For thousands of years, the courtyard has been the hidden treasure of ancient palaces and for over a millennium it has been a key feature of Arab-Islamic architecture. Inner outdoor spaces, an enduring feature in Arab-Islamic architecture, is in our time echoed by the concept of “universal space” found in Modern architecture – forming a sublime link to the aspiration of limitless learning and the cultivation of the human mind.

Mirroring these historic architectural traditions, the Cultural Foundation has retained the courtyard as one of its central focal points. The layout brings to mind fabled Islamic palaces where the visitor would pass through a series of courtyards and entrances before reaching the royal throne.

The Cultural Foundation’s central courtyard provides a wide, flexible open space, the arched walkway or arcade by its side transitioning the visitor into the inner spaces, in true artistic style, following the modern “Universal Space” concept. This transition is further enhanced by the creative play of light and shadow, itself a dramatic introduction to a place of culture and art.

The Foundation’s courtyards reflect Islamic architecture through an even deeper concept – that of finaa – a preliminary staging area for social, communal interactions, creating a sense of expectation – as is the case with the outer courtyard. In the same way, the second, enclosed courtyard at the heart of the building (serving as an exhibition hall) is said to be the equivalent of the sehan - the intimate, almost hidden space where the focus is on the cultivation of the mind.

Described as an “atrium house” by one of TAC’s architects, the Cultural Foundation’s courtyards also act as reservoirs of cool air, drawing it through the elegant arcades at its side into the inner halls. Its multi-toned floor tiles merge majestically into the inner spaces, bringing a sense of continuity while the cool colours of the wall tiles contribute to the cooling of the interior.

The tiles themselves echo present and past with modern squares subtly interspersed with star-shaped patterns, the eight-pointed star affirming Abu Dhabi’s Islamic heritage. (This theme is repeated in the courtyard’s star-shaped plant areas, star-shaped splashes of greenery, peeking out of the ground around the fountain – and again in the intricate woodwork within the building).

As water brings life to a thirsty land, so art and a sense of heritage can bring life to a thirsty mind. The Cultural Foundation’s main courtyard - artistically designed to draw the visitor inwards through a sense of expectancy - acts as more than an open architectural space – it starts the process of engaging the visitor, leading the feet and mind into the artistic and intellectually loaded spaces within. The courtyard’s sloped fountain makes a significant symbolic statement. The idea of water in motion symbolises the dynamism of life; water as the music of nature softens the noise of the city; water as a mirror reflects not only the surrounding architecture – but also the individual, bringing the visitor into the setting. Originally, the fountain as a feature was repeated in other parts of the building, such as the central atrium and the eastern courtyard. Later these were removed as the Foundation expanded its activities – although the courtyard fountains were rediscovered during the conservation project and reinstated symbolically.