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The SchoolsCompared.com Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education in the United Arab Emirates 2023- 2024: Brian Johnson, Chairman, Godwin, Austen, Johnson (GAJ)
Brian Johnson Founder GAJ Architects wins the Outstanding Contribution to Architecture Award at The Top Schools Award for architecting the history of education in the emirates with light.
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The SchoolsCompared.com Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education in the United Arab Emirates 2023- 2024: Brian Johnson, Chairman, Godwin, Austen, Johnson (GAJ)

by Tabitha BardaNovember 17, 2023

“The Man Who Architects the World with Light”

The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education.

Brian Johnson. Founder. GAJ Architecture.

Anyone who has spent any time in a school knows the tremendous impact a building can have.

But the difference between a school building that works, and one that doesn’t, isn’t purely aesthetic – nor is it entirely functional.

It’s everything that you experience throughout a school day and yet don’t necessarily see.

It’s light, acoustics, temperature and air quality.

It’s a child’s ability to see, hear, focus and breathe clearly.

It’s a teacher’s stress levels; a parents’ comfort; and a student’s emotional well-being.

It’s the difference between a space that disheartens and one that inspires; the vital contrast between a place where learning happens despite the surroundings, and one that not only encourages learning, but elevates it to new levels of imagination, collaboration and creativity.

Buildings matter in education. This is what underpins the depth of commitment to, and passion for, educational architecture you find so powerfully expressed in the story of Brian Johnson and his colleagues at his architectural firm Godwin Austen and Johnson (GAJ) in the Emirates over nearly half a century.

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It takes a quite exceptional individual, or family, to be recognised in this Award. The history of The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education in the United Arab Emirates has to date been awarded to only two recipients. The first, Dr Abdulla Al Karam, Chairman of the Board of Directors and Director General of the Knowledge and Human Development Authority (KHDA), has overseen the extraordinary transformation of the Education system in Dubai to one today that competes on a global scale, and betters in so many ways that of any in the world. The second, awarded to The Varkey Family, recognised the impact of GEMS Education – an organisation that has played a centrifugal role in Education in the UAE, its home, and globally – one that has transformed the lives and opportunities of millions of children.

In 2023 – 2024, The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education in the United Arab Emirates 2023- 2024 was awarded to Brian Johnson, Chairman of architectural firm Godwin, Austen, Johnson (GAJ), in recognition of of his profound and extraordinary impact on the development of architecture in UAE education 1975 – 2024. The Award followed The Top School Award for Best School for Architecture to Inspire Children in the United Arab Emirates being awarded to The Arcadia School Dubai, a school architected by GAJ. 

A legacy of light

As the Principal and Managing Partner of GAJ, Mr Johnson’s significant influence on UAE schools’ architecture is undeniable, and inextricably linked to the history of the UAE itself.

Mr Johnson’s story in the emirates began almost 50 years ago, against the backdrop of a very different UAE – one that’s almost impossible for those of us living in this thriving metropolis to imagine now. This was a UAE without multi-lane highways or skyscrapers, with no sprawling malls or golf courses, and certainly without any international school market to speak of.

Arriving from a grim, strike-savaged London onto the warm and untouched shores of Dubai in 1975, Mr Johnson at first expected – like many new UAE expats – that he would only stay in the country for two or three years:

“The truth is that when we first came here in the Seventies there was all sorts of trouble happening in the UK. The country was operating a three-day week due to energy shortages, and there were all sorts of ridiculous things happening politically. So my wife and I just decided that we would go abroad for a couple of years.”

The reality, of course, would turn out to be very different – and it all started with a serendipitous moment in a school admin office.

The young British architect’s first foray into designing schools in the Middle East came about quite by chance when a colleague of his wife’s – who was teaching drama at one of the UAE’s only international schools at the time, Dubai English Speaking School (DESS) – happened to learn of his architectural expertise while processing Mrs Johnson’s visa and referred him to a friend for a new school building project.

This turned out to be a job designing part of the original Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) in 1976, which was then shortly followed by the first building of Dubai College in 1978:

“It was literally a matter of being in the right place at the right time.

“So I got involved in the beginning of JESS just as they were raising the finances to build, and we literally built the first bit of it in 1976. And then we built effectively a new block every year probably until about 1989. And in the meantime, Dubai College came along…”

The Dubai College campus, which was largely designed by Brian Johnson, pictured in 1984

The Dubai College campus grew as the number of students grew. Here is it pictured in 1994

Since then, the British architect and his colleagues have gone on to both shape and define the physical form of the UAE’s education landscape, with the word ‘GAJ’ – the name of the architectural firm that Mr Johnson would go on to co-found in 1981 – becoming a byword for the sort of light-filled, airy and community-focused spaces that often characterize their school designs. Mr Johnson told us that, when it comes to school design:

“I see natural light as being as valuable a natural resource as oil or gas.”

A shared history

There is a very special relationship between Mr Johnson, GAJ and Dubai College, and it is almost impossible to discuss Mr Johnson’s influence on UAE education architecture without at least something of a focus on this unique school.

Any parents touring schools across the UAE will immediately notice that Dubai College stands apart.  This is not only, however, because of its reputation as a powerhouse of academic learning, or because of its being a stand-out centre for education in Music, Sports and The Performing Arts – or indeed for its being home to exceptional teaching faculty.  It is for something more visual. You cannot miss the Dubai College Buildings. Quite unlike any other, externally they dominate their space and skyline, making a towering statement of intention in education. No one, unaware, sees them without questioning “what is that building?” and then, as they are told “that’s Dubai College” you see the nod as it all makes sense. Yes… it’s that school. The famous one… Step inside Dubai College and it’s the remarkable use of space that hits you just as powerfully.

Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College, explains the history of the school’s architecture:

“The school was originally granted 21 acres of land, known as Plot B141 back in 1978. The original buildings were typical of the period: low-rise, high ceilinged, breeze block bungalows designed to keep out the sun and the heat at the peak of the day before the school enjoyed the efficient air conditioning system it has today.

“The school has grown organically over the past 45 years as it has increased in popularity which means that the original quadrangle which was bounded by A, B, C and D Blocks has now reached further and further towards the Sheikh Zayed Road as we have built a customised Sixth Form Centre, the science laboratories, the auditorium, the music centre, the canteen and the former staff accommodation which is now the English department.

“What this means is that Dubai College has a quirky and charming layout that has taken shape as much by evolution as by design, all the while fringed with mature greenery which in many cases is as old as the College itself.

“This has made the campus a piece of living history with each new building reflecting the growing sophistication of Dubai itself. The phases of the schools are like the rings of a maturing tree or the strata of the earth’s crust, moments in time juxtaposed and captured for posterity.”

GAJ has been involved in building many of these new ‘strata’, with recent additions including the magnificent ‘C Hub’, which opened earlier this year. Spread over three floors, this does not feel like a school but more like an impressive university campus, featuring a natural-light-soaked central atrium, bold and open staircases, Harkness rooms, film and music studios, Art studios, library, cafeteria and lots of greenery – all part of the architectural approach of biophilia, which incorporates plants and trees as a way of connecting building dwellers more closely with the wellbeing effects of nature.

School design has come on a long way since Mr Johnson first started building in the Seventies and Eighties, and today there is no empty space that does not get used to its full potential. As Mr Lambert explains about ‘C Hub’ (The Al Jaffar Centre):

“The central atrium of the building is no longer a liminal space which students simply pass through on their way to lessons. It is a functional space for individual and group study. Students have access to booths, a further food outlet, the Quad Cafe, raked seating, and individual benches overlooking the biophilic design beneath.

“Mathematics occupies the first floor of the floor and integrates Dubai College’s signature approach to teaching and learning: Harkness rooms and modular seating which allow students to collaborate and vocalise their thought processes while the writable walls make learning visible so that teachers can identify misconceptions before they become entrenched.

“On the top floor art is juxtaposed to computer science, complete with a maker space chocked full of components for students to engage in cross-curricular projects such as the creation of a recent Fibonacci clock, which was the outcome of a DT, Maths and Computer Science collaboration.

“Again the hallway and balcony on this floor are not simply passageways but home to the permanent art gallery which displays our students’ creative output as well as further study and dining spaces.”

As with all architecture, many take different views on the way that Dubai College has developed architecturally. Is this sympathetic evolution, or does the new contemporary architecture reflect a revolution. The extensive use of glass certainly suggests a break with the monolithic statement pieces of the original building – but no one doubts the responsibility of developing a building that in any other country would surely today be listed. The sense of pride and attachment to the architecture should not be underestimated – many students today talk of DC as having the feel of one of the archetypal grammar schools; others talk of the desks which, so the stories go, can still be found, etched with the names of generations of students.

Dubai College’s red colour and courtyard design was inspired by the red-brick, cloistered-formula boarding school that Brian Johnson attended as a child

Remove that sense of history from DC at your peril – but there is no doubt that the new buildings nod much more to the future – perhaps reflecting the sense today that DC has forged its own powerful reputation in the world, on that no longer needs to hark back to the romantic views of Great Britain’s old grand public schools, or, as above, even its old selective Grammar Schools.

The Quadrangle at Dubai College

Throughout this history, it has been GAJ that has remained a constant in the architectural evolution of Dubai College – and there is no doubting that, for Mr Johnson, DCs links to his own history in the Emirates, his own story, and the broader story of how the emirate of Dubai has evolved, is powerfully, emotionally and intricately linked.

Today you will find nods to the new challenges of our world not only in its extraordinary new innovations in the use of light and glass, but profoundly in its tacking the pressing issues of sustainability and the future of our world in a potential post-carbon economy. Energy and light savings have seen DC replace an original building of around 1,000 square metres with one of 5,000 square metres, whilst retaining the same electrical consumption.

The links between a school and its architecture runs deep. As Headmaster Mr Lambert explains:

“We have been very fortunate to enjoy a very positive and successful relationship with GAJ over the past 45 years, [one that combines] their architectural ingenuity and expertise with our own pragmatic, and domain specific, knowledge of what works in schools and what will work in our school specifically.

“Like all good partnerships we have thrived as much off our creative differences as we have our agreements. Ultimately, however, the professional respect we have for one another and GAJ’s long term understanding of Dubai College as one of the Gulf’s leading educational institutions has helped us to produce ambitious designs which are both sympathetic to our legacy – and supportive of our future.”

A pioneering approach

Johnson and GAJ’s work within the UAE education sector now reads like a Who’s Who of some of the finest and most historic schools in the country, boasting names such as The British School Al Khubairat, Cranleigh Abu Dhabi, Dubai American Academy, Arcadia School, GEMS International School and, of course, the landmark Dubai College, with which the company has been working on regular and ongoing major building projects over the past 40 years.

Cranleigh School Abu Dhabi, designed by GAJ

GAJ trademark natural light floods the reception area of Cranleigh Abu Dhabi

Arcadia School Dubai was a GAJ project

Arcadia School Dubai boasts the GAJ hallmarks of natural light and central communal spaces

Outside of the education industry, Johnson’s CV also includes some of the UAE’s most iconic architectural buildings across the hospitality, residential and commercial sectors – among them the Dubai Creek Golf Club, whose modern interpretation of a traditional dhow in full sail even featured on the UAE 20 dirham note; it is said that instead of a business card, Mr Johnson simply flashed a 20-dirham note as evidence of his architectural prowess.

Dubai Creek Golf Club

Mr Johnson is credited with having pioneered a national trend to incorporate traditional Arabic building techniques into modern architecture – something that can be seen in the innovative use of shade, natural light and air movement, as well as the courtyard style in his education projects.

Johnson’s award-winning GAJ practice now employs 180 talented staff from 22 nationalities, with projects across the UAE, along with a portfolio of projects ranging from Morocco and Egypt to the west and to Oman and India to the east.

His distinctive style and commitment to design excellence has made Mr Johnson and his company GAJ a preferred partner for many dignitaries, as well as the top schools in the region, has and resulted in several of his projects receiving major architectural awards.

However, despite his significant success and high profile in the region, Brian Johnson epitomises the self-effacing charm of the traditional British gentleman. Stylishly attired in one of his trademark pale-linen suits, Mr Johnson is keen to deflect any praise for himself or his work onto his colleagues, continually emphasising the importance of his team in his many accolades.

When asked to describe his top personal achievement in life to date, Mr Johnson immediately defers to his colleagues:

“Having such a fantastic group of people who are committed to GAJ and really care about doing things better. Seeing people’s passion for doing their job properly is a humbling experience.”

This emphasis on teamwork, and deference to others, spills over into Mr Johnson’s work in schools, which always places the experience of students and teachers at the forefront of its designs.

This means that anyone familiar with Johnson’s work will immediately be able to tell a ‘GAJ School’. Hallmarks include a focus on functionality over superficiality, natural over artificial light, and open, flexible, communal spaces over closed traditional classrooms. There is an unmistakeable sense of calm and flow apparent in a GAJ school, where the physical environment serves as a second teacher, and the seamless interplay between structure and the natural surroundings engenders a feeling of wellbeing.

Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education in the United Arab Emirates Brian Johnson, Founder of GAJ Architects

Brian Johnson. Recipient of the SchoolsCompared.com Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education in the United Arab Emirates for his profound and extraordinary impact on the development of architecture in UAE education 1975 – 2024

As a leading design figure in the UAE for almost half a century, it’s undeniable that without Brian Johnson and his firm GAJ, the UAE education sector would not only look, but also be, very different.

Our children’s education would, too, have been much less ambitious, thrilling and… light-filled, without him.


Website address: Architecture Firm in UAE | Godwin Austen Johnson Architects


Brian Johnson / GAJ Education Projects

A History of Architecture in UAE Education

1977 – 2023

Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS) – The Beginning

Jumeirah English Speaking School 1977 GAJ Top Schools Awards. Brian Johnson. Outstanding Contribution to Education in Architecture

Completion date: 1977

Dubai College – The Beginning

The History of Dubai College through the eyes of Brian Johnson, the recipient of The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education GAJ The History of Dubai College through the eyes of Brian Johnson, the recipient of The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education GAJ The History of Dubai College through the eyes of Brian Johnson, the recipient of The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education GAJ

Completion date: 1978

Dubai College A Block

A Block. Dubai College. 1981. The History of Dubai College through the eyes of Brian Johnson, the recipient of The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education GAJ

Completion date: 1981

Dubai College EC Campus and Sports Block

Completion date: 1981

Dubai College Campus Evolution

The History of Dubai College through the eyes of Brian Johnson, the recipient of The Top Schools Award for Outstanding Contribution to Education GAJ

Completion date: 1984

The British School Al Khubairat (Formerly Al Khubairat Community School)

Completion date: TBC

Latifa School for Girls

Completion date: TBC

Dubai College Campus Evolution

Completion Date: 1994

Dubai College Campus Evolution

Completion Date: 1995

Sharjah Arts Academy

Completion Date: 2005

Sharjah Institute of Technology

Completion Date: 2006

Dubai College – Auditorium

Completion Date: 2009

Bradenton Academy

One of the courtyards at Bradenton Preparatory Academy in Dubai Sports City

Completion Date: 2009

AUS School of Business and Management, Sharjah

Completion Date: 2011

Jumeirah Primary KS2

Completion Date: 2012

AUS Women’s Dormitory, Sharjah

Completion Date: 2013

GEMS Winchester School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2013

GEMS Wellington Primary School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2013

GEMS International School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2014

GEMS Metropole, Dubai

Completion Date: 2014

Little GEMS International, Dubai

Completion Date: 2014

American Academy, Dubai

Completion Date: 2014

Our Own English School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2014

Cranleigh, Abu Dhabi

Completion Date: 2015

Sunmarke School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2015

The Arcadia School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2016

Sharjah English School, Sharjah

Completion Date: 2016

Emirates International School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2016

Ladybird Early Learning Centre, Dubai

Completion Date: 2016

Dubai College – D Block, A Block and Lecture Theatre

Competed 2017

Dubai College – New Reception Building

Completion Date: 2018

Dubai College – The SPACE

Completion Date: 2020

Arcadia High School, Dubai

Completion Date: 2020

Citizens School, Dubai

Citizens school outdoor play areas

Citizens School atrium

Citizens school dining space

Completion Date 2022

The KAUST School, (KSA)

Completion Date: 2022

ISG, Al Khobar

Completion Date: 2022

Ladybird Nursery, Dubai

Completion Date: 2022

Arcadia Global, Dubai

It starts with dream… It is realised with a plan. Pictured: One of the architectural plans for Arcadia Global School in Dubai

Completion Date: 2023

Dubai College – The Al Jaffar Centre [C Block]

 

C Hub at Dubai College

C Hub study zones are integrated into the indoor garden, which brings the outside inside

Completion Date: 2023

GEMS Al Waha 2023

Completion Date: 2023

The GAJ Brochure 2023

GAJ Education Brochure – 2023

 

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About The Author
Tabitha Barda
Tabitha Barda is the Senior Editor of SchoolsCompared.com. Oxbridge educated and an award winning journalist in the UAE for more than a decade, Tabitha is one of the region's shining lights in all that is education in the emirates. A mum herself, she is passionate about helping parents - and finding the stories in education that deserve telling. She is responsible for the busy 24x7 News Desk, our Advisory Boards and Specialist Panels - and Parents United's WHICHPlaydates - a regular meeting place for UAE parents to discuss the issues that matter to them, make friends and network with others. You can often find Tabitha too on Parents United - our Facebook community board, discussing the latest schools and education issues with our parent community in the UAE - and beyond.

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