School had just broken up. The 'chutir ghonta' went off as the gatekeeper struck a copper plate with a wooden mallet. The loud noise echoed through the halls of Nooruddin Complex as children rushed out of their classrooms.
From outside, the Nooruddin Complex in Nabiganj, Narayanganj feels like a deluxe villa. But inside, it is actually a school cum medical camp cum office.
It was a passion project of the owners of Epyllion Group, who grew up playing in this very place when it was no more than just a patch of empty space. This is their idea of serving their community.
What makes it so special is not the elegant and austere architecture that went into making it, but the thought that gave it birth.
What price would we not pay to relive a single day of our childhood all over again? Even if that is impossible, one can at least try to help children live their younger days to the fullest, so that one day when they grow up, they have good memories to recount.
The complex was designed by Mahmudul Anwar Riyaad, the principal architect for DWm4 Intrends Ltd and an associate professor of Architecture at Buet.
It reflects Riyaad's sincerity, something that I have experienced beforehand when he talked me through how he designed Noor Residence, a residential building of the patrons of Nooruddin Complex.
"The owners of this land asked me if we could design a school in this area," said Riyaad. "I agreed and got to work."
Patterned bricks cover all the facades of this edifice, sparsely broken up by concrete stairwell and railings. Simple wooden shutter-texture embossed on bare concrete gives the only exposed sections not only a serious yet elegant look, but also a persona of its own. These stairwells are the centre-piece of the entire structure, as confirmed by its architect.
"The stairs are complex. You can keep going up in the usual way, spinning around every floor, or climb up the adjacent flight of stairs to enter the opposite building. Those half stairs are hidden out of sight. It feels like a maze at first," he said.
The opposite building is annexed seamlessly with the main structure using complex three-point stairwells, leaving space between to channel air and light.
This design element allowed for a tiny playground to be built in the centre. The view of the complex from the playground allows you to appreciate the architect's ingenuity.
During the day, sunlight creates clear straight lines of shadow – light and shade visibly divided on the brick walls look remarkable on the brick-red backdrop. It is like the light and shadow was divided up with a ruler.
This is in big part thanks to the extremely symmetric design of the whole structure, that would probably make Euclid proud. At night, warm-tone soft-light on all corners greatly accentuates the brick-red backdrop.
Narrow grooves run parallel along ceiling edges that channel rainwater out safely; many walls inside the complex are plastered flush with supporting beams; extensive use of tall louvres (recesses) that run along two or three floors give the complex an illusion of height, also hiding away from sight the unappealing aluminum window panels in those recesses.
Even the doors are taller than the usual height, with latitudinal grooves running along them. No effort was spared to make each little detail stand out.
"Every floor, everything in this complex serves a purpose. People can lounge on the staircases that double as seats in the areas designed like amphitheatres. And in a complex as huge as this one, artificial cooling is often used, but most of the spaces here are naturally lit and aerated," Riyaad added.
From the beginning, the complex was supposed to be a full fledged school, with a medical camp where tests can be carried out. However, the licence to open a school to teach till higher secondary education could not be attained in a small window of time.
So, different floors of the complex were compartmentalised into a medical camp, office space for a foundation under Epyllion Group, a coaching centre, as well as a small-scale gymnasium – which was later dropped.
In less than a minute, nearly 150 students of the Reaz High School, named after Reazuddin Al Mamoon, the chair of Epyllion Group, swamped the premises with childish playfulness.
Some began playing tag and others engaged in lively chats with their friends. For now, the school is being operated at the primary level.
"The parents are not just happy but also proud about their children studying here. No one can guess from the outside how small a fee the school charges. It's actually a very good school for primary level education," Riyaad said.
The second, third and fourth floor host the school from 8:30am to 1:30pm. After school it becomes a coaching centre. In the medical camp called 'E Sheba' on the first and second floor, a gynaecologist and a doctor of medicine provide free check ups three days a week. Sampling and test labs are underway.
"A primary school, I think, requires more space and accessibility for the students. We give out free books and uniforms but most importantly, we try to ensure a diverse education here. I encourage them to speak in proper Bangla. I read fairy tales to them along with history lessons on other countries. Although the school has not been around for long, positive changes are coming. We are gradually aiming to add a higher grade every year. Grade six will be offered shortly," reassured A K M Shameem Akhter, the school's principal. The school boasts a computer lab that also doubles as a neat little library.
Moreover, the complex is open to community services, i.e. members of the Nooruddin family or their neighbours can host events in a separate hall room on the first floor with its own small private cooking area.
The Nooruddin Complex houses three terraces on the third and fourth floor that look over the river running along the Nabiganj area. Children are often taught out in the open, under the sky and they really enjoy those sessions.