ABU DHABI // A striking and unique piece of architecture has helped to put the UAE's higher education on the world map while becoming an instant landmark.
Zayed University's new Dh3.7 billion Abu Dhabi campus in Khalifa City, which opened to students in September last year, spans 80 hectares and holds a four-storey library containing half a million books, a convention centre with more than 1,000 seats and 400 seminar rooms.
"It was a massive undertaking that had to be fast-tracked," says Alexander Maul, a senior partner of Hadi Teherani Architects, part of the German firm Bothe, Richter, Teherani, which designed the campus.
"The project began in February of 2009 and the campus had to open in August of 2011."
Up to 8,000 employees had to work for 28 months to design and build the enormous development in such a short time.
What makes the campus instantly noticeable, even from a considerable distance, is its enormous, smooth, wave-like roof that reflects the desert sun.
The roof is made of 8,000 tonnes of steel shielded by 25,000 aluminium panels. It is a continuously curving, jointless sculpture that is impervious to the elements.
The free-form appearance of the roof was kept intact by minimising and hiding all of its structural supports.
"The roof is a unique organic and free-flowing form, just like the dunes of the desert, which is intended to blend into its surrounding with the location being its main inspiration," says Mr Maul, the project leader.
Another key concept of the design is its striking courtyard, an essential part of the campus.
Although it was not in the original architectural drafts, the designers were asked to include a 2.4-metre wall splitting the courtyard to keep male and female students separate.
Mr Maul says: "We, as Germans, don't like the wall. We had one in the past and didn't want another."
In practice, the wall has not achieved its aim. Some areas of the courtyard still offer views of the other side.
Complaints prompted the university to designate the whole area off limits.
Sustainability is also a key aspect in the structure's design, manifest in the use of shading rather than energy to cool the buildings.
"We made sure the cooling was done naturally and without money," Mr Maul says, explaining the intention was to reduce the use of air conditioning.
"The roof and facade of the design is not straight so the sun cannot affect it as much. We also used horizontal lamellas made of aluminium which still let in a lot of light while keeping the insides cool."
Attempts to keep the heat at bay work well, says Matt Duffy, an assistant professor of communications who began teaching at the university before the new campus was built.
"Heat is definitely not an issue," says Dr Duffy. "I would say it is actually too cold at times."
The 6,000-student capacity also enabled the university to increase its Abu Dhabi enrolment.
In its first term, the Abu Dhabi campus had 966 new female students and 296 new male students register for classes, an increase of 41 and 49 per cent over enrolment in 2010.
But the total number of students is just under 4,000, well under the campus's capacity.
"The campus was definitely built for growth," says Dr Duffy, who says the new grounds sometimes produce a feeling of disconnection.
"The old campus in the city was more quaint and I could walk out to a local barber for a haircut."
What the new campus lacks in location it has made up for in facilities.
"Here I was able to take the students to a conference room and set up a multimedia presentation, no problem. It wasn't so easy on the old campus," Dr Duffy says.
Hadi Teherani, the project's lead designer and co-founder of Bothe, Richter, Teherani, says: "Zayed University embodies an education move forward for upcoming generations.
"It is also all about the development potential of this society, about new ideas and new products; last but not least, about the local significance of the country."