The happy school

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Kurani, an architecture company redefining spaces for education, has designed Riverbend School near Chennai, where every experience is meant to increase student happiness. Leaving behind traditional school models, the design shows what happens when an architect first focuses on cultivating student happiness rather than academics.


The conventional mindset is that great achievement and worldly success comes at great cost – stress, loss of health, poor relationships. But it doesn’t have to be this way. With the right mindset from a young age, it’s possible to make great impact while also being centred and fulfilled on the inside. Vivek Reddy, Co-Founder of The Riverbend School, said, “If our kids come out confident, emotionally secure, fit and energetic, endowed with different skills and a positive view of the world — we will achieve what we set out to do, providing them with a solid base to thrive and leave an impact.”

Why happiness is such a priority?

“It is our view that happiness (or emotional intelligence or balance or confidence or self esteem or any other word for feeling good about ourselves and our place in the world) is the foundation on which great lives and great achievements are built. At our school, we want to focus on developing all aspects of a child’s being — intellectual, physical, artistic, social, environmental — while keeping their sense of well being and positivism and optimism intact. Often times, we focus on learning skills but ignore the long term emotional impact on the child. It’s our view that it is an emotionally secure and balanced child who is best equipped for making the right decisions regarding themselves and how to relate to and positively impact the world around them,” adds Reddy.

Why did they want to create a school?

“We honestly feel that we have an alternative view of the world and the way we need to conduct our lives. We’ve seen the general all round fascination for endless production consumption, and it doesn’t seem to bring the desired results for ourselves or the planet. By working with the young fresh minds and hearts of children, we hope to give them the right skills while focusing intensely on life’s purpose and meaning. A residential school where we have children with us for a longish time gives us the chance to shape these minds of the future. Thereby, we hope to contribute to a more understanding and kinder world where humans are better to each other and our environment,” he adds.

The Riverbend School

Designs for the Riverbend School were inspired by the world’s longest study on happiness and how meaningful relationships lead to happiness. When translating this idea into a campus, Kurani turned to anthropologists who say that relationships are best in small villages. Modelled after a village, the school is centered around a public plaza and has spaces for working, socializing, recreating, living, and farming. Construction of the boarding school for middle and high schoolers has begun and will be completed by 2020.

SPI Incubator , the partner on the project, looks at transforming education under a philosophy of cultivating happy and compassionate students who contribute in a positive and meaningful way.

The Riverbend School offers the world a model for a different kind of campus — one that will hopefully inspire more experience-oriented designs that lead to happier populations of people, globally.

Danish Kurani, Founding Architect at Kurani, said, “When a school flips the education model to prioritize student character and emotions, the campus model has to change with it. Everything on campus, from the Chinese-inspired courtyard housing to the stream-like walkways, is designed to encourage the socializing and forming of relationships which are critical to happiness and a positive outlook.” Kurani is an architecture studio committed to redefining learning spaces. They have designed K-12, university, and adult learning spaces worldwide, including Khan Lab School, Google Code Next Lab, and High Tech Collaboratory.

The system…

“We envision a Weekday Boarding system, where children spend the week on campus and return home on the weekends. This provides all the benefits of a boarding school – gives us more time with children for extracurricular activities and experiences, creates good eating, sleeping, exercise and grooming habits, makes children independent, and fosters deep friendships and connections, while also giving much needed time at home with family in the developing years,” tells Reddy.

In order to help children lead balanced lives even as adults, the school will focus on all aspects of development holistically, which include:

1. Intellectual- all learning based activities, intellectual stimulation

2. Physical- sports, fitness, knowledge about health, nutrition, well-being

3. Emotional- emotional intelligence, character development

4. Social- friendships, relationships, social skills, leadership

5. Creative Expression- in all fields including art, science, business

6. Connection (Inward Journey)- to nature, culture, and spirit, creating inner peace and harmony

7. Purpose (Outward Journey) – making an impact, pursuing excellence, following a passion

The campus…

The campus is spread across 15 acres in rural Chennai/Mahabalipuram area. Situated on the banks of a gently flowing backwater, in close proximity to a village, and surrounded by farm lands and fields.

Design principles…

Studies show that time in nature improves focus, creativity, and reduces stress levels. Students will develop a strong affinity towards nature, through bird-watching, boating, nature walks, farming and gardening. They will learn to be environmentally conscious, and gain respect for all living things.

So, the buildings are designed to enhance the nature, taking advantage of the cool breezes and natural light. Use of natural, locally sourced materials, and sustainable, eco-friendly practices is a must.

The campus is designed like a village, reinforcing strong inter-personal relationships, which are a key driver of happiness. There will be organically intersecting pathways, rounded corners, and central communal plazas — to foster collisions and interactions.

“We want children to be children, and experience everything fully. Our philosophy revolves around joy, freedom, exploration, taking risks, engaging with the world, curiosity, playfulness and fun!” adds Reddy.

Rethinking the classroom…

There will be open plan, multi-use classrooms with flexible partitions allowing for dynamic learning environments. The spaces are designed to foster creativity, curiosity, and collaboration in the students.

Students will engage in multiple ways of learning, including lectures, self-learning, blended learning with technology, and peer-to-peer teaching sessions. They will be able to experiment and implement their learnings through real-world projects.

Creative expression…

Opportunities to be creative exists in every field – the arts, sciences, or business. Through a combination of structured and free flowing unstructured activities, students will learn to fully express their inherent creativity.

Target audience…

“Well, we hope to attract those parents and students who are stirred by our vision, who see that it is important not just to achieve and transform the world outside, but that it needs to be done from a base of fulfilment and joy from within ourselves. That way, the quality and texture and ethics of everything we do becomes positive and in alignment with nature and the finer instincts of man. At the same time, we have a commitment to excellence and high achievement. We expect to give a lot of ourselves as management and teachers, and we expect that children and parents too should respond with motivation and enthusiasm,” adds Reddy.

“We are a not for profit. The fee structure will generally cover our costs, and we do not expect it to be beyond the reach of upper middle class. But if we do identify talented deserving children who cannot afford the fee, we will cover for them. Also, as a school, we are not aspiring for scale. We wish to achieve our vision and high quality education with smaller numbers. Hopefully, the positive experiences and views of parents and kids of our school will inspire other institutions to follow our philosophy. If we can create a larger impact that way, that will be greatly satisfying for us,” concludes Reddy.