The American University of Beirut (AUB) is home to a new centre for debating contemporary political and social issues of importance to the Arab world.
ZahaHadid was commissioned by The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI)to construct a building described as “a forum for the exchange of ideas” – symbolised by the interweaving pathways which connect it to the university’s central buildings, administrative offices, lecture halls and accommodation blocks.
To reflect this approach, the building offers space and facilities necessary for intense dialogue – as well as a structure which is in harmony with the rest of the university. And to retain the landscaping of the faculty masterplan, the designers lifted half the building off the ground as it cantilevers out over a public courtyard and a series of elevated pathways.
The building is on a site with a seven metre drop in elevation between its south and north boundaries. It is part of a campus which combines buildings constructed in concrete throughout the 20th century in a variety of revivalist and modernist styles with different cladding and rendering treatments.
The design significantly reduces the building’s footprint by “floating” much of the facilities above the entrance courtyard to preserve the existing landscape integral to the 2002 master-plan. It also creates a new public space for the campus.
IFI stated when the project was first started: “The institute aims to harness, develop and initiate research of the Arab world to enhance and broaden debate on public policy and international relations. It currently works on several programs addressing the region’s issues including the refugee crisis, climate change, food security, and water scarcity, youth, social justice and development, urbanism, and the UN in the Arab world.”
AUB President Peter Dormanadded added it assited in the university’s development. He said: “This building asserts confidently that we are not a university that stays rooted in time and place- rather we challenge conventional thinking and actively promote change and new ideas.
“However scintillating the space and however ambitious the Institute’s plans, none of this would have been possible without the forward-looking vision and unbounded generosity of the Institute’s namesake, HE Issam Michael Fares.”
The 3,000m2 building is defined by the many routes and connections within AUB by interweaving the pathways and views within the campus to create a forum for the exchange of ideas – a centre of interaction and dialogue – at the heart of the university.
Existing ficus and cypress trees on the site – aged between 120 and 180 years old – are integral to the design. The building emerges as a series of interlocking platforms and spaces for research, engagement and discourse. The IFI’s reading room, conference workshops and research rooms “float” above the exterior courtyard.
The 100-seat auditorium is on the lowest level with its own entrance to the north, enabling the institute to host larger conferences. The building highlights the region’s tradition of working with in-situ concrete. Passive design measures, high efficiency active systems and recycled water minimise its environemntal impact.
Hadid explained her philosophy for the design: “[The building] interweaves the pathways, links and views of the campus to create a forum for the exchange of ideas – a centre of interaction and dialogue at the heart of the university.
“The design establishes the institute as a crossroads – a three-dimensional intersection and space for the university’s students, faculty, researchers and visitors to meet, connect and engage with each other and the wider community.
“The Institute’s work looks to the future and challenges us all, enriching our understanding of the Arab world by expanding research and broadening debate.”
This new civic space for the university is a covered outdoor terrace and extension of the shaded area beneath the existing trees – a place for chance meetings and informal discussion – located at the nexus of pathways that traverse the site.and meet in the atrium hall.
The wider view
Founded in 2006, TheIFI has established itself as a leading academic think tank, producing original research related to regional issues and international affairs. Among the subjects on the agenda for discussion are global security issues, climate change and the ongoing crisis of refugees from North Africa heading to Europe, along with human trafficking.
Director Rami Khouri explained its history and objectives. He said:“What we have achieved to date is just a beginning. Our commitment to Issam Fares, to the AUB and to the Arab world is ambitious and clear.
“We want the Issam Fares Institute in the years ahead to join the ranks of the great global names — Rockefeller, Thompson, Carnegie, Fulbright, MacArthur, Hewlett — that link individual philanthropy with the capabilities of an institution to improve the well-being of all humankind.”