Inaugurated in 2007, the Khalifa University of Science and Research, which has sites in Abu Dhabi and Sharjah, recently expanded its original campus to coincide with its vision to attract more students in the coming years. Endeavouring to be an internationally recognised research university, with a world class campus and facilities, the institution sought a unique design that reflects the character of the university.
Partnering with RSP, which worked in collaboration with Elite Design and Engineering Consultancy, Khalifa University’s multi-story extension was designed with integrity to the existing campus, with a link to the original buildings via an open courtyard and a pedestrian link bridge.
Inspired by student energy, imagination and innovation, the extension consists of four educational buildings, which incorporate medical and engineering facilities, classrooms, a student hub, sports amenities, library, lecture hall and auditorium, as well as break-out spaces. The extension also boasts a six-level car park that stretches across the backside.
“The university is meant to reflect the ideas that come from the students – that are exploding out of them” said Ralf Steinhauer, director of RSP. “So when you’re in front of the university, there’s a large window for which we had designed these metal spikes to come out of, as though the ideas were bursting out of the school. The spikes were engineered out, unfortunately, but the idea is still there.”
The exterior façade, though it doesn’t contain spikes, features a double skin with the outer layer being a three-dimensional metal veil that has an intricate geometric pattern (inspired by Khalifa University’s logo). Helping to diffuse the natural light for those studying inside, the outer curtain operates as a filter of sorts, without completely distorting the view.
While there are little courtyards between each of the extension’s ‘fingers’, the buildings are connected by the ‘Student Spine’, or the interior bridge that connects all four structures on three different levels. Meandering through the space, the spine functions like a highway, said Steinhauer, and it allows students to get from place to place while enjoying a visual experience. Along its route, too, are small rest areas, where students and teachers can interact.
“The Student Spine is quite interesting because it changes appearance depending on how the sun is reflecting off its surface. And when you’re inside, you can still see where you are and what time of the day it is,” added Steinhauer.
Upon entering the campus grounds, the university’s ceremonial plaza is a welcoming place for students, teachers and the general public. On the ground floor of the first building, which opens to the street, sits a ‘Discovery Centre’ where temporary exhibitions will be on display and open to visitors. The intimate space is just before security and an information desk, illustrating the school’s commitment to being an integrated part of Abu Dhabi, not just its student population.
On the opposite end of the extension, nearing the old campus, is a sun-drenched ‘Student Hub’, where social spaces, soft seating, a cafeteria and a large, spiralling atrium merge to create an inviting community centre.
“The Student Hub is for the students, but there’s a lot of administrative staff there as well,” said Steinhauer. “So they can go there for initiation or to seek counsel. This is where they hang out – it’s where the cafeteria is. It’s also near the library, so it’s all about integration between the new campus and the old campus, where everyone can meet and from there you can disperse to different parts of the campus.”
Interior architecture elements include the perforated walls that are sound-absorbent and help sound-isolate areas of opposing use, like the various types of labs in the engineering department, as well as the atrium in the Student Hub.
The university’s extension is exemplary of what it means to design in education now. Connectivity, social spaces, technology integration (via frequent charging stations), and spatial openness define the space.
“Everything also has to be flexible,” Steinhauer added. “One classroom can be an office, a wet lab or a dry lab. All the MEP connections are there, and later, if they want to, they can reuse the space. So the idea, or the challenge, was to give the students a reason to stick around even if they weren’t in class. The university wanted to create these break out spaces so the students would feel more at home than they normally would at school.”