Case study: The Lebanese student centre CASID by Fouad Samara Architects

Designed by Lebanese architecture firm Fouad Samara Architects, the Sheikh Nahyan Centre for Arabic Studies & Intercultural Dialogue (CASID) is a recently completed extension of the University of Balamand in Al Kurah, Lebanon.

Located on a gently sloping site with an unobstructed view of the existing walnut grove, the campus provides awesome vistas of the forested foreground and the Mediterranean Sea in the horizon. The design of CASID evolved from the concept of dialogue, which serves as a driving metaphor behind the building’s appearance, form and layout.

“The project was to design a centre for Arabic studies and cultural dialogue, which was the most important element of the project, so we wanted the building to symbolise that,” said Fouad Samara, founder of his namesake company. “So the building engages, effectively, in a dialogue with its immediate surroundings – with the slope of the site, the streets and the pedestrian walkways. And while it doesn’t have a ground floor, it engages with all levels of the site and with the view.”

Creating a forum for cultural, intellectual and religious exchange, the extension aims to embody the progressive ethos of the university, and fortify its role as a nexus for excellence in education, thought and dialogue within the Arab world. Opening up toward the west, the building’s orientation also symbolises the university’s position in connecting cultures through its academic programme.

Supported by wide concrete pillars, the centre sits atop the upper portion of the university’s plot, maximising the views and featuring a three-sided configuration that borders a central garden.

A modern interpretation of the traditional courtyard buildings of the Levant, CASID is not a fort-like structure. On the contrary, it knits itself into the site and opens to its surroundings.

“The lower level of the building is transparent,” explained Samara. “That allows for a dialogue between those inside the building and those outside. The lecture hall sits on the slope within the walnut grove, which is another metaphor for studying under the trees, but its terrace extends outward to meet with the external space. Dialogue happens at all points.”

Although there are clear entry and exit points to the building, access is provided from all sides, Samara added. The eastern part of the building roots itself into the landscape and is built perpendicular to it, reflecting traditional Levantine architecture and its approach to architecture on sloping sites. The western part hovers over the landscape and creates a main entrance aligned to the street while embodying the aspirations of a forward-thinking generation of students. The southern section of the extension acts as a continuation of the landscape.

“We wanted the building to be very accessible physically, visually and metaphorically,” said Samara. “And even the roof of the building is seen as a fifth elevation because it’s seen from the staff accommodation that’s uphill.”

The roof was developed into an accessible green space, which preserves the planted heritage of the area through its use of indigenous plants. It provides another public space for students and staff to enjoy the views.

The materials used for CASID include clear glass, used specifically wehre the building meets the sloping site, allowing continuity between in and out, as well as rough shuttered reinforced concrete, or Beton Brut – the indigenous building material common to Lebanese architecture. Non-structural walls and suspended ceilings were painted white, while indoor and outdoor flooring consists of honed basalt.

The 2,800m2 buildings includes the lecture theatre, four large classrooms as well as smaller meeting rooms.

“We applied a stringent design process, void of stylistic preoccupations,” said Samara. “We’ve aspired to create an indigenous piece of architecture that precisely responds to the use of the building, its sit and the cultural message it wants to send out.”

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