Due to the problematic situation of law and order in Karachi, educational institutes are often designed as isolated buildings. Such architecture of the institutes minimizes the interdisciplinary interaction between the students as well as negates the concept of building up a learning community. It was in 2010 when Architect Saifullah Sami was assigned to design Habib University with the ideology of design the institute as a synergized space where diverse disciplines work co-dependently.
The ideology itself stands as an unprecedented idea in the context of Karachi. Institutes in Karachi mostly revolve around isolated formal learning. Whereas Habib University envisioned it as a space where the three diverse disciplines; Science, Engineering, and Arts were interlocked to create a mutually benefitting atmosphere. The architectural translation of the ideology was achieved through a symbiotic relationship between the three key elements; interactivity, openness, and being environmentally friendly. The architects aimed to strategize these elements to create active spaces that enhance interdisciplinary interaction in the university.
Form Dictated by Site
The site was one of the most crucial aspects of this project due to the limitation and the drawbacks that it beheld. It was an irregular-shaped site with an area of 6.79 acres located in a low-income dense urban fabric. The irregularity of the site created the challenge of dead spaces on the periphery of the site. Thus, the architect used the accretion of smaller volumes to respond to the dynamic form of the site. The dynamic form, with the tapering topography on the north-east and south-west edge, aids the architect to create a vertical and horizontal layering of spaces interlocked with semi-open courts. The Sunkencourtyards on the northeast and southwest edge facilitated the natural ventilation.
Proximity to the airport at the rear end of the site dictated a tapering form of the structure. The flight path restricted the height limits from sixty-five feet on the north side descending to eleven feet on the south side. The towering structure on the north side responded to the surrounding urban context as well as created a welcoming gesture at the entrance. The domestic scale at the south edge responded to the low-income community living in proximity.
Creating sustainable green spaces in the city of Karachi is a very difficult task due to the shortage of water supply. Often the courts of educational institutes created to serve as informal learning spaces turn into the barren ground due to water shortage. Open sewer contaminated by effluents from the residential and industrial areas surrounds the site of Habib University. This water used fully to sustain a public park on the southern edge that acts as a climatic buffer as well as helps the student interact with the community.
Fragmentation and Accretion of Volumes
The irregularity of the site didn’t make it feasible to design the space through pure form. However, the fragmentation of form into multiple interlocked volumes creates an organic pattern of open and closed spaces. Also, the inspiration taken from traditional South Asian cities creates a staggering organization that allows flexible growth. Such informality and flexibility of the formal organization provided the campus freedom of growth in the future.
Pedestrian Promenade at Habib University
The organizational inspiration taken from South Asian cities generates a void in between the masses. These voids vary in scale, proportion, and character, ranging from the narrow street to large courtyards. The hierarchical layering of courtyards was based on scale, the largest central court was becoming the heart of the campus. Also, recreational activities surround the court; an amphitheater, gym, indoor games room, etc. The two smaller introverted courts were opening into an academic department, providing an opportunity for peer learning adjacent to the formal learning space. So the sunken courtyards became a more privatized open space for the labs.
Thus each courtyard had a distinctive character that was built through activity, scale, and level. Each court resides on a different level yet they are weave in together through circulation. The circulation is the central spine of the projects, that swirls around the masses whistle interlocking with courtyards creating a continuous movement. The architect celebrates the circulation by exaggerating the ramp and bridge that create delayed movement. The interlocking of ramps and bridges across the masses, opening up on multiple levels creating opportunities for a chance encounter. The circulation also acts as a climatic buffer that protects the labs and science department from the harsh climatic condition of the city.
In the process of understanding the significance of informal learning one cannot neglect the importance of formal education. With the presence of ramps and bridges that maintain a connection between the diverse discipline it simultaneously threatens their autonomy. Thus, the spatial organization was a strategic process to maintain a certain level for each program as required. The outer east side periphery opening towards the main road houses the facility of Library and Auditorium. These two facilities represented the interaction with the community whistle highlighting the importance of linkage between academia, society, and industry. The academic and administration department was a shift towards the west edge to maintain a certain level of privacy and disconnect. The Science department was sunken to the underground floor as a precautionary measure as well as to protect the labs from the heat waves of Karachi.
The main entrance to the campus is through the main road that connects it to the city ahead. The articulation of curved form on the Northeast edge was due to responding to the roundabout. It softens the edge of the site and creates fluent pedestrian and vehicular movement around the corner. Also, the pedestrian entrance is a double-height space that acts as a semi-open transitionary space between the city and the campus. The cantilevered form of academic research center opens up into the transition space through the glass façade. It creates a visual connection between the students and the visitors and floods the center with indirect natural light. The vehicular drop is facilitated with a green mound juxtaposed with two yellow walls. The merger of color and greenery creates a fresh welcoming gesture also it is used as a waiting spot for cars.
Material used in Habib University
The project has an extensive material palette including concrete, sandstone, terracotta tiles, gravel, etc. The material selection has driven through the need for durability and easy maintenance, instead of aesthetic demand. The exposed concrete and stone wall dominated the exterior facades of the structure to avoid maintenance expenses. The flooring for the outdoor spaces was a combination of gravel and terracotta tiles, the selection was due to their cooling impact. Whereas the rooftop patios were a thick layer of gravel to minimize the noise originated from the airport.
Summarizing Karachi is a city with a dense history of crime and violence, parents and institutes prioritize safety over interaction for the student. In addition, creating a socially interactive institute was a very unpopular concept in the context of Karachi. Also, Habib University is one of its kind that was able to find a balance between interaction, openness, and safety.
We need to understand that space, where we learn, plays a significant role in our learning process. The architecture of an institute is a device that can accelerate the learning process through healthy interaction between students. Spaces that provide opportunities for peer learning, chance encounters, informal interaction between teachers and students improve the quality of learning.
Aqsa is an architecture student and a self-taught writer. With a keen interest in urban planning and cartography. She believes that words are the fourth or the unseen dimension of a space that can enable people to connect to spaces more than ever thus aiming to empower the architecture community through her voice.