USJ - Campus de l'Innovation et du Sport

Subject: Building Review
Author: Ramzi Naja

Looking back in perspective, one has to admit there has in fact been a rise in quality architecture in the Lebanese capital. Although the number of developers hasn’t decreased, actual thought-of buildings have surfaced here and there. One contributing factor is Solidere’s approach to the down town area: Rafael Moneo, Ricardo Bofill, Steven Holl, KPF, Foster, Herzog & DeMeuron, and on goes the list. But also despite the aggressive competition Solidere put in the market, particularly in Phase II of the Beirut Central District master plan (the high-rise/new construction phase), several local architects have emerged with decent designs, luckily not just limited to the revived down town area. A fresh example is the new USJ Campus de l’Innovation et du Sport by Youssef Tohme and 109 Architects nearing completion in Beirut’s ‘Mathaf’ area. The project was awarded to a collaboration between Y.Tohme / Arhitects and 109 Architectes following a competition organized by the Université St. Joseph, the leading French university in the country. It was Yousseh Tohme’s first project in Lebanon and 109 Architectes’ first educational project covering an area of 57,000 square meters and consisting of stadiums, auditoriums, classes, and more.

Rendering showing the campus from the main street.
The design is an extensive experiment in massing, void, skin, and the intersection of the three. The façade treatment jumps from opaque to perforated skin, sometimes with large voids revealing unique spaces in the structure. The campus is on a relatively small lot and consists of a series of six buildings separated by gaps but joined by bridges.
Mass plan.
Several scenarios of façade treatment exist: perforated skin with voids, massive untreated walls, massive walls with chaotic and deep openings, translucent polycarbonate skin, and more. The amount of different treatments on adjacent buildings, the same building, and sometimes even the same façade is a little overwhelming; however, the reading of the campus somehow remains clear. In fact it is currently one of the most identifiable works of architecture in Beirut. The material is unified: fair faced concrete with a visible texture à la Paul Rudolph and steel in particular places such as stair cases and handrails.
Section showing the main athletic building.
The texture of the concrete and a juxtaposition of the outer façade treatment and the inner façade treatment.
The approach to light and shadow is a reminder of Jean Nouvel’s work, probably justified by Youssef Tohme’s extensive experience with the latter.
The Copenhagen Concert Hall by Jean Nouvel. The translucent skin, the gaps within it, the fair faced concrete behind it, and the diamond based pattern on the glass all pose similarities with the USJ campus.
The pattern swept over the façade is inspired by the Mousharabieh and in its re-interpretation takes a more contemporary form and flows on an entirely different scale.  Searching along the outer skin it is easy to get lost in scales of diamonds but then to suddenly lose these diamonds. In fact the corners have a tendency to fail, sometimes disrupting the pattern or abruptly driving two patterns into each other, as if certain facades are treated independently rather than a literal sweeping of a woven skin all over the project. The effect of Russian dolls is played out on the façade where it is hard to stop going into smaller and smaller diamonds within the diamonds.

A better treated corner where the diamond makes the fold with the skin.
The staircase and the shadows resulting from the patterned skin.
Even though the more linear perforations create a sense of loss, the spirit of the diamonds cannot be lost, arguably making them a marked motif of the project. It is even still possible to fall back into the pattern after crossing a corner or an irregular edge or plane. However, this approach only dominates the exterior of the campus, the enclosed space within is treated with countless sizes and depths of openings taking the shape of squares or rectangles. The exterior skin sneaks in only via the building on the south-east corner of the lot.
An example of a not so successful corner.
The corner where the exterior skin peaks into the central space. The auditorium’s glass wall and the pond are seen to the right.
Rendering of the centre of the campus.
The central space of the campus is characterized by five elements. The first is a large stair case climbing alongside one of the buildings and ending in the series of landscaped roofs allowing panoramic views of the city amidst a green environment. The second is the folded corner of the building adjacent the stairs. Third is the series of vertical strips at the base of one of the buildings with a corner completely open. Fourth comes the pond with the fifth element behind it, the large glass opening that acts as the background to the stage of the auditorium on the inside. Of course within the larger bounds of this space one can see the perforated skin where it enters, a massive façade, and a translucent façade, truly marking it the heart of the project in every way.
View towards the auditorium.
Rendering of the roof landscapes.
Early renders reveal a more regular, simplified skin that mimics translucency. It appears that the skin that was actually built developed through the progression of the project along with the large openings in it. The unapplied skin was seemingly also based on diamonds but in a less manipulated and more systematic way, probably not easily feasible or economical. Also the treatment on the ground level was changed for the better in several places. Overall the changes were positive in terms of particulars, and still preserved the overall quality and character of the project as well as its fantastic spaces. This experiment of a building is very much on par with what an educational facility can be in a city like Beirut. It reflects process, community, response, and innovation, all qualities often strived for in academics. The exterior treatment creates a buffer of communication with the city, the space within creates a protected social atmosphere, and the green roofs highlight the perception of the city from within guarded grounds, all three being poetically connected with a grand staircase.
Floor plan.
Rendered view from the auditorium looking onto the central space.
View from the auditorium.


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