Architect Talik Chalabi discusses the success of Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre in Al Ain four years after completion

“The management at the Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre often report that regular visits by school children always result in enthusiastic feedback,” said Talik Chalabi, managing director at Chalabi Architekten & Partner, the architecture firm behind the building. And I have been told by a couple of mothers that once their children step into the building, it’s difficult to persuade them to leave.”

All images by Mohamed Somji, courtesy of Talik Chabali

Completed in 2013, the Al Ain-based Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre is an award-winning building that houses a research centre for desert and environment-related issues. Emerging from the ground in response to the surrounding landscape, the tube structure, which rests on a base, winds around an open courtyard and finally culminates in a panorama window facing the UAE’s highest mountain, Jebel Hafeet.

Inspired by the surrounding desert and mountainscape, the structural form generates a continuous loop in the architectural promenade that evokes a Moebius band. Unlike a flat desert, the building offers a series of experiences in the vertical axis, which Chalabi references as a driving element behind the project’s continued success.

“The success of the building stems from the fact that it offers spatial experiences that contrast with the accustomed, standardised 90-degree spaces, which are built from uniform, repetitive floors and building components. The expressive massing of the building in the landscape, is complemented by fluid and dynamic interior spaces which are situated at different levels yet are visually interconnected,” said Chalabi.

“Thus, the visitors are drawn to a promenade in an interior space continuum. An analogy with landscape results from the fact that apart of the vertical elevators’ shafts, all walls are either inclined at different angles or are curved.”

According to Chalabi, the building spirals down below grade around a funnel-like inverted courtyard space evoking the “experience of geological layers and underground water sources”. He added that the building’s looping circulation is suitable for museums, as it avoids dead-ends and offers various perspectives between galleries. The architecture encourages visitors to explore and experience the different spaces, starting with the underground floors and ending with the visitors’ promenade, which offers dramatic vistas of the nearby mountain range.

Throughout the building, references of local nature are plentiful. The underground floors represent an animal’s burrow in the desert, while a large water basin flowing into a cistern evokes the abundance of water below the country’s sandy landscape. And lastly, the unique geology of Jebel Hafeet inspired the slopes and inclinations of the building, as well as its stone cladding.

“There are absolutely no repetitive elements in the building. Furthermore, there are themes and metaphors which are embedded in the building, such as water elements, views to the mountains, ramps and so on. Thus, the building is a walkable sculpture that tells a story,” said Chalabi.

Inside, the CAD generated parametric geometry of the cinema’s wall and ceiling interior cladding offers a canopy to the seating tiers. The panels’ surfaces consist of acoustic plaster sprayed over gypsum boards which are supported on steel frames. The panels are lit by LED strips, which enhances their organic geometry. The success of the building can further be felt in the seamless integration of services, said Chalabi.

“The structural design and building services are also well integrated with the architecture. For example, upon the first approach of the building, at the entrance plaza, visitors are struck by the audacious 40m wide span of the exhibition gallery,” he added. “Finally, the parametric, nonmodular geometry which was applied in the interior and stone façade cladding refers to the building’s natural and organic shapes.”

The Sheikh Zayed Desert Learning Centre has obtained LEED Platinum and Estidama five pearl design rating — achieved through a combination of passive and active measures in saving energy and water consumption, as well as using partially local and recycled materials.

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