This is a hard post to write. Mostly because the project is still a work-in-progress and second, it is easily the longest and one of the most intense projects 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 (almost) 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 gallery building would be made. This building would host interlinked exhibition spaces, research labs, community spaces, gift shops, SGB offices, and so on. As an intermediary between the architects, project management consultants, and the SGB, I played a crucial role in facilitating the realization of the gallery building. To ensure that the physical space aligned with the programming and catered to the target audience requirements of the institution, I delved into extensive research. This involved conducting interviews with experts, creating room data sheets, curating mood boards, compiling vendor lists, and conducting site visits. Armed with these insights, I collaborated closely with the architects, engaging in iterative ideation and review processes to transform concepts into tangible designs. Additionally, I collaborated with the on-site team to assess and approve material samples, making final construction decisions in collaboration with the SGB team, particularly the Director and sometimes, the programme manager. This collaborative effort ensured that the construction aligned with the institution's vision and met the desired standards.
By acting as the interface between various stakeholders, I role involved bridging the gap between conceptualization and execution, contributing to the realization of a dynamic and functional space for the SGB and its diverse range of activities.
With the introductions covered, here are my key reflections on 30 months of working on the project:
Inter-disciplinary collaborations and developing a collective vision This project brought together professionals from various disciplines, including architects, engineers, designers, researchers, conservationists, and vendors. Each individual brought their unique experiences and expertise to the table. Working with such a diverse team was both challenging and rewarding, as we had to navigate the complexities of merging different approaches and ideas. The SGB's distinctive nature as the first public institution in India aimed at young adults, featuring exhibition spaces and specialized public labs, further added to the complexity of defining its identity. Is SGB a gallery? Is it a research institute? Is it a community space? Or is it a youth hangout space? In hindsight, SGB was all of these but not one identity was bigger than the other. We grappled with decisions regarding the level of access for different target audiences, whether to include a campus wall, and determining which spaces should be participatory or more specialized and controlled. Through careful deliberation and dialogue, we sought to strike a balance that would enable the SGB to fulfill its mission while remaining inclusive and accessible to all. This ongoing process of questioning and refining our approach was vital to ensure that the final outcome truly aligned with the institution's vision and the needs of its intended audience. It deepened my understanding of the complexities involved in creating public spaces that resonate with diverse communities.
Striking the balance between the Exhibition spaces, specialised laboratories, and community spaces We stood on a limited land of 1.2 acre and building height to be no more than 15m above ground level. We had a total number of five floors, including two basements. While most science galleries around the world focus primarily on exhibition and community spaces, SGB had the mammoth of a task to design six public labs interspersed around the campus. We dealt with this by understanding the overlaps between functionality between spaces, becoming aware of our limitations and making sure our spaces are as flexible as they can be.
Over-designing vs under-designing individual spaces (a very very important learning) Continuing from my previous note, striking the right balance was also a delicate challenge as it involved avoiding both over-designing and under-designing in terms of the structural design, spatial layout, services and finishes. Over-designing would entail unnecessary expenditure, while under-designing would result in spaces that were ill-equipped for their intended functions. The three kinds of above mentioned spaces are distinct not only in their functional requirements but also, how they connect with each other physically. Thus, it was imperative to take on a complex task: Determining the appropriate level of specialization for each and understanding ways in which they can co-exist. For example, when designing the exhibition rooms, we had to decide on the structural loading, whether it should be 500kg/m or 1 tonne/m. This decision depended on the intended use of the exhibition spaces, which we knew vary across thematic exhibition seasons. Drawing insights from the Science Museum in London, where they had 2 tonne/m loading to accommodate large exhibits like railway engines and airplanes, we ruled out such requirements for SGB as we knew it is highly unlikely we would budget bringing in such huge exhibits for our programmes and we also had physical limitations such as not having doors big enough to bring in a railway engine in the room and corridors already being constructed and do not have the capacity to hold an engine. After a process of elimination and creating scenarios for a variety of exhibit mediums, we arrived at a loading capacity of 500kg/m, which suited our anticipated needs. We followed a similar research-add-eliminate process to designing our public labs. SGB has six public labs: Natural Sciences Lab, Materials Lab, Food Lab, Theory Lab, New Media Lab and Black Box Theatre. This knowledge was my starting point for research when I joined the project. My research was intended to reach a stage of decision making where we can decide on the electrical, HVAC, plumbing and gas supply services so that our consultants can provide those services. This is not an indication of exactly what will be done in the labs, but what is 'possible' to do in the labs. We particularly focused on the kind of experiments that are possible in a range of labs, from a simple lab in school to a lab in a research department of natural sciences institute to lastly, an artist's lab. We did this through conversations with scientists, art institutions and artists, and studying already existing material on setting up a lab. This helped us in understanding ways in which we can make our lab flexible for any future requirements. For instance, we gave two extra gas pipe connections for unknown gases, we made sure we have separate spaces for tissue culture room and microscopy room, we kept our layout simple and free we move. Factors such as the cost of equipment, the possibility of using equipment from partner institutions, or renting them at a lower cost played a role in making decisions. Lastly, we understood equipment overlaps between different public labs to avoid redundancy and streamline functionality. Common services and equipment also gave us an opportunity to encourage inter-lab collaborations for when the spaces open in 2024.
Approach to accessibility should be ingrained from the very first step of the project One of the significant lessons learned from this project is the importance of incorporating accessibility considerations right from the project's inception. Reflecting on my experience, I joined the project when the Basement Floor had already been constructed and certain major architectural decisions had been finalized. However, as I delved deeper into researching building and signage accessibility, I realized that the spatial design could have been simplified to facilitate easier ramp design. While it's worth noting that the building is entirely wheelchair-friendly, I questioned whether the spatial layout could have been simpler, with fewer turns and construction complexities, while still maintaining accessibility.
Similar decisions had to be made across various spaces within the building. To ensure flexibility and avoid closing doors for future upgrades or adaptations, we aimed to simplify our decisions in both design and services. This encompassed aspects such as electrical connections, gas pipes, and window and door openings. By carefully considering these elements, we aimed to create a building that could evolve and adapt to changing needs and requirements.
Overall, finding the right balance between specialization, flexibility, and accessibility required a comprehensive understanding of the project's objectives, engaging with experts from different fields, and making informed decisions that aligned with both the budget and the intended functionality of the spaces.