Visionary School Takes Shape in the Himalayas

UB exhibit celebrates Dalai Lama's patronage of award-winning education

Release Date: September 12, 2006 This content is archived.


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The Druk White Lotus School in the Himalayas is the subject of an exhibition of photographs, architectural plans and drawings on display Sept. 14-24 to celebrate the visit to UB by His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

Located in a fragile, high-desert environment, the Druk White Lotus School is low-tech, unique and virtually self-sustainable.

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- What is widely regarded as one of the most beautiful, thoughtful and functional "green" projects in the world is taking shape in the ancient kingdom of Ladakh, a remote region high in the Indian Himalayas, west of Tibet.

It is the international award-winning Druk White Lotus School, a low-tech, unique and virtually self-sustainable educational complex for 800 children ages 3 to 18. It was designed and is being built by British architects and engineers, local educators and the Ladakhi mountain community for the Drukpa Trust under the patronage of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama.

To celebrate the visit of His Holiness to the University at Buffalo on Sept. 18-20, the UB School of Architecture and Planning will present "Building Culture: Druk White Lotus School," an exhibition of photographs, architectural plans and drawings of Druk White Lotus School and its environs.

The exhibit will be on display from Sept. 14-24 in the UB Art Gallery in the Center for the Arts on the UB North (Amherst) Campus. The exhibit hours are Sept. 15, 16, 20, 22 and 23, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sept. 14 and 21, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sept. 17 and 24, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sept. 18, 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sept. 19, noon to 2 p.m. and 5-7 p.m.

The school is a collaborative venture involving Arup Associates, the engineering firm Ove Arup, the Ladakhi Buddhist community and the Ladakh Public Works Drupka Trust, based in Great Britain.

While the school's infant court and nursery school are in operation, the project will not be completed until 2009. Nevertheless, it already has received considerable press attention and several prestigious World Architecture Awards: for Best Green Building, Best Education Building and Best Asian Building.

This remarkable undertaking is considered widely to be an object lesson in how to promote prosperity, youth enterprise and cultural values in one of the world's peripheral regions.

The site's fragile high-desert environment is under threat from inappropriate development. This has provoked concern for the preservation of the multi-dimensional Ladhaki culture itself and informed the Druk project from its inception.

To protect the environment, the project uses traditional building methods, modern forms and technologies and locally produced recyclable materials to produce an aesthetically attractive complex that is virtually self-sustainable and expressive of a deep reverence for the natural environment.

Although the population of the region is 50 percent Buddhist and the school is based on Buddhist principles, it also must serve the interests of the Hindu and Muslim population of Ladakhi.

The White Lotus School curriculum supports a broad-based education, initially in the native Ladakhi language and later in English, that honors traditional Buddhist teachings while supporting the indigenous culture and advancing modern scientific knowledge of interest to the general population.

Only 10 percent of Ladakh's school children finish high school, in part because many schools in the region are taught in Urdu, a language not spoken by much of the population, and additional instruction available in monasteries is open only to boys.

When complete, the White Lotus School will have an enrollment of 800 boys and girls, including the poorest, from its immediate environs, and through a residential program, from distant valleys as well.

The child-centered curriculum makes all-round academic and vocational opportunities available in Lakakhi and English, but Hindi will be taught as a core curricular subject so that children are prepared for matriculation exams. Health education will be offered along with an enterprise scheme for those leaving school, to equip and assist them to lead economically productive lives.

Planners also wanted a school that could operate year-round in a region known for its extreme climates. Ladakh has temperatures as low as -22 Fahrenheit to -56 Fahrenheit, frequent earth tremors and, because of snowfall in the mountain passes, is physically inaccessible for months on end. Such an environment required unique solutions to problems of fresh food, clean water, fuel and building materials.

The walls of the Druk School therefore are not made of concrete, but of granite with a mud core, a traditional material that insures adequate insulation and offers natural appeal in the mountain setting.

Using the latest in green technology and building design, students will grow food in a system of indoor cottage gardens; energy will produced by solar power, which also will pump fresh ground water that later will be recycled. Human waste will be treated naturally and reused without employing dangerous decontaminants.

The architects particularly are pleased with the design of the latrines, which could help to revolutionize health in much of the developing world. The latrine blocks are clad in solar panels that dry human waste, permitting it to be compacted into an all but odorless fertilizer. Fresh air is drawn through the latrine blocks, to dissipate an unpleasant odor, which in turn discourages flies and other disease-carrying insects.

The school sits on the floor of one of Ladakh's magnificent valleys, and its buildings, which resemble a small town, rise in a breathtaking environment of snow-covered granite mountains, brilliant blue skies and bright greenery.

To reinforce the sense of community, architects clustered its buildings. In this way, classrooms, a dining hall, kitchen, clinic, dormitories for residential students and homes for teachers also serve as buffers against the climactic extremes.

The buildings, designed to recall the region's monasteries, open onto tree-lined avenues, gardens and small, stone-paved streets or squares. Weather permitting, instruction takes place out of doors, a boon for students used to outdoor life.

Architects say that the Druk School demonstrates an alternative to the crude interpretations of Western design and building methods that prevail in so much of the developing world, and that produce brutal, ugly and dysfunctional landscapes.

In connection with the exhibition, the UB School of Architecture and Planning sponsored a free illustrated public lecture by Francesca Galeazzi, a member of the design team for the school, on Sept. 13.

Galeazzi is an architect and environmental engineer who works with the London architectural firm Arup Associates, project architects for Druk White Lotus School. As part of her role in the project, she helps community members to construct the school buildings.

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