Most westerners imagine that Saudi women are completely deprived of opportunity, and in some cases that may be true, but the world’s largest women-only university in Riyadh, Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU), may steer the kingdom in a more egalitarian direction.
For the first time, Perkins+Will, the global award-winning architecture design team behind PNU, has unveiled photographs of the sprawling 32 million square foot campus, which offers “state-of-the-art” educational facilities in all major academic disciplines to as many as 60,000 female undergraduate students,” according to a recent statement.
The firm collaborated with local designers Dar Al-Handasah (Shair and Partners) to design the campus with LEED Gold certification in mind. And despite its incredible scope, the entire complex was built concurrently – a testament not only of Saudi Arabia’s extraordinary wealth, but also the Gulf region’s new emphasis on ensuring that women have access to the same level of education as men.
While critics are certain to bemoan a 21st century segregated learning institute, we think it is more interesting to note the ways in which the design team has catered to the specific cultural exigencies that make such segregation necessary in the first place.
Contrary to popular misconception, this campus was built to provide the safest, most inspiring learning environment possible for the women who will attend. Rather than subject them to a male-dominated environment in which they would have to cover up, a situation that might detract from their learning experience, PNU creates freedom within its own boundaries.
Although the Medical Center and some parts of the research center are co-ed, most areas of the university have been structured to accommodate only female students. In part this is facilitated with certain Islamic design strategies, including mashrabiy’yah or latticed screens that provide privacy without choking off outdoor spaces.
Design Director Pat Bosch led the project, which involved approximately 150 Perkins+Will professionals from five offices, who designed PNU’s Health Sciences and Research Campus, Academic Medical Campus, Academic Campus, K-12 schools, and Sports and Recreational facilities.
“The master plan, administrative core and residential buildings, a campus-wide monorail, and the overall infrastructure were designed by Dar Al-Handasah, the architect and engineer of record, which also dedicated 150 people to the project,” according to the statement.
Nearly all of the buildings on campus are registered with the USGBC mostly in search of LEED Gold certification, which doubled the number of LEED projects in the Kingdom at the time that they were registered.
“This project was of great significance personally and professionally,” said Bosch. “This is the kind of transformative design project our firm aspires to deliver: to make a difference and help partner with a country’s leadership’s vision.”
Images © Bill Lyons Photography