Saudi Arabia ranks near the bottom of the world on women's equality. In the country, women aren't allowed to drive and are required to have male guardians, who sometimes grant access to basic needs like medical care. In 2011, women made up only 14.4% of all employees in the workforce.
And yet, despite all of this, women in Saudi Arabia can get a solid education. More women than men receive postsecondary degrees in the country, according to the Saudi Education Ministry (in 2009, 59,948 women and 55,842 men got postsecondary degrees). And a number of women are slowly entering the previously closed-off workforce, though there is still a sense that these graduates are incredibly well-prepared for careers that they may never get to pursue.
This is the backdrop against which architecture and design firm Perkins+Will, along with design consultancy Dar Al-Handasah, recently completed the largest women's university in the world. Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) is gigantic, especially considering that all of the buildings were constructed in just one year. Most campuses are built piecemeal over many years.
The 32-million square foot campus contains sports facilities (where students can attend female-only sporting events in addition to participating in athletic activities), a medical center, a health sciences and research center, and a K-12 school. While it was designed for an initial enrollment of 25,000, the university has the capacity to take up to 60,000 students—more than the total number of female postsecondary students in the country as of 2009.
Perkins+Will was tasked with unifying three existing campuses for women in Riyadh into one large campus (the old campuses are being repurposed). "The existing campuses were like any other campus—like in the U.S. or other parts of the world, developed in the '60s or '70s, but not meant to be designed for flexibility or growth," explains Pat Bosch, design principal at Perkins+Will. "Twenty first century learning talks a lot about flexibility of space and team-based learning ... the existing facilities were not meeting those needs. We wanted to consolidate these campuses to maximize flexibility and growth."
According to Bosch, the buildings on the campus are akin to the women who learn in them: incredibly sophisticated, and veiled on the exterior (in this case, to protect from searing heat and sun). "We're taking from traditional architecture the strategies of multiple-layer facades, and we talk about buildings de-veiling as you progress more into the interior," she says. The buildings are "layered on the exterior," says Bosch, but as you progress into the main campus quad, the buildings become more transparent, with courtyards that open up to the classrooms.
"Buildings protect themselves from the view of the exterior so women are in an environment where they could de-veil themselves," Bosch explains.
The outdoor courtyards serve multiple purposes, giving women space to pray and to learn. All of the courtyards are cooled down by wind towers, which recirculate air and cool areas with a water mist.
And, much to the envy of university students everywhere, PNU has its own people-mover—a driverless elevated transit system that circles the campus. "It's a large university. With the sun and exterior conditions, this is the best thing that we could do," notes Bosch.
Bosch won't go so far as to say that PNU is the definitive model for future women's universities in the region (the ultimate model would be able to better assure future employment), nor that having the university can address the endemic problems for women in the country. But PNU is both beautiful and a place from which larger things might spring.
"We went about it wanting to a create model for a platform that [other universities] could spring from," she says. "It's letting design emerge from the culture, climate, and the people who will eventually inhabit it."