The American University of Beirut is home to a conference centre where the most pressing concerns across the Arab world will be addressed by academics, lawyers, politicians and members of the business community
A centre for debating the vital issues surrounding the Arab world is the latest creation of star architect Zaha Hadid.
Her studio has completed a building for the American University of Beirut (AUB) in Lebanon, which will host high level discussions on subjects such as the conflict in Iraq, the future of Syria and the plight of north African refugees.
The Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs (IFI) building is 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 and accommodation.
The institute stated: “We aim to harness, develop and initiate research of the Arab world to enhance and broaden debate on public policy and international relations.
Members currently work on several programmes addressing the region’s issues including the refugee crisis, climate change, food security, water scarcity, youth, social justice and development, urbanism, and the United Nations in the Arab world.”
The design is aimed at reflecting a collabarative approach by offering space and facilities necessary for intense dialogue – as well as a structure which is in harmony with the rest of the university.
To retain the landscaping of the university 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 on 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 which is integral to the 2002 masterplan. It also creates a public space for the entire campus.
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.
Hadid explained: “[It] 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.
She said 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 levels of debate,” Hadid said.
Existing ficus and cypress trees on the site – between 120 and 180 years old – are integral to the design. The building emerges from the geometries of intersecting routes as a series of inter-locking platforms and spaces for research, engagement and discourse.
The newly created 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 confluence of pathways that traverse the site.
A ramp leads between nearby trees to connect the research lounges on the second floor directly with the campus, while the first floor seminar room and offices are accessed from the east and via a public courtyard to the west.
These routes meet within the IFI in the atrium hall with the aim being to establish the institute as a crossroads – a central hub for students, faculty, researchers and visitors. 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 and presentations without disrupting students, fellows and researchers working throughout the building. Internal partitions are in ink-pigmented glass to enable communication and interaction.
The building highlights the region’s tradition of working with locally sourced concrete. Passive design measures, high efficiency active systems and recycled water technologies minimise its impact on the local and wider environment.
“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,” said AUB president Peter Dorman.
Global Impact Founded in 2006, within American University Beirut, the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs has established itself as a leading academic think tank, producing original research related to regional issues and international affairs.
IFI Director Rami Khouri explained its history and objectives: “What we have achieved to date is just the beginning.
“Our commitment to Issam Fares, to AUB and to the Arab world is ambitious, simple 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.”
- 7,000m2 Total site area
- 4,000m2 New exterior spaces
- 3,000m2 Total floor area
- 100 seats Auditorium capacity
- 22m Maximum height
- 21m Length of cantilever
- Contractor: Kettaneh
- Construction Structural and mechanical Engineer: Rafik El-Khoury & Partners
- Electrical engineer: Gilbert Tambourji