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Future meets past in Saudi's new eco-friendly university

By Daniela Deane

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Saudi Arabia's new academic hub
  • Campus is blend of Islamic influences and cutting-edge technology
  • Central quad divided up into a series of "little places" to encourage community
  • You can feel the breezes and see the Red Sea from almost everywhere
  • The design is aimed at pulling people together

LONDON, England (CNN) -- On the eastern shore of the Red Sea at Thuwal, about an hour north of Mecca lies the 14 square mile campus of Saudi Arabia's newest university, KAUST.

The King Abdullah University of Science and Technology is a graduate-level university, notable for being first place in conservative Saudi Arabia where male and female students can study side-by-side.

KAUST is also pushing boundaries in ecological and architectural domains.

Situated in Saudi's harsh desert climate with intense sunlight and low rainfall, architects blended traditional regional design with modern eco-design to create a comfortable, sustainable environment for students.

Bill Odell of HOK Architects, one of two principal designers of the project, tells CNN's Inside the Middle East about the project he's been working on for the past two years.

Inside the Middle East: What were you aiming at with the design of the campus?

Bill Odell: It's in keeping with King Abdullah's mission. A large part of that is the future of energy, the future of water, and the future of the environment.

IME: How have you made the campus energy-friendly?

BO: The buildings have been designed to be very low energy and one of the things that we did harkens back to some of the traditional solutions in the Mideast, which is buildings that are very close together ... that screen the sun from the outside.

Everything has been pulled very close together so most of the buildings self-shade each other, further cutting down the energy load.

IME: How did you cater to the scientific community that will study and do research here?

BO: [The design of the campus] gets to the mission of the university, that is pulling people together. This complex will be successful by virtue of the fact that we're bringing a whole lot of really smart people together and they will need to collaborate, and the collaboration is where the breakthroughs in science will happen.

IME: How did you design the university quad?

BO: We looked at quadrangles from universities all over the world -- the U.S., Europe, England and Saudi Arabia -- to find the kind of model, the right size of space that would be big enough to accommodate the whole student population and faculty for big events, but also small enough on a day-to-day basis that it felt intimate and didn't overpower anybody.

The whole central quad is broken up into a whole series of little places, so there's lots of places for people to sit, gather.

IME: How does the campus work with nature?

BO: You can hear the breeze coming through here. The campus has been designed to maximize those breezes.

There's a solar tower in each of the buildings. It's yet another idea borrowed from Islamic architecture of this region. It heats up the air, which rises, and it pulls in the sea breezes into all of these places.

IME: What about the scientific labs?

BO: The labs themselves are largely all public spaces and are largely naturally ventilated through the solar towers.

Inside the Middle East
Bringing you the latest news on politics, pop culture and modern life in the Middle East.

In the math and applied science building, there's an incredible visualization room that allows people to look inside a molecule, look inside a star cluster, look inside things that man couldn't look at before.

This is one of the first lab neighborhoods. You can see that the offices are all facing this light-filled atrium that looks out to the Red Sea and the purpose of that is to get all of the researchers facing each other and therefore talking to each other.

IME: What inspired you in your designs of the buildings?

BO: Part of is was the performance of the building, how the buildings help the people do what they're doing. In this case (the math and applied sciences building), they'll be doing really cutting-edge research. Then part of it is leaving an artifact for future generations that says, 'this is what these people did in the first part of the 21st century.' It's a combination of those things.

What's necessary in creating a facility like KAUST ... is creating a sense of community built around research and innovation and exploration, so every aspect of the building has been kind of thought in those terms, from how the researchers work in their labs to frankly how people grab a cup of coffee or a cup of tea and lots of places to have people sit and talk and lots of places for people to run into each other so they have that opportunity.

IME: What inspiration did you take from ancient Islamic architecture?

BO: We have daylight in all of the buildings, but it's very controlled daylight. This is a very modern interpretation of a very historic Islamic tradition and architecture of controlling the sun and doing it in a very beautiful way.

There are very few places (on campus) where you're not in touch with water, you don't hear water. That also goes back to Islamic roots. Just the mere sound of water, just hearing it, you feel cooler.