The Sheikh Nahyan Center for Arabic Studies & Intercultural Dialogue (CASID) is seen as a new addition to the existing and firmly rooted cultural and educational fabric of the University of Balamand. By creating a forum for cultural, intellectual, and religious exchange, CASID aims to embody the progressive ethos of the University, and create a positive contribution to it.
An accessible vehicle for appreciating, studying, and furthering Arab culture, CASID enriches the University and fortifies its role as a nexus for excellence in education, thought, and dialogue within the Arab world.
Located to the south east of the Athletics Field and defined to the south by the road that links the faculty and student housing to the campus below, the site chosen for CASID is an ideal and prominent location within the University of Balamand campus with excellent and unobstructed views to the north and north-west overlooking the existing grounds in the foreground and Mediterranean Sea beyond.
The building for CASID is intended to integrate seamlessly into its environment: the built (existing and planned) fabric of the University, the topography and orientation of the site, and the wider cultural context of the region of Al Koura.
The design of CASID evolved from the concept of dialogue. Dialogue with its immediate site, architectural heritage, and larger context.
The building aims to engage faculty, students and visitors alike, be a non-authoritarian accessible platform for cultural and intellectual exchange, and offer a progressive image of Arabs to the world.
In responding to its brief, the site, and the established ethos of the University of Balamand, the architectural aspirations for this new structure developed to include the following:
- That the building should engage faculty, students and visitors alike,
- That the building should be a platform - a vehicle for cultural, intellectual and religious exchange,
- That the building should be non-authoritarian, engaging, accessible, and open.
A direct response to the architectural aspirations set for it above, CASID developed into a derived courtyard building archetype, found extensively within our Arab architectural heritage. CASID knits itself into the site with the eastern part rooted in the landscape and perpendicular to the slope reflecting the traditional way of dealing with slopes in Levant traditional architecture. The western part hovers above heroically creating the main entrance aligned to the street. The southern part acts as a natural extension to the landscape itself.
This courtyard, albeit a modern interpretation of the traditional archetype, is not a fort like structure. On the contrary, it is open to all its surroundings and engages with them. One accesses the building from all sides and from all respective levels of the streets and landscape around, symbolizing its role as a nexus of exchange and its accessibility to all.
Indeed, this ease in accessibility is fortified further by the introduction of a pedestrian path running from the Faculty Housing in the south-east to the Administration Building in the north-west that offers, indeed encourages, students and faculty alike, on their way to and from their respective residences, the opportunity to pass through the building past the exhibition café space, through the open air amphitheater – in itself an extension of the lecture theater, along the garden route to the Administration Building.
Without necessarily walking ‘into’ this building, you somehow do, and in doing so engage with it and with its calling - it is a building that you will likely, and want to, use daily!
Fully open towards the view, the courtyard is the heart of the building. With the lecture theater defining it to the north, and the café exhibition space to the east, the courtyard is defined by a colonnade that runs along the street to the west and offers, at the urban level of the campus, a piazza not only at a symbolic level, but also as a place to host events. A real and well defined public space between the lower and upper campus where one can imagine students, tutors, and visitors sitting, reading, sketching, mingling, chatting, arguing, dreaming: a forum for the entire campus.
CASID has primarily two floors. One enters the building from the main street to the west and through the colonnade into the courtyard first, and then into the main lobby. The courtyard follows the slope of the natural terrain with an amphitheater created within it as an extension of the racked seating of the lecture theater to the north. The 150 seat lecture theater is a main component of this building and is glazed on three sides. Surrounded by a walnut grove, this, on one hand, evokes the romantic notion of studying under the tree; and on the other, offers a window of interaction in and out. Here, the lecture theater is not a ‘black box’, but a place of constant interaction with the outside world. Blinds are available for shading and black out when needed.
Aligned to the main lecture theater and to its east are two smaller lecture theaters also with two glazed walls each engaging with their surroundings. To the south, a series of offices and classrooms are grouped together within a volume that is dug into the slope with its roof acting as an entrance platform, also on grade, to the level above. This upper floor, accessible also through lift and staircase from within the building, has a couple of meeting / conference rooms, two smaller lecture theaters identical to the ones below, and a series of offices and classrooms within the two wings. The director’s office is at the tip of the western wing with a balcony that offers dramatic views of the landscape in the foreground and the Mediterranean beyond. At the tip of the northern volume, and above the main lecture theater, the director’s office has a glazed wall with the same dramatic views, and another that looks protectively over the courtyard.
The roof of the building is seen as the fifth elevation clearly visible from the hills above and buildings around, and therefore developed into an accessible green roof, at once preserving the planted heritage of the site, and providing another public space with unparalleled views.
A modest basement floor is provided that includes a cloakroom and storage areas in addition to the usual services.
By applying a stringent design process, void of any stylistic preoccupations, FSA have aspired to create an indigenous piece of architecture that precisely responds to the use set for the building, its site, and the cultural message it wants to send out. In defining this aspiration, the form and materiality of CASID becomes an objective and honest translation of that.
Materials and Appearance
The materials pallet chosen for CASID was left simple and precise. Rough shuttered reinforced concrete, ‘Beton Brut’, was used for the structure and envelope. Reinforced concrete is the contemporary building material in our part of the world; and provides a clear, resilient, and honest solution to the building structure and its fabric. It is the equivalent of the load bearing stone that defined our Levant architecture until the 1920’s.
Glass is used to bring natural light and ventilation into the building, but also as a means to have the spaces within engage with the surroundings, and provide continuity between in and out. The building, where it touches the sloping site, is mostly in glass allowing the landscape and site to ‘carry on through’ within the building. The courtyard becomes the amphitheater that in turn becomes the lecture theater.
Façades facing south and west have sun baffles articulated in both spacing and size as a modern and abstract interpretation of Arabesque – itself a play on the size and rotation of geometric forms. Floor finishes are almost entirely in basalt further reinforcing continuity between in and out. Internal partitions between offices and classrooms are white painted plastered walls, while partitions to corridors are in aluminum framed glass. Suspended ceilings, where required, are white painted gypsum or perforated aluminum.