Buhais Geology Park
The Buhais Geology Park Interpretive Centre – designed by Hopkins Architects – has officially been opened by His Highness, the Ruler of Sharjah. The Park lies approximately 30 miles (50 kilometres) south-east of the city of Sharjah in a region of exceptional prehistoric and geological significance. The site features an abundance of marine fossils from over 65 million years ago, spectacular mountain ranges and ancient burial sites from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages.
Seeking to create a series of exhibition spaces which vividly present the region’s significant geological phenomena – including deep earth structures, plate tectonics, geomorphology and sedimentation – Hopkins Architects has designed five interconnected pods of varying sizes. These accommodate exhibition areas, an immersive theatre, a café offering panoramic views of the dramatic Jebel Buhais ridge rising some 100 metres above, a gift shop and other visitor facilities.
The geometry of the pods was inspired by the fossilised urchins present on site and developed into a typology which could be sized to suit the Centre’s different functions. To minimise disruption to the existing fauna, geology and terrain, the pods were designed as pre-fabricated concrete structures and only lightly touch the ground on in-situ reinforced concrete foundation discs. A sixth, unconnected pod is used as a service building.
Simon Fraser, Principal and Lead Designer at Hopkins Architects said: “To protect the interior spaces from the desert heat and to minimise use of air conditioning; the pods’ precast concrete shells, ribs and in-situ foundation discs provide a well-sealed thermal mass across their floors, walls and roofs. They are further protected and insulated with spray applied Polyurea waterproofing and Polyurethane insulation foam, topped with a robust acrylic-modified cementitious coating. The products and spray method were chosen to ensure easy application and full coverage to the curved geometry, whilst minimising impact on the surrounding environment. The steel cladding is intended as a shading element. The shingles are offset from the precast concrete shell and protecting layers, creating a cavity to vent heat radiated from the metal shingles.”
The pods are clad in steel panels, coloured to reference the different hues of the surrounding landscape as well as to shade the precast concrete structures. These panels are fixed into an array of steel ribs, giving the pods their distinctive sculptural, cantilevered forms and further referencing the exoskeleton of the urchin fossils.
Simon added: “The external cladding is designed to reflect heat from the sun, allowing the solar gain to pass up the void between the panels and structure, and venting out at the top.
“The biggest challenge of the project was achieving the complex geometry of the pods, particularly their cladding. Hopkins Architects worked alongside MARF Steel, a specialist contractor, who we have worked with previously. Details and finishes were finalised through a series of workshops, drawings, models and mock-ups.”
Hardco Building Contactors (HBC) acted as the project’s main contractor. HBC are a Sharjah-based contractor with whom Hopkins Architects proactively worked to develop the final details and construction methodologies required to achieve the project’s complex design intent.
Visitors enter the building along an elegant ramp to the central hub where, once inside, they are greeted and guided through the Centre. The restrained palette of the interior materials complements the pods’ exposed pre-cast concrete shell segments. In some pods, glazing and oculi have been inserted to control natural light into the space, tempering the brightness of the desert sun.
Linking the pods and looping sinuously around the site is an outdoor trail accessed from the main exhibition area. The trail – designed to encourage visitors to explore the jebel (Arabic for mountain) – incorporates viewing areas, a classroom shaded by a high-tensile canopy and raised walkways across natural rock formations and ancient burial grounds.
Using a series of model-based interactive displays, the Centre explores the region’s mountains, sand dunes and the Arabian Gulf as dramatic evidence of the area’s rich tectonic history over time – in particular, the disappearance of an earlier ocean and the creation of the limestone mountain ranges of Jebel Buhais. Visitors and researchers can actively examine local rocks and fossils.
The Geology Park is the latest addition to a suite of learning centres operated by Sharjah’s Environmental Protected Areas Authority who lead conservation in the Emirate, manage protected areas and provide exceptional educational experiences.
Simon said: “Rarely is an architect offered the opportunity to design and build for such a beautifully barren landscape with so much geological and cultural significance.
“Our ‘light touch’ approach references the site’s marine fossils by delivering a series of ‘urchin’ pods that sit clearly on the ground and seek to become part of the local environment. The Centre’s inner spaces enable visitors to follow a journey that ultimately leads them to explore the jebel itself. We are confident that this exciting new facility will encourage many people from all over the world to understand the way in which landscapes are formed by tectonic activities and how the Earth has changed over time.”