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Tradition reinterpreted

Ancient Ottoman design elements are incorporated into an ultra-modern Turkish university modeled after the U.S. system of higher education

April 01, 2003 |

The excitement and frenetic activity of Istanbul during the height of the Ottoman Empire five centuries ago must have been similar to that which took place only a few years ago just east of the city during the construction of Sabanci University. Tower cranes and cement trucks dotted the 240-acre site, and a construction crew the size of a small army built the new 32-building campus from the ground up on what had been an industrial site.

Sabanci is one of the newest in a wave of privately financed higher-education institutions in Turkey. After five years of design and construction, the university opened in December 2001 with an enrollment of 500 students. The campus is designed to accommodate 3,000, with plans for further expansion.

Courses of study include engineering, management, arts, social sciences, and language programs. The intellectual heart of the campus is its 430,000-volume library, the largest academic library in Turkey. A 98,000-sq.-ft. university center is the hub of student life and the gateway between the academic buildings and the student village, which contains 15 buildings and houses 1,500 students. Individual apartments provide housing for 100 faculty members.

A 132,000-sq.-ft. business school contains an upper "academic penthouse" modeled after the Harvard Business School's case-study curriculum. The penthouse features a self-contained living and learning environment for executives pursuing post-professional degrees.

Additional campus buildings include a 43,000-sq.-ft. administrative office, and a 110-ft.-tall observation tower. An 83,000-sq.-ft. performing arts center and a 116,000-sq.-ft. athletic center are under construction. In all, the buildings on campus occupy 1.8 million sq. ft.

All of the academic buildings are based on a 5-meter-tall modular design that allows the floors between structures to be efficiently and cost-effectively conjoined in the event of expansion. "As an owner, it is important to us that the campus master plan allows for growth and enables the university to respond to changes in the future," says Sukru Dokucu, project manager for the university.

A family affair

Constructed at a cost of $250 million — thanks largely to the availability of low-cost labor — the university was funded for the most part by an endowment from a foundation started by the Sabanci family. The family controls one of Turkey's two largest holding companies, with interests that include banking, automobiles, textiles, processed foods, chemicals, and cement.

Founded by five brothers, the sons of a Turkish cotton trader, Haci Omer Sabanci Holding exports to more than 100 countries. With the university, the family's goal is to increase Turkey's ability to compete in the global marketplace by "molding the current generation into the leaders of tomorrow."

The family sought to create a liberal arts institution that could itself compete with any in the world in terms of educational curriculum and facilities. The university had to be modern in its teaching methods and technology. Although Turkey is a Muslim country, the university is secular in nature, unconstrained by religious leanings. However, the family did want elements of the country's rich culture and traditions tied into the campus.

Following an international design competition, the task of master planning the university fell to Buffalo, N.Y.-based A/E Cannon Design. American universities, such as Harvard, Boston University, and The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, served as educational models for Sabanci, says Mark Mendell, the firm's president and project principal.

"The Sabanci people conducted a lot of research into high-level education, and the American education system was looked upon as a paragon," says Mendell. "The aspiration was to bring the qualities of American teaching, scholarship, and intellectual inquiry to Turkey. It was important to them to have an American architect to interpret these things."

To facilitate these educational ideals, Cannon based its master plan on two classic architectural designs, which symbolize the blending of Turkish tradition with the U.S. university system. The grounds were modeled on the courtyard proportions of Topkapi Palace, the centerpiece of the Ottoman Empire when it was constructed in Istanbul in 1453. The campus configuration was based on the academic village of Thomas Jefferson's University of Virginia.

Another major influence on the design of the campus was the architecture of Mirmar Sinan (1489-1588), the imperial architect of the Ottoman Empire, known for his designs of mosques, but also for schools, palaces, villas, aqueducts, and bridges, many of which still exist. Hallmarks of his designs, such as courtyards, shaded arcades, and geometric symmetry of building forms, are incorporated into the campus structures.

Because religion is such a dominant factor in Turkish architecture, developing a design scheme that held to the country's secular traditions proved difficult for Cannon, says design principal Harry Warren. "For a secular institution, this was a particularly sensitive challenge for us," Warren says.

Patterns, such as the colorful glazed brick pattern that adorns the base of the campus's observation tower, often contain religious meaning. So caution had to be exercised in the selection process.

"Topkapi Palace is one of the secular buildings that continues to have influence on Turkish architecture," says Warren. "We also studied Sinan's secular work, especially his villas and bridges."

To replicate the weight of some of the great stone and masonry mosques, white limestone was cut from the same quarries used by the Ottomans. A combination of the white, textured limestone with light red veins running through it and deep red masonry is widely used on the campus' building exteriors. "These materials give the buildings weight and solidity and create an architecture similar to what existed in Sinan's time," says Warren.

Traditional materials and architectural patterns were important to the project, but the architect was careful not to simply replicate historic designs at the expense of the university's quest to be a modern, forward-thinking institution. "In everything we did, we tried to respect it, yet reinterpret it," says Warren. "We used the materials, but reinterpreted them in a modern way. The arches of the arcades are flat arches, not curved like a typical arch would be at the time of the Ottoman Empire. The traditional forms are abstracted, but with an overlay of historic Turkish materials and the feel and heaviness of Turkish buildings."

Tying the campus to the world

While the campus recalls Turkish tradition, technologically is state-of-the-art. A flexible IT infrastructure enhances communication on campus and connects it to the world. Based on a similar system Cannon designed at Boston University, more than 8,000 Internet hook-ups were installed throughout the campus, giving students online access from nearly any location. "The infrastructure on this project is very sophisticated — in some ways more advanced than some U.S. universities we've worked on," says Warren.

The library and information center is perhaps the most high tech of the buildings on campus, utilizing current technologies to collect and organize information sources in all types and formats. Web-based systems promote a collaborative environment with on-line teaching tools, video-conferencing, and distributed and network information systems. All seating areas are connected to the fully integrated electronic telecommunications campus network.

Building and lighting automation systems in the central plant control the campus's HVAC, fire protection, energy distribution, and lighting. Nearly two miles of utility tunnel infrastructure run under the campus, linking the central plant to individual buildings.

The buildings were constructed to U.S. standards, which are more stringent than those in Turkey, a decision that proved beneficial in 2000 when earthquakes struck Istanbul, causing widespread damage. "The earthquakes were terrible," says the university's Dokucu. "Most of the buildings had been completed, but they were designed to withstand the trauma."

"There wasn't even a crack in the dry wall after the earthquakes," Warren proudly says.

A poured-in-place reinforced concrete flat-slab system was the method of construction used on all 32 buildings. Low labor costs and the country's tradition of hand labor led to the selection of concrete. During construction, 1,500 laborers lived on the site.

The library and the university center each feature long-span domes, 80-ft. and 120-ft. spans, respectively. A steel frame connected to the concrete by movement joints supports each dome. Warren compares the climate of the city of 9.4 million people to Charleston, S.C., "only with a lot more humidity. There's a lot of thermal movement in the structural systems because of the climate," he says. "The flexibility of the connection between the concrete and steel was important."

True to Sabanci family requirements, the project's Building Team delivered a new high-tech, high-profile university campus. But though modern in its educational and building structures, the university remains steeped in Turkey's proud heritage. "The complex is unmistakably Turkish," says Cannon's Mendell.

For Warren, the highest compliment about the university came from the daughter of one of the Sabanci brothers, Gular Sabanci, president of the university. "After the schematic presentation, she said, 'We don't know why, but it feels very Turkish.'"

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