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Chennai Math Institute Campus Courtyard

Chennai, India 

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In 2011, K.S. Ranganath Architecture commissioned Alison Duncan Design to develop concepts for an outdoor courtyard in the new multi-story math building which was under construction.


The courtyard is perched between an outdoor amphitheater, used primarily as a classroom, and faculty offices. The overhanging slab allows for less than 20' of height and covers a majority of the space in shade, therefore limiting the planting palette and restricting the use of trees that would grow in excess of 15'-0". The architects requested design concepts that were sculptural, allowed for circulation through the space, and provided for outdoor seating and planting.

Initially, four concept diagrams were provided and the client and architect chose to proceed with the Point Garden scheme. Following this decision, two entirely different design alternatives were then developed into Schematic Design plans, sections, and renderings.

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Option 1 pursues a planting scheme of “Air Plants” (or Tillandsia plants) requiring no soil and minimal water while surviving primarily on nutrient exchange with the air. These plants are fascinating in their vast variety of flowers and foliage, and are pointy in their habit. Circular concrete pavers for walkways, gravel mounds, and rounded seating pods emerge from a base plan of points that shift in size and density across an arrayed grid on the floor plane of the courtyard. The plant material covering the gravel mounds also shifts in density across the field. Corresponding to points in the base plan, hanging clusters of Tillandsia plants are hung from different heights from the ceiling slab above. Option 1 would provide a unique and very low maintenance environment for walking, contemplation, and small group gatherings.

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Option 2 pursues a more vertical, sculptural, and artificiality of nature in its translation of points. Using a similar base plan of points shifting in size and arrangement, a series of grass-like blades of glass fiber reinforced resin called “Sticks” emerge in circular clusters. The shifting heights of the Sticks create an elevated topography that will sway with the wind or the human touch. This alternative could also be made to be more natural by substituting Sticks for Equisetum, an evergreen perennial of upright green stalks. Walkways and seating emerge between the clusters of the Sticks or Equisetum. Option 2 provides an environment of low maintenance within an artful space for walking, study, and small group gatherings while also allowing for an interesting interplay with light and shadow and human interaction.

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Design Team

Alison Duncan Design 

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