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Sweet Valley High

[WTN-L World Tibet Network News. Published by The Canada Tibet Committee. Issue ID: 02/01/29; January 29, 2002.]

Guardian 29 Jan 2002.

The classrooms will be handsome, the food will be fresh and the toilets won't smell. In the heart of the Himalayas, a very unusual school is taking shape. Jonathan Glancey reports

Monday January 28, 2002.
The Guardian

Ladakh is a special kind of place. Sometimes known as Little Tibet, it is an ancient kingdom high in the Indian Himalayas, to the west of Tibet. Large areas are cut off by snow for many months of the year. Winter temperatures drop as low as -30 C, even though the sun continues to blaze in deep blue skies. In the summer months, melting snow brings the valleys alive.

It's a long way from Fitzrovia, but the distance is being bridged by one of the most beautiful and thoughtful "green" building projects in the world. For the past five years the London architects Arup Associates and engineers Ove Arup and Partners have been working with the Ladakhi Buddhist community and public works department and the Hampshire-based Drupka Trust to build the Druk White Lotus School.

Designed for 800 local children, the school will be set on the floor of a valley, and will be very different in spirit and detail from its British counterparts. Instead of an educational factory, the mountain school will have the appearance of an entire small town, comprised of classrooms, dining hall, kitchen, clinic, teachers' home and children's dormitories. Each building will open up either onto a tree-lined avenue, a garden or small stone-paved streets or squares; the residential wing will be surrounded by cottage gardens. In summer, classes will be held outdoors whenever possible. The children who will be attending are used to tending goats high in the mountains; it would be unkind, to say the least, to keep them cooped up in classrooms, no matter how graciously designed.

To date, schooling in Ladakh has been largely for boys and conducted in Buddhist monasteries. The Indian state school system has been hard-pressed to provide the money and skills to boost local education. In any case, teaching is in Urdu (English from the age of 14), a language unfamiliar to Ladakhi children - 90% of whom fail to finish school.

When the Druk White Lotus School is completed in 2009 - it is being built slowly during the summer months - it will teach children from across the valleys. Those from remote mountain villages and orphans from the area, around 200 children altogether, will board full-time. The school will also train teachers. From necessity and common sense, it will be self-sufficient in both food and, thanks to solar power, energy.

Finance for the scheme is be ing raised by the Drupka Trust, founded in 1992 by the 12th Gyalwang Drukpa, a deputy to the Dalai Lama (who is the trust's patron) and head of the Darjeeling-based Drukpa Kargyud Buddhist order. Annie Smith, the trust's director, is a former teacher who has spent much time in Ladakh. She works closely with the Arup team led by Jonathan Rose and Jim Fleming.

"What everyone wanted," says Rose, "is a design that is both traditional and modern, as timeless as possible. Local building skills are of a very high order, and we have been learning from them. You should have seen the various layers of the mud roofs being trampled into position by gangs of villagers in local costume. In recent years, modern concrete construction has been slowly invading Ladakh. This is unsuitable because of the severe climate and frequent earth tremors. The cheap concrete cracks, and buildings can collapse all too easily. We agreed on granite walls inset with a mud core. These are stable, well-insulated and blend in naturally with the mountain setting."

This is certainly true. The long rows of windows fronting the first classrooms seem very modern, yet the granite walls are as ancient in spirit as those of the monasteries overlooking this mountain valley. What impresses most, however, is thebalance the architects have found between modern forms and traditional methods of construction.

"We have learned to abandon many of the construction details we devised in London and gone for local tradition instead," says Rose. "When you see how well the surrounding monasteries have survived - up to a thousand years - in such hostile conditions, you learn to respect what has gone before. This is no place for clever details that, while they might look good in a business park in south-east England, wouldn't last for more than a few winters in the Himalayas."

"Construction costs are about 10-12% of those in Britain," says Fleming, "which has allowed us to build on what seems like an ambitious scale [the architects and engineers have waived their fee]. But, then the school is a complete community building and, given its remote setting, it has to be self-sufficient. We have aimed to keep our costs in line with those of local buildings: the trust doesn't want the school to be seen as a costly gesture donated by well-meaning outsiders."

The architects are particularly pleased with the design of the latrines, which are indeed special, and could help to revolutionise health in much of the developing world. The latrine blocks are clad in solar panels; these serve to dry human waste, which then breaks down into compact and all but odourless fertiliser, easily removed. Fresh air, meanwhile, is scooped through the latrine blocks, sweeping away unpleasant smells. This helps to keep flies, and thus disease, at bay.

Much of the developing world continues to be spoilt by crude western rip-off buildings and cruder building techniques. This school in the Indian highlands shows one way forward out of this unholy mess. By any standards, this is fine architecture, a modern match for the antique monasteries of the Himalayas. It does, of course, need your help.

For more information about the Drupka Trust, call 01420 87345.

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