Q&A: Sven Müller on designing a modern university

09 July 2018Alexandra Chaves
Q&A: Sven Müller on designing a modern university

Image courtesy of SVENM

Q&A: Sven Müller on designing a modern university

Image courtesy of SVENM

Picture a university campus. One might think of sprawling grass lawns, imposing brick buildings, or classical columns. Our associations with educational spaces tend to be traditional at best and aesthetically bland at worst. Architecture consultancy firm SVENM wants to change all that.

Founded in 2009 by Sven Müller and Sonia Brewin, the firm has worked with cultural institutions in the past, including the UAE National Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and Art Dubai. Earlier this year, SVENM was awarded a redesign project by Al Ghurair University in Academic City, which has a campus spread across 20,000 square metres and a main building that extends over three floors. The redesign project is expected to be completed by the end of 2019.

Folio spoke to Müller about the firm’s latest win, and how they plan to go about transforming the university into a more modern hub for learning.

Tell us more about the brief from Al Ghurair University and how you responded to it.
Since Al Ghurair University was built around 20 years ago, a lot has changed in education. We were asked to find a creative approach that could define the university's future-facing requirements.

We kept asking ourselves, what atmosphere for education does the country's next generation need? Our main task was to take the university into the 21st century—to adapt to a new way of learning, and bring that into its architecture.

So how did you develop and research your design strategy?
For almost 20 years, the architectural site has played a significant role in shaping the landscape of Dubai’s Academic City. So we decided to preserve the value of the site, while redefining the interior space as a vast welcoming hub for the exchange of teaching and learning.

At the core of our thinking was to encourage students to take ownership of the building. We wanted them to identify themselves with the faculties so that they can engage fully in the learning process. For this we explored the philosophy of Bait Al Hikma, a private library in Baghdad during the Abbasid Caliphate which grew into being a public university or intellectual centre.

This also influenced another design decision: to have the library become a key element of the architecture. Currently, the library is buried in the corner of the top floor. We made it more prominent, over three floors. It is placed in a way that it is visible wherever you are in the building. You are always connected to the library, and you can see the students studying inside.

What other key elements are you introducing to the space?
We transformed the entire building. The lobby, for example, will be expanded throughout the entire building. As you enter the university, you’re greeted by an 8-metre wide natural wood staircase, intended as both a transition point into the heart of the building and a site for connectivity (sociable gatherings and even impromptu teaching).

In modernising the building’s interior we have designed many made-to-measure solutions in natural materials. Our other interventions include learning hotspots, little creative hubs where students can sit, work, and collaborate. During our research, we noticed that there was a lot of wasted space in the corridors, so we turned these into niches that can serve students in multiple ways. They can plug in their laptops, work together on documents, or share their presentations, so they are still learning and interacting even when they’re not in the classroom.

So when you design certain elements, you’re actually designing certain behaviours?
Exactly. Designing a modern university isn’t about giving it a facelift. It’s about providing opportunities to engage and encounter. This is the way we see this job. Nowadays, learning is more fluid than it was 10 or 20 years ago. So we want to allow this learning to happen in a variety of spaces outside of the classroom as well. With our solutions, we look forward to the existing space becoming an engaging and welcoming hub for the exchange of knowledge. 

How is this project different from your previous projects?
We have worked in the field of education and completed cultural projects in the past, but this is our first university. For me, it’s not just about the education environment; it’s about creating an environment that offers experiences for the people that use it, and this is something that we consider throughout all of our projects.

What do you think are the new trends in architecture and interior design in the Middle East?
‘Trends’, to me, is a fashionable word. We don’t think this way. We think ‘timeless'. Trends come and go, but we want our design to last. We don’t think in this terminology in general, however, I think the UAE has made a significant shift towards modern architecture in the last few years. The projects coming up now have taken on this sharper edge, which is more contemporary in an international context.


Our main task was to take the university into the 21st century—to adapt to a new way of learning, and bring that into its architecture."