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Design is in the detail

Chennai girl Rupali Gupta won a prestigious architecture competition in Amsterdam

Kinderstad: Visually continuing levels with an amphitheatre forming the link

In a basic black trouser and frippery-free white shirt, Rupali Gupta is every bit her design — a mix of Eastern elegance and Western practicality. The Chennai girl is the first non-Dutch to be part of the winning team at the prestigious Young Architects Competition conducted by the Architects Association of Netherlands.

Absolutely thrilled, the Chennai-bred, Amsterdam-based architect, says, "In our field, the gestation period is long. Architects usually don't get a break till they start greying. Recognition comes rather late. That way, I guess, I'm lucky."

Rupali, who has worked with several architectural firms in India and Europe wasn't too sure about the outcome of the competition. "It's a major contest held once in two years. It was challenging in terms of design. For registration formalities I had to team up with two local architects. The competition brief was to design a place for sick children and their kin in VU Hospital, Amsterdam. It's called "Kinderstad" or City for Children, the first of its kind in the world promoted by the Ronald McDonald Foundation. Our design is titled "Er Op Uit" which means `go for it' or `let's go out.' The jury report said it was `intelligent and integrated. And that it was spatially refined in its relation to the sky... ' Usually, it stops with the design. But to our surprise, we have been asked to execute the project as well. Kinderstad will be ready in January 2006."

Restful ambience

Successful designs for hospitals are not just about the way things look, feel or work. It's also about creating a restful ambience that facilitates the healing process. So what exactly were the challenges? A warm smile precedes a meaningful pause, and then words roll out coherently, "This structure is a two-floor add-on to an old building. So the block had to be distinct, yet in sync with the old structure. This being a hospital where a number of epilepsy and cancer-afflicted children stay on for months, a lot of finer aspects had to be taken into consideration. The energy levels of such kids are very low, so the entire space had to be wheel chair-friendly. In fact, this was the only design among 60 entries sensitive to that."

Nature brought indoors

To Rupali, success of any design is in the details. Being a place for sick kids, the design had to speak the language of simplicity, practicality and comfort. "Nature had to be brought indoors for these kids. It's the best healer. It's something that is instantly relaxing and rejuvenating. So I decided upon a glass ceiling and loose blocks of Nature [in themes pertaining to the seasons]. The activity rooms are clad in images of moss, pebbles and woods. The whole play area is made of light wood and natural material. Hygiene and maintenance were also considered in the choice of materials. In between the two floors is an amphitheatre, for which the staircase doubles as a seating facility. Parents can sit here and keep an eye on their wards while watching shows or sessions. The layout had to be flexible with the function units scattered to offer fluidity and visual connection."

Touching upon aspects that really interested her about the design, she adds, "As a concept, it had to break free from the usual hospital plan — you know, those predictable rows of rooms on either sides. To lighten the claustrophobic feel, I took full advantage of the sky. Being close to the airport, the skyline sure will be an attraction for these kids."

Rupali Gupta: Language of simplicity. — Pic by K. Pichumani

Rupali's design dreams do not stop with Kinderstad. She is also "working with the Amsterdam City Council to revive a sleepy public park. A park pavilion restaurant is under way in the middle of the park. Restaurants are always a big draw. So the idea is to make people discover the park when they come to eat. It's going to be a light glass structure with plenty of wood. Visually, it would give one the feeling of being inside the park and sitting under a tree while in the eatery! This idea was well received there."

Success is hard work

What about taking up assignments in Chennai? She is quick to reply, "I would love to if something suitable comes up. I had in fact drawn up a plan to make the Cooum beautiful and functional, but somehow things fizzled out."

Having studied in Sishya, Padma Seshadri and Stella Maris before joining the School of Architecture, Ahmedabad, Rupali recounts, "At the outset, there was opposition to my taking up architecture. People told me it was not a suitable profession for women. It was also pointed out that only a few architects managed to succeed. Those who dissuaded me then are now convinced."

A spirited cocktail of determination and confidence, Rupali is certain about her design for life — "success built on hard work." Grinning from ear-to-ear, she adds, "I don't want to be just another architect."


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