Women Empowerment through Design in Jaisalmer

New York Architect Diana Kellogg designs and brings to life a school for girls within The GYAAN Center, a sustainable architectural marvel in the midst of the rural Thar desert, in Rajasthan, with the help of local craftsmen using local sandstone.

The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School is the epitome of female empowerment, designed pro bono by a woman architect for girls who have no access to education in rural India, and through its design direction and principle has ticked all the boxes in sustainability and cultural sensibility. The success of the design can be perceived through the awards coming its way like the AZ building of the year award but the best reward for the architect is not from these entities but through the joy evident on the faces of the girls running through beautiful corridors and open courtyards of the stunning school.

Sitting atop numerous acres of land in the heart of the mystic Thar Desert in Rajasthan, India, stands The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School – a stunning oval sandstone structure that blends seamlessly into the arid landscape. The school which opened in July 2021, will serve more than 400 girls, from kindergarten to class 10, that live below the poverty line in the region where female literacy barely touches 36%.

Standing like a beacon in its desert kingdom of Jaisalmer, The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School was built to improve the lives of the community. Local craftsmen—often the fathers of the girls—built the school using local sandstone, and soon two more structures will be erected: The Medha – a performance and art exhibition space with a library and museum, and The Women’s Cooperative where local artisans will teach mothers and other women weaving and embroidery techniques from the region.

“This project required a respectful and compassionate approach toward the people and culture of the area. I wanted to embrace this in my design, from honouring modesty traditions to paying homage to the community by using local stone,” says Diana Kellogg. “We wanted the school to occupy land that would be both safe and familiar to the girls, so securing the right location, as well as finding a solar company who believed in my design sensibilities toward sustainability were the greatest feats. Once these pieces fell into place, the project was completed in a miraculous ten months and embraced by community members who participated in the build.”

“Effective design is a process requiring a deep understanding of the history of a place – its culture, its topography and its vernacular, said Diana Kellogg, Founder, Diana Kellogg Architects. “I wanted to create a building about light and community – a structure that resonates with the soul of its people and enforces the natural energies to nurture and heal the women and girls.”

Since the GYAAN Center is designed by a woman for women, Kellogg looked at feminine symbols across cultures when starting the design process – specifically symbols of strength, landing on a structure of three ovals to represent the power of femininity and infinity. From above, the breath-taking ellipse structure blends seamlessly into the planes of sand-dunes in the region of Jaisalmer, with striking curved walls reminiscent of Rajasthan’s famous forts.

Sustainability was of utmost importance to Diana and her team, who designed the GYAAN Center pro bono and worked entirely with all local craftsmen to build the first structure – The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School – out of hand-carved Jaisalmer sandstone. Inside the school, visitors are greeted by a sweeping staircase and a wall decorated with diyas, small stone flower medallions signifying each classroom and the donors for the project. Winding corridors lead you to classrooms, a computer centre, and a sprawling terrace, all donned with furniture made locally out of rosewood with classic Charpai woven seating. A parapet wall is also featured as a reinvention of the Jallis, screen walls traditionally used to hide women for privacy.

Diana also wanted to introduce solar panels and this was a challenge as there was virtually no solar being used in Jaisalmer when the project began. “I wanted to apply the same design approach to the solar as to the stone. Putting panels on the ground was both unsightly and impractical as it is a shifting sand dune. I came up with an idea to have them work as a canopy/shading device with the metal armature to work as kind of an old fashion jungle gym with seesaws, swings, monkey bars, etc,” she says.

The complex of three buildings will be known as the GYAAN Center. The GYAAN Center was commissioned by CITTA, a non-profit organization that supports development in some of the most economically challenged, geographically remote, or marginalised communities in the world. The GYAAN Center will equip young women with the tools to further their education and independence as well as raise awareness surrounding the issues faced by women in India on a global scale.

The design team followed the local ancient water harvesting techniques to maximise the rainwater and recycle grey water in the school. While the building is oriented to maximise the prevailing wind and keep maximum sunlight out, the team also employed solar panels for the lighting and fans in the building. A solar canopy on the roof with a metal framework doubles as a jungle gym with seesaws, swings, and monkey bars for the girls. Both the solar panel canopy and Jallis keep the heat out and the elliptical shape of the structure also helps bring aspects of sustainability, creating a cooling panel of airflow, in addition to passive solar cooling where temperatures peak close to 120 degrees.  At the GYAAN Center, the wall allows air to flow through the building and keep the sun and sand out. A central structure weaves together The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School and The Women’s Cooperative, representing a blending of generations.

“Since the building was built for a non-profit to support girls’ education, every effort was made toward economic design, said Kellogg. “It was imperative that we incorporated authentic cultural elements, so the Center was a true representation of the region and its members.”

Famed Indian fashion designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee was tapped to create the uniforms for the students of The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girl’s School. Sabyasachi used Ajrak, a traditional textile from the region that is block-printed with natural dyes using a technique that predates modern history. They were made to reflect the region’s craft heritage to highlight the beauty and power inherent to the crafts, as well as provide a better sense of community, connection, and pride for their home.

The GYAAN Center will invite renowned female artists, designers, and education advocates to create artwork, host events, and present installations. Students will learn to read, write, and develop traditional artisan skills unique to the region. While girls are receiving an education at the Girls School, mothers and other women in the region will work with local artisans at The Women’s Cooperative. Exhibitions at The Medha will embody the importance of women’s empowerment while drawing people to the center. The space will also periodically act as a marketplace to share the women’s creations with tourists venturing to the nearby dunes to experience the sunset. The education, independence, and empowerment women gain at the GYAAN center will, in turn, incentivize families to educate their daughters, bringing the benefit of the center full circle.

“We couldn’t be more appreciative to Diana for her time and artistry to make the school a reality,” said Michael Daube, Founder & Executive Director, CITTA. “To make a true impact for our students will mean changing attitudes of what girls and women are capable of. This is our first step in that effort.”

All Images Courtesy Diana Kellog Architects

Photography by Vinay Panjwani