In the region surrounding the desert kingdom of Jaisalmer, female literacy barely reaches 36 per cent. (According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, the 2019 global literacy rate for females aged 15 and above was just over 83 per cent.) CITTA – a non-profit organization that supports development in some of the world’s most economically challenged, geographically remote or marginalized communities – is responding with the creation of the Gyaan Center. The design of the complex – which aims to equip young women with the tools to further their education and independence, as well as to bring global awareness to the issues faced by women in India – was commissioned to New York City-based architect Diana Kellogg

The first of the Gyaan Center’s three buildings to be completed is The Rajkumari Ratnavati Girls’ School, which will serve more than 400 girls in the region who live below the poverty line. In time, the school will be joined by two more structures: The Medha, a performance and art exhibition space with a library and museum, and The Women’s Cooperative, where local artisans will teach mothers and other women region-specific weaving and embroidery techniques. 

Local involvement 

The intention was to not only make the end result empowering and beneficial for the community, but the process of constructing it, too. Local craftsmen – many of whom are the girls’ fathers – built the school with their own hands. ‘When I asked about different design ideas,’ says Kellogg, ‘they would smile and say proudly: “We can do anything in stone.”’ Also made locally, furniture pieces combine rosewood with the woven charpoy seating common to India. 

Feminine symbolism 

The Gyaan Center is designed by a woman for women, a point that sent Kellogg on a cross-cultural search at the start of the design process for feminine symbols – particularly those denoting strength. She ultimately arrived at an oval shape, a form that also connects to the site by replicating the planes of Jaisalmer’s sand dunes. ‘Right now only the school is built, so the building stands alone as one oval in the desert,’ says Kellogg. ‘But when complete, the Gyaan Center will be a structure of three ovals together, which resonate with me as the formulation of infinity.’ 

Outside influence 

Connected to its goal of raising international awareness surrounding the challenges facing women in India, the Gyaan Center is not an insular community. Rather, it actively welcomes – and leans on – outside influence. Renowned women artists, designers and education advocates will be invited to create works of art, host events and present installations. Exhibitions focused on women’s empowerment at The Medha will encourage guests and tourists to visit, as will the space’s occasional transformation into a marketplace where the women can share the fruits of their weaving and embroidery workshops. The idea is that the education, independence and empowerment women gain at Gyaan will incentivize families to educate their daughters, bringing the benefit of the centre – almost like its design – full circle. 

This is an excerpt of an article that will appear in Frame 141, out 1 July.