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The Campus at Bhat

In 1982, the Department of Science & Technology, realizing the importance of starting a research programme in Plasma Physics and Thermonuclear Fusion, established the Plasma Physics Programme in PRL under its scheme of “Intensification of Research in High Priority Areas”. PPP grew into the Institute for Plasma Research (IPR) in 1986. DST also provided funds for PPP to move into an independent campus outside PRL.

A specific requirement of the programme was the large quantum of electrical energy in repeated one second pulses , to be drawn from the Gujarat Electricity grid. This necessitated the campus to be situated at the northern end of Ahmedabad city for proximity to the large substation at Rana San. We were to get power through a dedicated 132 kV power line from Rana San.

My colleague and friend Prof Abhijit Sen made great contributions in the realization of the campus. This included talking to the State government officials for the required land for the campus. Prof Lal, the then director of PRL and Prof S.P. Pandya, the deputy director helped us a great deal in this endeavour. Prof Pandya encouraged us to think big and ask for a large tract of land to meet our future needs and wrote a letter to the Chief Minister of Gujarat requesting 50 acres of land for us. Thanks to these combined strong efforts, we finally got such a piece of land close to the western banks of the Sabarmati river near the village of Bhat.

We selected a young architect, Karan Grover through an open competition. Grover had completed a Bachelor of Architecture in 1974 from Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and a Graduate Diploma in 1975 from Architectural Association, London. We resonated with his idea not to create an immutable built space, but an environment which is organically integrated with the surrounding nature.

When we started to plan the IPR buildings, we had endless discussions on how the buildings should reflect the spirit of openness that science inspires. We preferred a sprawling layout with lots of corridors, perhaps as a reaction to the high-rise architecture of PRL where we had spent many years. Prof Kaw, as Director had a strong influence on the final layout of the buildings. The buildings were conceived to give one a sense of liberation. The wide corridors, openness to the sky and the surroundings, oneness with nature, are all embodiments of this conviction.

Abhijit’s strong aesthetic sensibility is reflected in both the microscopic and macroscopic aspects of the IPR buildings and their layout. His managerial skills played an important role in reigning in the rather flamboyant style of the architect. His attention to detail was amazing. It was impressive to watch him compel the architect to go beyond large brush strokes to the less glamorous part of the nitty-gritty of detailing required for making a working building.

Adopting the typology of traditional dwellings of western India, the buildings are clustered around a series of inter-connecting courtyards. This would affect the form of the building and the introverted nature of the complex. Cavity wall techniques and forms such as arches, conical shells, and barrel vaults, were used in construction. Stone cladding ensured a low maintenance façade.

The building encloses six major courts. The entry courtyard originally had a dramatic water body with many fountains. The fountains act as an alternative to the conventional cooling towers required for the air conditioning system. This water court is surrounded by public buildings: library, administration, cafeteria and a small auditorium. Large wide corridors are more than mere connecting links, they are areas of interaction.

The more private areas of the building are four clusters of the scientist’s office: eight offices forms a cluster, each around a court. The four courtyards are also interconnected with walkways. The courts become an extension of the office, a place for interaction, where the building and its users can feel one with nature.

Situated around another large courtyard, are the major laboratories and the workshop. These are high, vaulted buildings with facilities to accommodate overhead cranes. Behind the tokamak building are the halls meant to locate the power supplies, which form the heart of the Aditya Pulsed Power System. Another large hall accommodated the basic experiments which supported the thesis work of students.

Finally, the greening of the campus, which was originally a grazing land covered with thorny bush. This was almost entirely driven by Abhijit together with the Nehru Foundation for Development, an environmental group in Ahmedabad. Within a few years the whole of the 50 acres turned into deep woods.

The campus became a landmark of Ahmedabad. Architectural magazines wrote extensively about the buildings. It also turned out that we were rather free with the budget, which indeed raised many beurocratic eyebrows.

Karan Grover went on to gain many accolades based on his architectural contributions. Being the first architect to win the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) “Platinum” Award for the greenest building in the world, he promotes the practice of “Green Architecture” inspiring students and fellow architects, while imparting knowledge on ecological and environmental concerns. His architecture reflects his concerns with the heritage and built landscape of India.

Additional floors and new buildings were added to the first phase building essentially following the same design concept originated by Grover. These included another large hall for a second tokamak, office rooms and additional rooms for administration including Director’s office etc.

When the institute wanted to build a guest house and student housing over an area of 5,000 sq m, we turned to Bimal Patel of the HCP Design. He was trained in city and regional planning from the University of California, Berkeley.

Four acres of contoured land on the northern side of the campus  locate the Student Housing and Guest House facility. The HCP’S approach was aimed to make use of the natural landform to the fullest and integrate it in the overall composition of the development. The student housing is in three separate hostel blocks and accommodates 32 students each in single rooms with facility for dining, library, and indoor games. The blocks for the students’ hostels are modular two-storey buildings of square geometry with a central courtyard. All hostel rooms sport a spartan interior theme. The guest house in a separate block includes 16 guest rooms and 4 suites with dining and conference facility for visiting scientists.

The organization of various buildings is focused on to the central green space so that each building block can take advantage of the view of this green space. The setting of buildings is highly integrated with the existing landform to minimize cut/fill on the site. The entire construction and all the external surfaces are in RCC and exposed brick.

The ITER Laboratory on the IPR campus is designed to serve a multinational project involving seven countries, including India.The design intent for the ITER lab was to create a research facility that provides the physical flexibility to accommodate the complex building and laboratory services. The completed building provides ample space and is structurally designed for the large and complex equipment required in the laboratory.  The centrally air-conditioned laboratories are designed to be column-free spaces with heights ranging from 13 to 18 metres for maximum flexibility. Vertical shafts are provided around the perimeter of the building for easy movement of HVAC, electrical and other services as required for the laboratory experiments. Mezzanine floors for office/observation space and gantry girders for movement of equipment have been provided. To optimize space, the terrace houses all the HVAC and plumbing services.

The Bhat campus stand out in a city which is renowned for its architectural gems. Visitors to the campus make interesting comments about the layout. The necessity for the extra wide corridors has been attributed to accommodate the oversize egos of the scientists working at the institute! The building has been called a Taj Mahal. But the most cryptic comment was made by Lech Walesa, the former President of Poland, who after being escorted around the building, said that the building was more convoluted than the science we were doing at the institute!

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