BEIRUT: Eight years after the American University of Beirut decided upon a final design for the Issam Fares Institute, the building has finally opened its doors.
But the structure, which will be officially inaugurated Thursday, has drawn both ardent support and sharp criticism from the campus and architectural communities.
The angular concrete building was designed by renowned architect and AUB alumnus Dame Zaha Hadid, who originally hails from Baghdad and is known for her award-winning and often unconventional designs.
The Issam Fares Institute encompasses 3,000 square feet, six stories, and features a distinct 21-meter cantilever that extends from the spine of the building. Rhomboid windows appear at irregular intervals, piercing the gray concrete facade.
Few would argue that the ponderous, deeply modern structure isn’t at odds with nearby buildings, almost all of which were built to reflect the Ottoman era.
“It absolutely doesn’t fit in,” admitted Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Institute “But no new building fits into its environment. No building built today in Beirut or New York or Paris is going to fit in with buildings built in 1895.”
It seems fitting, Khouri said, that Hadid’s building should push boundaries and spark discussion.
“This is a dynamic educational institution that’s built on intellectual progress and advancing knowledge,” he told The Daily Star. “The building, being as bold and creative as it is ... becomes a little bit like a symbol of the Issam Fares Institute.”
For others, including architect Sandra Rishani who lectures at AUB, the building leaves something to be desired.
“I don’t mind that the building is controversial,” she said. “I just feel like somehow its very out of context and it doesn’t try to negotiate between the space and the negative space left over.”
The modernity of the design is not the issue, Rishani said. “The Hostler center, which is a new part of the campus, does the exact opposite ... it tries to tie back to the campus,” she added, referring to the student center that opened in 2008.
Former student and blogger Elie Fares agreed that the building felt abrupt. “It looks like a spaceship,” he said. “It has an entirely different character from upper campus, and sort of rises like ‘look at me, I’m the abnormality over here.’”
Barbara Hoidn, an architect who sat on the jury that selected Hadid’s design in 2006, said that while the building was progressive, it preserved important aspects of the campus’ patrimony: “We [the jury] tried to follow the guidelines and the philosophy of the university’s master plan.”
The master plan, drawn up in 2002, suggests how to modernize AUB’s campus and facilities while still maintaining the landscape which, it notes “is seen as sacred at AUB, and is part of its institutional identity.”
“Zaha’s building is a sculpture in the park,” she said of Hadid’s design.
“It fits into the green space ... and into the topography of the campus.”
“I remember the other designs, they were much more massive.”
Although Hoidn admitted that Hadid’s design was “quite provocative and avant-garde,” she dismissed critics who suggested the building seemed out of place. “I think that is a very superficial argument that one would always have for something that is unusual or new.”
For Khouri, however, the building’s functionality trumped any design debate.
“The rooms are super high quality, efficient and comfortable,” he said. The building also offers live transmission capabilities, to better communicate with partner institutions and think tanks.
“People should not judge a book by its cover,” Khoury added. “What’s more important is what goes on inside the building.”