GAJ designs desert public school


Architect firm Godwin Austen Johnson has been recreating the atmosphere of learning associated with an English fee-paying school in the desert as part of a UAE-UK education project.

Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, which is based on the ethos and curriculum of Cranleigh School, an independent school founded in 1865, will be the first school campus on Saadiyat Island. Built over seven hectares of land, it has a capacity to accommodate more than 1,600 students andis set to open this year.

GAJ Partner Brian Johnson said: “This is very much a Cranleigh School in the Middle East. Staff from the English school impressed us from the very beginning with their commitment to ensuring students feel part of something of quality.


“We want to recreate the spirit and ethos of a public (fee-paying) school and the buildings are designed around a central open space which acts as a physical focal point for the whole establishment.”

The project was initiated by the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), in Abu Dhabi.

It is part of several new educational and cultural institutions on the island, such as New York University Abu Dhabi the Louvre Abu Dhabi,  Zayed National Museum and Guggenheim Abu Dhabi.

Peter Moy is an architect on the project, which is aiming for a two star Estidama sustainability rating.

He said: “From the outset we worked closed with the client TDIC and the school to try and bring the essence of Cranleigh,UK to the new campus.

 “We travelled to the UK a number of times to visit the original school and to discuss what could be done better in a new school with many of the senior staff and heads of department.

 “The most striking feature of the school in the UK was the fabulous mature landscape setting providing a backdrop for the school buildings and facilities. We have worked to recreate this idea of a landscape setting in the new school with all the facilities arranged around the ‘village green’ at the centre of the school campus. Everything looks out onto this green centre and to the beautiful coastline of Abu Dhabi beyond.”

 Moy said that one of the designs which the English school could not inspire was how to cope with the heat. He said: “We have orientated the buildings to create natural shade onto external spaces but where this has not been possible we have provided external shading devices and careful placement of landscaping elements to allow the students to circulate through the campus under cover.

 “We have also designed the school to open up to the outside in the cooler months so teaching and recreation can take place both inside and outside.”

 Johnson has experience of designing schools in the UAE dating back to the 1970s, when he worked on Dubai College. He said looking at the building from a child’s point of view was a vital tool.

 “In establishments for older children you can get them involved in the actrual process,” he said. “But for younger ones it is sometimes necessary to drop down and look at how the surroundings appear to their eyes.

 “Schools can be quite impersonal and children need to be able to find their way around when they leave the comfort zone of their classroom. They need to know where the head-teacher’s office is and how to get to the library. This can be accomplished using colours or pictures, they are easier to remember than letters and numbers.”

 Moy said that the age range of the school, which has facilities for boarders – a first for the emirate  – will have pupils from three years old to 18 and this meant two distinct design patterns were drawn up.

 He said: “The primary school is full of bright colours and playful design features to stimulate the younger children, and the windows are all at low level favouring views for the younger children. We have created internal and external play spaces allowing the younger children to play with appropriate equipment as they progress through the school years.

 “When we get to the senior school the environment is much more grown up and ‘adult’ focusing on individuals and different spaces are provided to cater for different types of students as they develop.

 “Within the layout design there are plenty of spaces provided for independent study outside the classroom environment as well as more specialist teaching spaces. The external spaces around the senior school give a range of opportunities for group play and interaction as well as quieter spaces for study and reading. The entrance to the senior school offers an impressive entrance in keeping with the status of Cranleigh School.”


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