Au Grand Air
11h45

Au Grand Air, a nursery and french school in India

Ante Prima as Press relations

Before even looking at the project itself, most people ask me: “But how did you end up doing a project in India?” The truth is so unbelievable that I sometimes hesitate to tell it, not because I wish to embellish the story but rather to make it more believable. So here is the real story

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In December 2015, the agency was going through a critical period. One day, in the middle of a lunch break, the phone rang. At the other end of the line, a very enthusiastic man, with a strong Indian accent, asked to speak with me about a daycare project in India. As I was unavailable, the call did not reach me. We considered the phone call as a hoax and then forgot about it. Fortunately, the man called again the day after. We agreed to meet for the first time on January first of 2016, in Paris where we spent six hours together, talking about everything and nothing. Of course, we also talked about his project.

Mr Aditya's ambition was to build in India nurseries and kindergartens worthy of the best European standards, French ones in particular. That's why he went to meet a few architects of his choice until he settled on our agency.

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On the 25th of January, I flew for the first time to India. Everything was still to be done, we had to start from scratch as even the terrain was not defined yet. This project was therefore an adventure in every sense of the word. I must admit that I arrived there with totally unfounded preconceptions that India would be more permissive in terms of urban and building regulations. I quickly discovered that France, which is already full of standards of all kinds, had nothing to envy to India—we will come back to this later. The very unique plan of the building, shaped like a rounded hammer, is a direct consequence of the local urbanistic constraints. The project, concretely speaking, has been thought of as a mischievous contestation of its context. 

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Located in Gurgaon, a new city adjacent to New Delhi, our project is both at the edge of an upscale residential area and bordering on wastelands. Although the building is about 15 metres high, it looks tall above the ground, yet it is tiny when compared to 30-storey apartment buildings. The landscape is in itself a contrast between parched grasslands and overwhelming buildings. The concept was therefore to make the nursery the “urban child of the neighbourhood”.

The ambition was to design a building that would positively disrupt the rigour of the towers, whose seriousness verges on boredom. The new building would be infinitely smaller, but we wanted it bold enough to animate the neighbourhood like a child illuminates a home. Given the stunning monochromia of the surroundings, excessive use of colour was more of a reflex than a temptation—in any case, it was an evidence. And yet, we are the first to refute the association between children and bright colours. Here,  the colour is aimed at the neighbourhood more than at the children, as shown by the interiors’ chromatic sobriety.

Our problem was to find a subtle use of colours that, precisely, are not. To this end, we combined two elements: grey, which is an equal association of three primary colours, and relief, which modifies the appearance depending on the point of view.

This is how we developed a “pineapple-skinned” cladding consisting of small three-sided pyramids, organized so as the three primary colours—cyan, magenta and yellow— alternate with the three secondary ones—orange, green and violet.

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The pyramids are arranged in a way that the complementary colours adjoin each other. Thus, from a physical point of view, the façade is a vibrant decomposition of grey. Its relief, however, emphasises warm-coloured or cool-coloured facets, depending on the point of view. This is why the façade is never of the same colour. Looking from the street, you will see it blue or orange; the view from the top floors of the neighbouring buildings, however, displays a green or a yellow face. By day or by night, the building expresses the joy and life of the children who live inside.

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As you can imagine, this operation, or rather, this adventure, is exotic in many ways. One of the many curiosities of this order was to officially find a name for what was to become a chain of establishments, a brand. Never has a commission been as diverse as this one! For the anecdote, my client wanted a name that would unequivocally evoke France, citing as an example the “Champs-Élysées”, to which I retorted that the name was already taken: in France, moreover, it refers to a box of cheap chocolates!

Joking aside, finding a name is also part of an architect’s job. Doing so, I collaborated with the company Antigone, which worked on several lists of names, including “Grand Air”, which became “Au Grand Air”. These innocent words, almost meaningless here in France, not to say “cheesy”, take a whole new dimension there, as New Delhi has officially become the most polluted city in the world (along with Lahore and Bombay).

The subliminal idea leading this project is to take the children outdoors rather than to the nursery. The announcement is not misleading, since the nursery is equipped with powerful air filters, and there are screens located at the entrance, indicating in real time the indoor and outdoor air quality. The architecture goes as far as being embodied in the name itself, combining beauty with utility.

Beaten at my own game!

When I started this project, I imagined that regulatory constraints and administrative burdens were typically French. Ignorant and full of preconceptions, I thought that, in India, I would be lucky enough to be able to let my imagination run free and let the sky and the horizon be my limits. In reality, each building project is submitted to three interlinked levels of regulations: national, regional and local, three of which are occasionally contradictory.

The land area for day-care centres in residential neighbourhoods is predefined at 810 sq. metres, regardless of its shape. In our case, given the size of the residential area, we have built on two dedicated plots that were also adjoined. One of the perimeters was, one might say, as unspeakable as it was unworkable. Common sense led us to merge the parcels to make a larger one (which would have only measured 16 000 sq. metres) to build a freer building, but alas, the authorities prevented us from doing so...

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The rules are the rules

Ultimately we had to play with illusions: we designed, in desperation, two conjoined buildings merging together, thus giving the impression of one. Once the rules of prospects have been deducted, we are left with two rights of way of barely 250 sq. metres each, fortunately in R+3. But we were not done with the preposterous: the regulations, once again, impose two stairwells with 150 cm of free passage per building, to which it is naturally necessary to add an elevator. On a total of 500 sq. metres per level, four stairwells and two elevators were therefore needed. The vertical circulation systems alone consume 100 sq. metres, which represents up to 20% of the space. These are just a few examples from a long list. The conclusion is that my preconceived ideas have been beaten. The grass is not greener on the other side; it is only farther. 

No freedom without obstacles

The constraints were numerous, it is a fact. But what about the children? How are they concerned? Would we dare explain to them that their nursery or their school is neither beautiful nor pleasant because of the regulations? No. For their sake and happiness, we will always manage to amaze the children, whatever it costs. Is the absurd shape of the building dictated by the prospects? So be it, it will prevent us from making classic rectangular rooms! Are the staircases not fancy enough? We'll make them all golden! Are the walls sad? We'll make holes in them to discover that fishes live inside of them! In a nutshell, everything has been thought to maximise the enchantment in order to associate children’s idea of education with blossoming.

Today the school is in operation. It is supervised by a French headmaster from the Éducation Nationale, and local children from India, as well as children from expatriate parents, are gradually filling it up. Within a year, it will officially join the network of AEFE schools (the Agency for French Education Abroad).

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