Seldom does a designer encounter the opportunity to both redefine a project’s location and assume a pivotal role in shaping its program. Architect Aman Aggarwal of Chandigarh design practice Charged Voids accomplished just that when he designed a student housing block nestled within a 25-acre campus for the Chandigarh Group of Colleges, situated in a semi-urban area just outside of Chandigarh proper.
The initial scope was simple; create low-cost housing for 500 students on a central green lawn on campus. During one of Aggarwal’s initial site visits, however, the architect recognized the potential to instead revitalize an adjacent parcel of land — a neglected former bus yard — and maintain the green lawn, which is often used as a soccer pitch and gathering space. The architect suggested building the student housing complex on the triangular plot and orienting it to overlook the preserved greenery.
The studio’s design approach consciously engaged with the brutalist aesthetic that defined the surrounding buildings on campus, as well as the broader architectural identity of Chandigarh itself. Famously master-planned by Le Corbusier in the 1950s — who also designed the city’s iconic Palace of Assembly — Chandigarh’s mid-century architecture is a manifestation of the country’s post-colonial independence, and is characterized by robust, expressive modernist structures predominantly constructed with concrete and steel.
Spanning 10 storeys, the 12,500-square-metre student housing complex is clad in local Kota stone (a fine-grained variety of Indian limestone), painted white surfaces, and roughly textured grey walls that recall Le Corbusier’s aesthetic. Yet, in contrast to the campus’s enclosed design vocabulary — where numerous boundary walls isolated individual blocks and offered little opportunity for social interaction and activity — Aggarwal carved out a triangular atrium to incorporate a variety of welcoming public spaces, including a double-height covered plaza and a triple-height sunken courtyard, which could be accessed by a broad staircase descending from the approach road.
The absence of solid boundary walls and the inclusion of shaded recreational spaces encouraged people to gather naturally. Meanwhile, the building’s central atrium quickly became a locus of activity where students exhibited art and attended discussions. (The space is even large enough to host the university’s popular sports tournament registrations, which typically draw hundreds of participants.)
Taking cues from Le Corbusier’s use of dynamic colours to evoke emotional responses and infuse energy into an architectural composition, the designers also introduced vivid primary colours across the lower levels. Both an aeshtetic highlight and an intuitive wayfinding system, the splashes of colour create focal points, enhance visual impact, and cleverly delineate distinct spaces.
On the ground floor, the showpiece atrium is paired with a generous reception area, dining space (and a kitchen facility), while a reading room, administration spaces and the warden’s room occupy the first floor. In the basement, TV rooms, a gym, a multipurpose hall, and storage spaces, round out the communal facilities.
Across the upper floors, the central sky-lit atrium is flanked by residential suite, which are connected by bridges at multiple levels. These bridges facilitate circulation, chance encounters, and connectivity throughout. An intentional departure from the cramped, dimly lit corridors that colour perceptions of student housing, the design celebrates the significance of spontaneous interactions between students as they moved between their dorms and classes. In particular, the bridges offer students an experience reminiscent of strolling through a garden, providing multiple pathways to their bedrooms.
The atrium’s skylights channel light deep into the building, providing warmth —and comfortable natural ventilation — to an otherwise restrained space. The interiors, predominantly grey in tone, also come to life with doors painted in vibrant primary colours. Meanwhile, the dormitories themselves benefit from daylight through the balconies overlooking the surrounding terrain.
“It was heartwarming to witness students playing cricket on the bridges and the atrium teeming with life and activity,” says Aggarwal, after returning to the project, which was completed in 2019. “By redefining student hostels and simply creating spaces for people to come together and live better, we effortlessly integrated a strong sense of community into the fabric of everyday campus life.”
Architect Aman Aggarwal reflects on the experience of designing a dormitory complex that nurtures social interaction.