The design.... The National Institute of Faith Leadership (NIFL) is an Islamic institution of education, research, dialogue and introspection, with a bold vision of questioning today’s interpretation of the hitherto unquestioned. The campus is envisaged as an ecosystem to evolve and modernize Islam, to reiterate traditional values that are relevant in contemporary times and reposition them in a secular, plural and national context. It moulds the students-clerics and scholars into faith leaders of tomorrow, by providing them with guidance, tools and technology. The new and bold expression for an Islamic built form in this context is thus a celebration of the introverted, magnificent Islamic institution, rooted in the fundamentals of strict order and discipline, whilst expressing the flexibility, progression, reception and interaction. It reciprocates the rawness, honesty and guileless transparency of the users through the use of materials in their true state, and also initiates the confidence and boldness that would be required of them through its audacious form and mass. The interpretation of ‘light’ vacillates between frivolity and divinity and is unabashedly used in capturing the spirit of the institution.
The beginning.... It was a chance visit to the Masjid next door to studio archohm in Noida, India that enabled the client - Maulana Mahmood Madiniji, a leading Islamic scholar and politician in India, (known for his forthright condemnations of terrorism and unfaltering support of the Indian Muslim community), also a leader of one of the leading Islamic organisations in India, the Jamiat Ulema-I-Hind to view the office of his future architect from there. Drawn by the studio’s clear bold volumes exuding rawness, honest simplicity and responding to its context, he almost instantaneously and instinctively decided that its designers would be the ones to help him realise his dream of the National Institute of Faith Leadership at Dasna in Uttar Pradesh, the largest state of India.
According to Maulana-ji , “The initial idea was to build a space for education, such as a school exclusively for girls, but eventually, a centre for Muslim clerics was what was conceived. Entrusting the design to someone from outside the community allowed for the perpetration of a fresh perspective and secular approach. The studio’s credibility, experience and expertise in seeing a project of this nature through had already been established, as it had previously designed a contemporary mosque in Libya, other religious buildings and large institutional buildings.”
The journey... The evolution of the National Institute for Faith Leadership was akin to a journey that the client of the project undertook together with the architects. As the philosophy took shape, so did the project. From the inception itself, the vocabulary of design and the employment of architectural tools such as light, materials, volumes and forms to articulate functions went hand in hand with the interpretation of the brief to such an extent that the building managed to expresses the dilemmas and vulnerabilities of the institution and its people; ‘for paths are still being chartered, and the search for ‘a new’ is far from over’. The broad vision was articulated through intense research, discourses, discussions and debates.
“The building which represents reality and how an idea manifests into a form has been designed in such a way that it enhances, explains and epitomises the vision. The exercise of ‘building’ helped us clarify our vision and craft our manifesto-thereby both became synonymous in that sense”, Maulana Madiniji adds.
The present… The main academic block-the completed component of the first phase of the development of the campus currently houses the entire set of activities as classrooms, a library and dining spaces, a seminar/prayer hall and dormitories.
Apart from the graduates, about 50 in number, who are in the campus doing a two-year internship, many children from Darul Uloom Islamic School, located in Deoband, some as young as twelve, reside here and attend the Madrasssa currently operating from here. The idea is, on one hand to mould the graduates and on the other to begin the introduction of the children to the bold contemporary built environment as a prelude to the inculcation of the repositioning from an early age, so that the synchronisation with the new vision is ingrained in their DNA.
PROJECT DESCRIPTION NIFL sits in Dasna-Ghaziabad, in the state of Uttar Pradesh, with a distinct and enviable poise of a modern, strikingly simple sculpture in the middle of a vast backdrop of green and serene fields, on a 24,431 sq. m. site. With a built-up area of 4959 sq. m., the institution that was built in phases, includes a residential block, research and seminar spaces, an open-air theatre, a formal auditorium and a mosque.
The basic form of the main academic block, ‘this object on site’ is a mass with a hole- a void defined as a courtyard that basks in ‘shade’, the alter ego of light, gifted by the enclosing volumes and the generous extended roof. It sports an air of relative relaxation and informality aptly used by students for informal collective introspection and debate. The symmetrical, axially-oriented and rectilinear landscape in the courtyard is a take-away of the rigour of the Persian gardens.
The mass on the other hand sunk 1.5 m below the ground, is largely brick, into which two concrete volumes extrude and extend themselves. The walled receptacles clad in dense and opaque materials do manage to restrain the mighty Indian sun. However since they are bare, their own severity gets not only exposed, but actually exaggerated on the outside. The austere expression of materials sub-consciously echoes the rustic unpretentious character of the people using it. But it also makes a bold architectural impression that is absolutely imperative and intentional, meant to push people towards questioning fundamentals and towards brave expressions in the pursuit of change.
Light is designed to express what it is not easy to come by, but at the same time, allowed to exercise leverage and make its presence felt, understood, valued and even overwhelm. Like an inverse veil or Purdah, the introverted building seems to have a ‘no-looking-out, but letting-light-in’ policy, triggering the cognitive association with the Masharbiya. Thus, the thermally efficient construction, which Muslim architecture is inherently expressive of, serves the dual purpose of imparting ecological soundness and adding cultural depth to the ethics, aesthetics and character of the institution.
The pitting of well-lit classroom spaces and considerably less-lit introspective is an attempt by the building to allay the anxiety of the somewhat intimidating responsibilities of the scholars residing there and offer them reassurance. The same light also creates the ethereal ‘lightness of being’ in the interiors, in perfect unison with the brief of the quasi-religious institution. The tonality matches the mood of the space. The double height library has a large circular window that inscribes a halo of light into the space, cajoling the bare stone floors, raw wood structures and exposed concrete walls that house the double height stacks of books and the desktop multimedia library to endorse the reflective academic space. Muted light also empowers continuously inhabited spaces to ‘be cool by nature’ and incidentally to climatically sort themselves out.
Like a floating lid or parasol, a cantilevered slab sweeps across the top of the building, shields the campus, but opens up to the courtyard. A ‘game’ is played out between the almost juvenile looking triangular or star shaped cut-outs in the slab, some of which are coloured, letting in shards of light and the sombre atmosphere. The idea behind this metaphoric play of stars is to enchant and excite the mind on one hand, but more importantly, to distract it just that little bit from the unrelenting rigour and regimental learning. Like ornaments that shimmer in the midst of a tactile setting, these are the boldest expressions of the syncretism.
Be it the crescent shaped openings, the cut shapes of the moon and stars in the ceiling, the Jaali effect of the Masharbiyas, or the arch, visual references to traditional Muslim elements are holistic, abstract reinterpretations and used as sensory catalysts punctuating contemporary form and structure.
MATERIALS, CONSTRUCTION AND TECHNOLOGY Materials The form employed is a basic geometry of interlocking cuboids as containers. Built in the ‘prim and proper’ rectilinear and neat but humble third-world denizen-the brick and the modern, techno-savvy but raw and unfinished looking concrete, this frugal material palette in its starkness emulates the monastic function and champions the cause of the simple, unsophisticated and honest inhabitants, taking upon themselves the onus of transforming them into bold mature and responsible leaders. Bringing respite from and inserting dynamism into the sombre front, a free-standing, ascending curved stone wall wraps itself around the rigid rectilinear form, first encompassing a palm courtyard-a buffer zone for the reception space and then like a plane in motion, fencing the court and terminating in a winding courtyard as a ramp that makes the campus-friendly towards the differently-abled. Natural stone is another material traditionally associated with the past, but celebrated in contemporary light.
All materials are indigenous, in fact the brick has been procured from the local kiln or ‘Bhatti’. No toxic chemicals or paints have been used in the treatment of surfaces. The flooring is in polished Kota stone, one of the most inexpensive but hardy and earthy materials. The entire labour force, skilled and menial was from the neighbouring village which diligently follows Madiniji’s preachings.
Ecological concerns Given the austerity of the institution and as a traditional habit, water is used judiciously. Since the site is barely paved, the extensive soil cover naturally is a watershed that recharges the ground water aquifers, once again negating the need for the design of an elaborate system to conserve water. As the site is low-lying, the rain water from the terrace is conserved by draining it through a trench abutting the walls into the ground. The extensive indigenous and green cover maintains a comfortable micro-climate in the vicinity. Thus, without much ado, environmental issues are alleviated in a non-invasive and natural manner.
Most of the attention has been paid to daylight as the students who reside here begin their day early and end it early. The need to seek help from artificial illumination is thus marginalised. The entire night illumination is LED-enabled to save on cost and the boundary wall lighting is solar-powered.
Construction The walls are 345 mm thick to facilitate natural insulation from the heat. The brick construction is called Quetta Bond- a Flemish bond in elevation. This innovative pattern allows for air gaps in between the two leaves, making both the faces, internal and external identical and additionally saves on the cost as the number of bricks reduces considerably.
The sectional profile is designed to show only a slim band of slab and conceal the massiveness of the beam in elevation. The cantilevered parasol that extends massively into the courtyard and the reconstructed arch showcase the merits of concrete-strength.
The curved ascending and fluid ashlar masonry with a cognitive association to the past, has been done with finesse and celebrated in contemporary style, ironically as a sleek wrap to break the severity of the building geometry.
Innovative features The expression of ‘the measurable or tangible’, as Kahn called them- form, materials, volumes, surfaces, light and articulation is extremely simple, honest, bold-almost audacious. However, the catering to the intangible or immeasurable- the vision and profound philosophy that ‘institutions must fan human desire to learn, to meet together and the desire for well being’ is exceedingly complex. Thus, each and every aspect of the project is creative, and innovative.
One interesting feature is the punctuation of a massive cantilevered parasol with cut-outs for light is a seemingly playful, but sensitive response to the celestial objects as stars and the moon, revered by Islam. The arch that the Muslims brought from Persia, in medieval times and which caught the fancy of Indian monarchs and artisans alike went on to become a highly visible and signature element of the amalgamated architecture that emerged thereafter. It would not be an exaggeration to then say, that this humble arch has gone a long way in cementing architectural ties between two very different cultures. As if to say that the time had come for a defining moment of change for the arch as well, it has been made in concrete-a monolithic and contemporary material which has rendered the traditional keystone obsolete. The ‘deconstructed arch’ once again enjoys being in the limelight, with its new shape manifesting a new connotation, proudly framing change. The sliver of light that comes through the slit in the arch forms a ‘reverse silhouette’ in the shaded courtyard and transforms into an inverted arch that allows in light and space. The declaration it makes is simple and straightforward- to use the institution as a place to liberate the mind and break free of myths and outdated traditions. Like the book cover of the institution of knowledge, it narrates the story of hope, of roots, of unity and spirituality.
PROJECT SIGNIFICANCE AND IMPACT Approach of the programming and design of the project During the making of the campus, the client and the architect did not define set roles for themselves in the making of this campus. As an integrated team, they carried out the intense and exhaustive research and debate required of a vision for an institution of this nature. The power of architecture to have a profound influence on students studying there, their mentors and visitors-individually and collectively has been explored through the combined journey undertaken. NIFL’s greatest impact is being able to showcase how a ‘locally’ focussed and relatively small institution can become a mechanism of change and that too through honest architectural interventions.
The institution also does a balanced tight rope walking- negotiating the relationship between the technical and social, the ecological and cultural, the planned and unplanned, the modesty and boldness, the solemnity and frivolity, the modern and traditional.
Technical impact Its contemporary architecture uses modern materials such as concrete or traditional ones as brick and stone in a new light. The technology of construction is simple, but employs modern techniques and is innovative when required. Visual references are cognitively clear but holistic abstractions of traditional motifs and elements; however, what is notable is that all these eventually express the spirit of a culture and religion, both of which are ancient and legacies of the past. Thus, the mandate goes beyond the aesthetic purview of architecture. It is also a gratifying commitment to design excellence despite the usual constraints of climate, resources and politics.
The thermally efficient building pays tribute to the climatic resolution as much as it evokes the ethos of Muslim architecture of the arid lands.
Socio-cultural The initiation, through the act of building, of the questioning of a religion, the clarity and ushering in of the beginnings of new thought, all of which will go a long way in helping the Muslim community in India and eventually as a prototype, the entire Muslim world, is a relevant contribution.
With its forward looking ideology, NIFL has already begun to augment the learning of the many young Muslims graduates from various Dar-ul Ulooms-centres for traditional Islamic knowledge, with a deep insight into the traditional sciences such as the Quran and the Sunnah through the Dars-e nizami and mould them into responsible citizens of India. These students/tomorrow’s faith leaders are acquiring the required compassion and communicating skills while being equipped with the latest mediums and technologies that will help them operate effectively and confidently in dealing with a plethora and diversity of spiritual issues and with pragmatic problems such as unemployment, poverty and handling of disenchanted youth, susceptible to being misled. That an ecosystem-a built environment participates as an equal partner in the realisation of this leviathan dream and takes on the responsibility of communicating it, with its simple and controlled vocabulary of design, so perfectly synchronised, that it is difficult to discern where one ended and the other began, is a socio-cultural contribution of no small means. What few people know is that India is home to the maximum number of active mosques in the world. It is also the homeland of the 180 million strong Muslim community which makes up a sizeable 14.2% of the Indian population-second largest only next to the Hindus and exceeds the combined populations of Muslim countries as Kazakhstan, Afghanistan, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Iran.
The religion of Islam and the Muslim community are indeed finding themselves at crossroads, being regarded suspiciously and even shunned occasionally. The paradigm shift from an often misconstrued perception of Islam to a fresh insight into its true essence is to be communicated to and through them. Indian Muslims naturally can become the torch-bearers of the true teachings of Islam-tolerance and peace. Thus, NIFL plays a key role in developing confidence and trust among potentially conflicting communities within India. It is the epicentre from where the waves of change will radiate outwards and reach out to the billion fellow Indians and will eventually help realise the leviathan dream to become a role model of public good for the world at large.