CAAD — American University of Sharjah

Student-generated spatial modification responds to concept-driven interior design at CAAD.

The American University of Sharjah opened the gates to its sprawling classical campus 20 years ago. Among the departments that made up the new institution was the College of Architecture, Art and Design (CAAD). Increasing in size and popularity from year to year, the small college soon outgrew the capacities of the building where it was housed. In response, faculty came together and proposed an expansion to the space that would not only be capable of housing a larger student body but would also serve the specific needs of architecture and design students.

In order to maintain consistency with the French architect Francis Gambert’s traditional campus design of AUS, it was decided that the new CAAD building, AD2, would look like its neighbors from the outside, while the faculty were given free rein with regard to the design of the interior.

Influenced collectively by the principles of the Bauhaus, the group set out on a mission in the name of honest design. Form was thought about in the service of function and not the other way around, and the materials used were presented as what they were—no disguises, no mimicry.



“The faculty teaching here wanted the building to meet their needs,” explains Dr. J. Martin Gisen, a professor of art history and architecture at CAAD and one of the faculty members involved in the interior design of AD2. “We were interested in open education in terms of multidirectional opportunity for engagement. That means that we would all learn from whoever we could learn from. Professors would learn from students, professors would learn from each other, one specialist would learn from another specialist, and students would learn in an inter-gender fashion as well as an inter-national and an inter-level fashion. And if you want to accommodate that kind of inter-directional contact, you need to create a space where that can happen.”

The ceilings at CAAD were left exposed, revealing air-conditioning ducts, water pipes, and other elements of utility so that students could reference these mechanics from the very space within which they worked rather than from a textbook. Classroom spaces contained by walls and doors in other AUS departments and in traditional learning facilities the world over were rejected and replaced with wide-open spaces where various assignments in progress, the instruction of new methods and ideas, and different design experiments occurring throughout the year could all collude to influence and inspire. Rows of simple, sturdy working benches and desks, designed by the CAAD faculty as well, were planned with a commitment to permanent space assignment verses the temporary availability of the hot desk. Beginning in second year, every CAAD student since has had his or her own designated open working area in which their often-messy and complex projects can be developed without interruption.


We have faculty offices as closely linked to the students as possible to act as a sort of membrane that wraps around the activity of the open studios. The faculty offices themselves were ordered in such a way that they would be officially random. We don’t have the interior designers next to the interior designers, but we do have a graphic designer and a filmmaker and an architect all randomly grouped so that they enrich each other.

Dr. J Martin Gisen, A professor of the history of Art and Architecture at CAAD


It is interesting to visit a brand-new building and learn about the concepts that motivated an architect’s design choices, but it’s arguably just as, if not more, interesting to visit a building that has been in use for some time where it’s possible to compare the architectural ideologies with people’s lived experiences. The open-plan interiors at AD2 proved capable of accommodating many of the anticipated pedagogical results, as well as some unexpected effects, both positive and problematic.

Suspended display boards on which assignments are hung and presented by students are visible from all three floors surrounding the atrium. The open space thus allows for large audiences to spontaneously gather during presentations, as anyone in the building can walk up to the balustrade and listen. This style of presentation experience, only possible on account of the lack of walls and doors, pushes students to face their public-speaking fears, better preparing them for architecture and design careers in which convincing roomfuls of strangers of the merits of one’s vision is important.

“The idea of having those three different floors that you could see all of,” says Kamran Farooqui, a former CAAD student, “the idea that you would move up through the floors as you went through your program, that inspired the students a lot. You think to yourself, I want to go up to those higher levels! The physical shift upward in those floors was motivating to see.”

On the other hand, the openness of the building’s interiors felt noisy to some. In response to this issue, a group of students spent a semester designing, manufacturing, assembling, and installing a large honeycomb- like wall for the specific purpose of noise reduction. State-of-theart labs in the college boast an array of CNC (computer numerically controlled) machinery, including robotics, laser, and 3D-printing capacities, as well as the more traditional ceramics and woodworking shops for the facilitation of production and experimentation.

Student-generated modifications to the building abound, enriching experience of space through such additions as an outdoor bird refuge that utilizes biomimicry in its design; an indoor corner for conversation, rendered in recycled natural material; and a wooden wall unit, which offers seating, a display case, and a communal gathering table around which ideas for further transformation to the AD2 space are presumably being discussed and developed.