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Architect's design for desert Library of Life symbolizes peaceful collaboration in Middle East

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99th KILOMETER MARKER, ISRAEL/JORDAN BORDER -- Flying over this 150-acre speck in the desert, it is possible to imagine a near-perfect circle ringed by two green arcs. Approach by land, and imagine the arcs enlarging to groves of olive trees, a spiraling tower behind them.

After it is completed, in about five years, the tower eventually will be home to the world's most advanced database, the Library of Life. The entire complex itself, called the Bridging the Rift Center (BTR), will be a symbol in the desert between Israel and Jordan, seeking, as its name indicates, to create a bridge between two divided societies.

What will this collaborative scientific research center involving Cornell University, Ithaca, N.Y., and Stanford University, Palo Alto, Calif., look like?

"Everything about the center -- its name, its mission, its site and its design -- speaks to the desire on the part of the two neighboring peoples to live and work together in harmony," says Cornell-trained architect Mustafa Abadan (B.Arch '82, M.Arch '84), who heads the BTR design team at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, New York (the firm also is developing Daniel Libeskind's designs for the new World Trade Center).

The BTR team, which includes three other Cornell architecture graduates, chose a circle as the organizing principle, Abadan says, because "it has been a symbol of unity and wholeness throughout history" and because it is "a strong geometric presence that gives form to the challenging, essentially shapeless desert landscape."

The association of the olive branch with peace led to the idea of encircling the site with two olive groves that appear to embrace. Even some of the building materials used will be intended to reflect harmony: gold-colored limestone from Israel and reddish limestone from Jordan.

Perhaps the most potent symbol of the site is the "central spine" that bisects it on what was the actual border between Israel and Jordan before both countries donated the land to create a neutral zone for the research center. All the research buildings will touch on the spine, and "everyone who walks along it will literally be bridging the rift," says Abadan.

Abadan, who was born in Turkey, has designed ambitious projects in Cairo, Beirut, Berlin, Istanbul, Manila and Taiwan. Among his U.S. designs are the UBS Center I in Stamford, Conn., and

the Islamic Cultural Center and the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle, both in New York City.

His team and the BTR project's developers envision Ph.D. students from Israel, Jordan and other Middle East countries working side by side with Cornell and Stanford scientists on the most ambitious data-organizing project in the world -- to assemble information on all living systems, starting with those in the Dead Sea region 43 miles north of the facility. Because of the centrality of its mission, the Library of Life will be located in the exact center of the circle, says Abadan. The spiraling tower, which will house the library, will be made up of two encircling arcs that repeat the circular theme of unity and cooperation. Clad with brilliant metal, the tower will shine across the desert.

A courtyard in front of the Library of Life tower will serve as a gathering place, while adjacent to it will be a large auditorium and conference center, a dramatic-looking horizontal building made of two curved copper- and wood-clad concrete shells that will be the campus's focal point. Patterns of light from the building's exterior will play off the surface of a nearby reflecting pool.

The facility also will include laboratories, planting fields dedicated to life science studies, living quarters, a retreat and recreational facilities with tennis courts and a pool.

Abadan seems undaunted by the difficulty of building a sophisticated research facility in the middle of the desert and says that his training at Cornell prepared him for such challenges. "The best thing that Cornell architecture does for you is it teaches you how to tackle new problems, ask questions and find solutions," he says. He included other Cornell architecture graduates on his team because he knew they would have similar problem-solving skills.

Some of the team's design solutions for the desert environment, where temperatures can soar to well over 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit), include giving buildings a north-south orientation and employing solar reflectors on rooftops to control exposure to the sun, carefully placing buildings and using trellises above open areas, recesses and other architectural elements to provide shade. While the facility's laboratories will require air conditioning to keep them at a constant temperature, living, dining and other public areas will be kept cool by fans and low-energy evaporative cooling methods typical in the region.

"Bridging the Rift will be somewhat self-sufficient," says Abadan. It will produce some of its own power from photovoltaic panels mounted on its laboratory roofs, supplementing the electrical power brought in from Jordan and Israel. Large water reserves and aquifers deep in the ground below the facility will supply all the water needed.

After the groundbreaking on March 9, prefabricated temporary units will be brought to the site so that researchers can begin their work. The facility will grow as additional funds are raised beyond the initial seed grant provided by the BTR Foundation.

Design team members from Skidmore, Owings working with Abadan on the BTR Center include: John Ostlund, senior designer and former Cornell faculty member; Jun-ya Nakatsugawa, B.Arch '92; Terence Cuaso, B.Arch. '02; Raymond Kwok, B.Arch. '02; and John Eric Chung. T. J. Gottesdiener is managing partner of the project. See the designs at this Web site: http://www.news.cornell.edu/features/BTR/ .