My reflections on working on the design of Science Gallery Bengaluru
Updated: 6 days ago
This is a hard post to write. Mostly because the project is still a work-in-progress and second, it is the longest-ever project I have worked on-- making it difficult for me to put all my thoughts in a short blog.
Let's try the easy step first. What is Science Gallery Bengaluru?
Science Gallery Bengaluru is a part of the larger network of Science Galleries around the world that aim to bring science and art together. SGB is unique in the sense of being the first independent gallery (aka- not based in any university) and aims to bridge the gap between science and society. Its model of public engagement with science is beyond participation and more towards proactive research and experimentation. They host exhibitions, and mentorship programmes, and will soon, develop long short-term research programmes.
What do I have to do with SGB's intent and work?
This is a very important question given that I have an academic background in designing exhibitions. I was there for exhibitions, right? Nope. I primarily joined SGB to understand how research happens. I was attracted to the possibility of working with researchers and working on projects I wouldn't otherwise be able to work on. When I was an intern there, Jahnavi Phalkey, the director of the Gallery took me to a meeting with the architects and asked me to share my views on the floor plan. I excitedly shared my input and ideas. At that moment, I realised that-- I have never worked in any permanent space where decisions almost last forever and this might be my chance to do so. Therefore, this is how I ended up being the Design Associate for the building design project.
At that moment, I realised that-- I have never worked on any permanent space where decisions almost last forever and this might be my chance to do so.
It was scary. That was exciting!
So, what is the building design project? And what did I do again?
Given that SGB is an independent public institution, it was given a plot of land by the Government of Karnataka where the building would be made. This building would host exhibition spaces, research labs, community spaces, gift shops, SGB offices, and so on. In a brief description, I acted as the interface between the architects, project management consultants, and SGB. From SGB's end, I understood the programming and target audience requirements which I researched further on to create the physical spatial requirements. These took the form of room data sheets, mood boards, vendor lists, and site visits. I then worked closely with the architects to bring those to life through many back-and-forth ideation and review processes.
With the introductions covered, here are my key reflections on 30 months of working on the project.
There are different perspectives on what a public space could and should be.
The project involved collaboration between people from diverse fields: Architects, engineers, designers, researchers, conservationists, vendors, and so on. Each person entered the project with their prior experience of working with building making and alas, SGB was unique of it all. It is the first public institution in India (for young adults) with exhibition spaces interacting with specialised public labs. Should one think of it as a research institute? or a community space? or a young adult hang-out space?
Questions and challenges that arose were largely around the level of access different target audiences would have, should we have a campus wall or not. and lastly, which spaces are participatory vs which ones are specialised and restrictive.
Approach to accessibility should be ingrained from the very first step of the project
Thinking about accessibility from the start could've led simpler spatial design
One of the biggest lessons from this project was to start thinking of accessibility from the very start of the project like the soil study. I joined the project when Basement Floor was already constructed and certain major decisions regarding the architecture were closed.
As I researched further on building and signage accessibility, I realised that some spaces could've been designed more simpler to make ramp design easier. Please note here that the building is completely wheelchair friends but the question I ask is that could the spatial layout have been simpler so that accessibility was maintained with fewer turns and construction?
What is the balance between Exhibition spaces, specialised laboratories, and community spaces?
Asking questions about specialisation and space flexibility were the basis for over-designing vs under-designing. The right in-between balance was necessary.
Over-design would mean spending extra unnecessary amounts of money and under-design would mean not having the building equipped enough to do the necessary functions. SGB required three distinct specialised spaces but it was a challenge to determine to what level of specialisation should each go.
For instance, the structural loading of exhibition rooms could be 500kg/m or 1 tonne/m. The decision depended on what we were going to put there- knowledge that we didn't have. Science Museum in London had 2 tonne/m loading. This is because they had railway engines and airplanes in the museum which would require the floor to be extreme strength. Were we going to put airplanes and engines? Don't think so- they were too big to pass through our doors and the already constructed corridors couldn't take their load. Hence, no two tonnes. Similarly, based on the elimination process for different exhibits, we reached 500kg/m.
Another instance was designing the Natural Sciences Lab. Designing any lab in SGB's context meant asking-- What kind of experiments will be done in the lab? Which equipment is used? How does the equipment relate to each other? Answering these questions required us to contact researchers across disciplines to determine their requirements. Our final decision was determined by the cost of equipment and whether we could use the equipment from our partner institutions or rent them for cheaper. Another approach we took was understanding how each lab connects to the other so as to avoid repeating equipment and reducing redundancy.
Similar decisions had to be taken across spaces. To simplify our decisions and make sure we develop a truly flexible building, wherever possible in both design and services, we made sure our decisions today would close doors (pun intended) for upgrading to specialisations. This would be in electrical connections to gas pipes to various window and door openings.