Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, is an amazing project that we where proud to be a part of. Princess Nora University is a women’s university in Saudi Arabia and largest women-only university in the world. It is composed of 32 campuses across the Riyadh region and a new library capable of holding 4.5 million volumes. The university was founded as Riyadh University for Women in 1970. King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz launched the building of the world’s largest and most modern women’s institution of higher education in a self-contained higher education city. A new campus dedicated May 2011 can accommodate 40,000 students and 12,000 employees. It has a 700‑bed teaching hospital and research centers for nanotechnology, information technology, and bioscience.
Read this great article about Perkins + Will’s design process and insight. You can see more photos of the completed project and Kimball Office Furniture here.
Centuries-old cultural traditions may continue to be strictly observed by the men and women of Saudi Arabia, but their options for state-of-the-art higher education are among the most progressive in the world. The curricula and campus complex of the newly constructed Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) in Riyadh offer a case in point.
Designed by global architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, in collaboration with Dar Al-Handasah (Shair and Partners), the massive 32-million-square-foot PNU campus set on 2,000 acres is dedicated exclusively to the education of women. It promises to bring the next generation of Saudi Arabian females world-class, 21st-century curricula across all major disciplines. It creates a learning environment that is both environmentally and economically sustainable, and is sure to become a model for higher education throughout the region.
Initiated by Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and the Ministry of Education, the new university was created to replace several existing, smaller higher educational facilities by merging them under one umbrella. “There is an immediate need to develop infrastructural facilities throughout the kingdom to create a more self-reliant and sustainable situation for their future,” says David Hansen of Perkins+Will, who served as the overall design director for the entire project. He moved from Chicago to Cairo to coordinate all American and international parties involved in the project.
Named after the king’s aunt, Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman—a highly educated role model and leading light among Saudi Arabian women in the first half of the 20th century—PNU is the largest university designed for women in the world and serves as many as 60,000 female undergraduate students. And unlike most campuses, which often take decades to take shape, all of its facilities were built concurrently from the ground up within a 30-month timeframe.
A campus that functions like a city
Virtually a city unto itself, the university comprises multiple components—including nine academic colleges, an academic hospital, a mosque, numerous prayer rooms, staff and student housing, a student union, K-12 classrooms for the children of staff and students, food courts, student government offices, staff and administrative offices, media rooms, teaming rooms, bookstores, libraries, cafeterias, interior courtyards, and sports and recreational facilities, including pools, running tracks, and tennis courts. Points of connection within the university plan reinforce collegial relationships among women. “Each building is like a portrait of a woman, holding hands to join one to another like a string of pearls,” says Pat Bosch, a design principal from Perkins+Will’s Miami office, who directed the design of most of the academic areas of the university. “Each college touches the other and is connected through a pedestrian loop so none are siloed and synergies can be created.”
Given the sheer scale of the project, each of the Perkins+Will teams were charged with overseeing specific components within the complex, which was divided into three primary precincts to organize the campus and manage its mass. Perkins+Will’s team included about 150 people from five of its U.S. offices—Miami, Chicago, San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Los Angeles. Designers from Miami worked on most aspects of the academic campus, San Francisco primarily on the medical science campus, Chicago on the academic medical center and the recreation centers and athletic facilities, Minneapolis on K-12 boys and girls facilities and the student union, and the Los Angeles office worked with the other offices on the interiors for all areas. The teams also collaborated with Joseph Hajjar, a director of the firm Dar Al-Handasah (Shair and Partners), architect and engineer of record, which also dedicated about 150 people to the project and designed the master plan, the overall infrastructure, the administrative core and residential buildings, and a campus-wide monorail.
Lifting the veil
Overall, concepts of separation, threshold, transparency, pattern, and sequence were primary in the design. The most significant cultural imperative, which drove both functional and aesthetic design features of the university, was the mandate to completely segregate the female students and staff and shield them from view of any males, in keeping with Saudi tradition. The campus is entirely fenced and gated, built atop a plinth raised 20 feet off the ground.
“As we delved deeper into the culture, we were drawn to the metaphor of veils, which Saudi women always wear in public settings,” says Bosch. Inspired by cultural tradition as well as regional architecture, Bosch says, the designers opted to enclose the facilities with a series of latticework partitions, known as mashrabiy’yah, which function like veils to strategically screen students for privacy in exterior spaces while allowing more visibility within the campus. At the same time, the various partitions, which become more or less dense depending on orientation and often include sacred geometrical motifs, allow the women to gradually remove their veils as they move deeper into the interior and permit them to freely express themselves in the sanctuary-like core spaces.
Not only do the beautiful lattice elements set a fresh, yet culturally relevant aesthetic tone while serving broader privacy and security missions, they also serve a critical role in achieving the university’s high-tech performance requirements. Made of fiber-reinforced concrete, the lightweight latticework covers the broad expanses of monumentalist interiors and combine with smart glass curtain walls to reduce energy consumption by as much as 20 percent. Daylighting and cooling strategies like these—as well as water consumption, recirculation, and filtration components, the use of recycled or local materials like sandstone and terrazzo, and the internal mass-transit monorail system—contributed to the registration of 38 buildings on the campus for LEED for New Construction certification. The Female Administration and Library buildings aspire to LEED Gold certification.
The color scheme throughout was the result of an early branding exercise—using mood boards and symbols—by the Perkins+Will branded environments group and its signage team to develop wayfinding. Signage implements a selection of indigenous plants, flowers, fruit, and vegetables as symbols to identify functional areas.
Through its design, the university is not only empowering the female students to obtain an excellent education, it is also enabling a generation of professors and staff, many of whom were educated abroad, an opportunity to return to Saudi Arabia and contribute to this economically self-sustaining environment for women. Designed for phased development, plans for the next components of PNU are currently underway, promising to further advance Saudi Arabia’s educational landscape while graciously respecting its traditions.