Despite major gender inequalities in Saudi Arabia, women can still get a solid education there.

Recently completed Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU), now the largest women's university in the world, is gigantic, especially considering that all of the buildings were constructed in just one year.

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.

Design firm Perkins+Will was tasked with unifying three existing campuses for women in Riyadh into one large campus.

"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 design principal Pat Bosch.

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.

PNU graduates still face large challenges in their society, but their campus is both beautiful and a place from which larger things might spring.

2013-10-29

Co.Exist

This Gorgeous Campus Is The World's Largest Women's University--And It's In Saudi Arabia

Up to 60,000 women could eventually enroll at PNU, though their job prospects after graduation still leave something to be desired.

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."

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36 Comments

  • Aya Oubal

    I am one of princess noura university's students . I'm studying epidemiology .. To anyone who doesn't believe this , come visit us ! It's so near to the airport :)

  • StarGirl182

    WHAT A MOST BEAUTIFUL AND FASCINATING UNIVERSITY WITH A MOST BEAUTIFUL AND FASCINATING HIGHER EDUCATION PURPOSE, MISSION, AND A PALACE- LIKE SETTING DESIGN FOR ALL THE RESPECTABLE MUSLIM WOMEN OF SAUDI ARABIA!!!! :) TWO THUMBS UP, ABSOLUTELY MAGNIFICENT!!! :)

  • Visfor Voy

    Ah Saudi Arabia! Where the men wear the dresses in the family, and the women are nervous!

  • Sayema

    Yes it's the very same Saudi Arabia were you find a massive volume of petrol and sadly in the west you don't :)
    Hard luck kid!

  • sabina yasmin Alfaruque

    just don't understand how a person sitting 13000/14000 kms away can judge what the Saudi women want. I am a lecturer here in Saudi n know the mindset of these women here. if they r comfortable n proud in preserving their culture who r we to point at them? is it quite necessary to have co-education system to attain excellence? if we cant see the goodness in segregated education system, at least not criticize it. every university aims at giving the best education, the PNU is also aiming at d same, n that's it !!!

  • sabina yasmin Alfaruque

    yah, well educated slaves in the form of wives are much more better than the well educated Call Girls n lives of "Live Together" which don't exist in Saudi !!!

  • Stephen M. Albert

    Focusing on Architecture: The photographs show a design reminiscent of the original podium and buildings at Lincoln Center in New York, The Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. the original County Museum of Art and Dorothy Chandler Hall both in Los Angeles. These works with their empty plazas and mind numbing monuementality have been criticized as 'vapid', 'banal' 'Mussoliniesque'
    and worse. The Perkins and Will efforts seem to be a step backward from even these low standards.

  • Visfor Voy

    And apparently, there are no students on this Gorgeous (such an unobjective unjournalistic word wouldn't you say?) campus.

    Maybe there aren't any women in these pics, because according to the "other privilege" saudi women have, they couldn't get their husbands to give them a ride to campus.

    Because it's Tuesday. On Tuesdays he goes "whoring with the guys".

    How Appropo that this article was sponsored by underwear that keeps your farts from smelling...

  • Visfor Voy

    Right! But of course it must therefore be real then? And worthy of an article talking about HOW GOOD Saudi women have it? This piece is what is known as bought and paid for Pro Saudi PR. You should look it up sometime. There's plenty of it around.

  • plfhoen

    Nice designed complex but it still serves sex segregation policy, which I dare to say, is just as bad as race segregation. Therefor I can't see the beauty of this 'master piece'. Image this would be racial! Like, what a stunning building for the black people because they need a chance too, but we don't want them to mix with white.

  • Johara

    FYI, I'm a student here and before you spout objections from a western viewpoint that will never take into consideration the women it 'champions', let me tell you that I'd RATHER study in a segregated college. I, like so many other muslim women, wear a hijab when in a place that has non-related men (out of my own choice and belief, btw), and I prefer to spend most of my day somewhere I can let my hair down and feel comfortable in. And that allegory about black people and white people? The men in saudi never stole us from other countries and forced us into slavery and destroyed our culture. Like, say, the white man did to the people he captured in Africa.
    Please consider other people's cultures and beliefs before you belittle them, kindly.

  • sabina yasmin Alfaruque

    just loved ur attitude. May Allah (SWT) bestow d same thinking on every educated muslima and Saudi in particular.

  • Will

    Well from a "westerner's" point of view, a female only university is quite an odd thing.

  • Zarti

    Why? We have all girls and all boys (boarding) schools in the West. Why is this any different. Open your mind, not just your mouth.