Hilary Ballon

NYUAD Deputy Vice Chancellor and urban studies professor Hilary Ballon takes us on a tour of the Saadiyat Campus, and offers her views on the design philosophies that underpin the state-of-the-art-facility.

What is the guiding vision of the Saadiyat campus?

The Saadiyat campus was designed to promote interaction between living and learning, between faculty, students and staff, between the disciplines, and between research and teaching. The arrangement of offices; the visibility across large areas and between indoors and outdoors; the connections between buildings so that none stand alone; the outdoor gathering spaces; the mixed-use buildings; and of course the on-campus living – these are among the ways the campus design encourages interaction among the members of our community.

Rafael Viñoly, the architect of NYU Abu Dhabi, says this about his design: "[T]he scheme is essentially a New Village, neither replicating the image of the traditional Islamic neighborhood, nor the character of Greenwich Village, but instead an amalgam of both, as a metaphor for the central idea of the institution that occupies it.” Can you elaborate on this sentiment?

Rafael’s design does, indeed, translate the hybrid identity reflected in our name – New York University Abu Dhabi – into architectural form. Many features recall the traditions of Islamic architecture: the irregular geometry of the campus; the relatively narrow side streets cast in shade by their buildings; the use of water in falaj-like channels and the use of local plants that do not require excessive water. I associate with New York the density of the campus; its rich variety of views; its pedestrian orientation and walkability; and the mixture of uses.
Saadiyat Campus High Line with Students

How will the layout of the campus promote interaction between the disciplines?

The academic buildings have big floor plates with no spatial separations by program which assures that people from different fields will bump into each other. Faculty and staff will find many inviting spots to gather ­– breakout spaces amid the offices and the outdoor courtyards near the classrooms, not to mention the various dining spots across the campus. Building A5, for example, mixes the Social Science disciplines, and is directly connected to Building A6 where the Arts and Humanities faculty will be based. If innovation and creative thinking is fostered by putting people with different kinds of knowledge into contact, the architecture of the campus will promote creativity.
The Saadiyat campus will be a community space for Abu Dhabi, the UAE, and the region. What are the defining elements that will allow this to happen?
Let me address that on two levels: the master plan and the university’s programs. First, the campus is physically open to the city; having no enclosing wall signals our desire to welcome the public on campus. In this respect the Saadiyat campus is like NYU’s New York campus; however, unlike in New York where the city streets and sidewalks form the connective tissue of the university’s built environment, you will have a clear sense of stepping onto the NYUAD campus because of its distinctive environment, with its own paving pattern, coherent architectural vocabulary, and landscaped plazas and pedestrian-only streets. The campus will feel like an interlocking piece of the urban fabric, with its numerous street openings (nine to be exact) carefully placed to connect to the street grid and public features – the bookstore, gallery, shops, conference center, and Welcome Center – given street frontage.
On the second level, programs will be geared to attract the public, and several facilities were designed with that public-facing role in mind. The NYUAD Institute will have a permanent home at the Conference Center (in Building A6), comprising two spectacular auditoriums, meeting rooms, and a multipurpose space. We aim to further cultivate a deep engagement with the Abu Dhabi community and the region more broadly with performances at the Arts Center, museum-quality exhibitions at the NYUAD Art Gallery, and outreach programs for families and children in the sports facilities.

How “green” will the new campus be?

The campus meets the strict environmental standards set by Estidama, Abu Dhabi’s sustainability requirements. At a time when architects have in general turned to high-tech solutions to green design, I think it’s notable that Rafael relied on low-tech, vernacular solutions well-tested by Islamic building traditions. The relationship of building height and street width was designed so that buildings would shade the public realm. A covered colonnade runs the full length of the campus. The plazas are scaled in size and landscaped with shade-producing trees so the open space is not overly exposed to the blazing heat. We selected local plants that thrive in this climate without excessive water consumption, and the use of water on the ground level will have a cooling effect. Meanwhile, out of sight on the rooftops is a touch of modern technology: solar panels will capture energy used to heat water.

One feature that dominates the campus is the High Line. What purpose does this feature serve?

The High Line, which is at Level 2, accomplishes three things. First, the High Line creates a greater variety of pathways to walk from one place to another. Having choices is part of what makes the campus plan lively and interesting. Second, it creates a semi-private realm that belongs to the residents. The landscaped quads are intimate spaces for relaxation and socializing.
Third, the High Line reduces the perceived scale of the student residences. Although the dorms sit on top of academic buildings, but because you enter on Level 2, the buildings appear to be only five or six stories tall. The dorm buildings have their own front door and gathering spot, with community resources clustered near the entrance – lounges, communal cooking zone, study room, and offices for Student Life staff. Think how differently it would feel to take an elevator from classrooms to a residential floor. The two levels of circulation (ground level and High Line) allow us to combine vertical density with the intimacy of a traditional US college quad.