If square footage is any indication of power, Saudi Arabia's female students are gaining ground. The new Princess Nora Bint Abdulrahman University (PNU) in Riyadh, which opened its doors in 2011 and completed its final phase earlier this year, is the largest women-only university in the world. With 32 million square feet and capacity for 60,000 students, the school absorbed three existing campuses in Riyadh while more than doubling the number of college slots for women in the city. PNU is so large, in fact, that it has its own K–12 school for the children of faculty, staff, and students.
In a country that sharply limits women's participation in public life, PNU is significant not only as a watershed for women's education, but as an entire micro-economy dedicated to women's advancement because women—about 12,000 of them—also make up the ranks of the faculty, staff, and administrators. "This university is creating a workforce," says Pat Bosch, design principal at Perkins+Will and a member of the project team, which also included David Hansen, Ron Stelmarski, and Allison Williams. "It's about women working for women."
For a vacant tract of desert off the highway that connects the airport with the Riyadh city center, Perkins+Will and collaborator Dar Al-Handasah (Shair and Partners) designed an entirely new campus in concrete and limestone. The project is part of a broader initiative by the nation's monarch, King Abdullah, to boost women's access to education and jobs. (According to statistics released this year by the Saudi government, nearly 35 percent of women who want to work in the country can't find jobs, compared with just over 6 percent of men.) PNU's campus comprises 15 academic colleges—including medicine and computer science as well as the humanities and social sciences—along with housing for students and staff, a teaching hospital, recreational facilities, and a monorail connecting it all.
One of the architects' biggest challenges was to design a public space for a part of the population who must remain concealed from the opposite sex. To create privacy without walling everyone off, they raised the academic core of the campus nearly 20 feet above grade. This move encourages a more open and convivial atmosphere, since students can remove their veils and interact freely without being seen from below. Like the women, the buildings seem to unveil themselves in the progression from the perimeter to the center of the complex. Solid concrete on outward-facing elevations gives way to fiber-reinforced concrete latticework screens (which evoke traditional mashrabiya) and glass on walls that face interior courtyards.
Yet for any of this progress to take root, Saudi Arabia's economy must do a better job of creating demand for the tens of thousands of newly minted professionals who graduate each year, cautions Hatem Samman, director of the Ideation Center, a Booz & Company think tank in Dubai. "It's a great thing to have Princess Nora University, and it's going to have a great impact on the education system in Saudi Arabia," says Samman. "But look, if you graduate doctors tomorrow but those women have no place to work, they're going to be unemployed doctors, regardless of how educated they are."