do not feel restrained to enter the space."
For this particular project, Ador and his team took reference from tribal homes in the hill tracts. These homes are built on an elevated platform so that the portion below can be used for domestic animals. The arrangement also saves them from wild animals and floods.
Ador says, "This is a very simple design but highly functional and sustainable. So, we gave our structure an elevated platform because boat is the only transport to reach Sonadia and you can go there twice a day. This is because during tide, boats can run on water but at other times, it is a mud-like situation that interrupts communication for the rest of the day. During monsoon flood, it can be used as a boat ghat."
But there is another fascinating reason for using elevated platform.
Ador explained, "Sonadia remains inundated for almost four months every year. We could have built a dam that would resist water flow. But we wanted to preserve the natural course and did not want to bend nature for us. It is not ideal. We have to go with nature. This elevated structure allows water to maintain its current while allowing us to continue our school operations."
Sonadia School was Ador's dream project. But due to the lack of encouragement from locals and disbandment of Youth for Change group, he had to abandon the project. This was disappointing and depressing for him.
But he believes it is not always the end result that inspires a change. Sometimes, the journey can do that too. He believes the IAA award has given this project another chance.
It could be an example for present-day architectural trend in Bangladesh, conveying the message that architecture is not only about beautiful buildings. It is a language, a dialogue between the land and the people.