Libya Opens the Door to American Architects
RMJM’s Global Education Studio (GES) is designing master plans for two separate university campuses in Libya—making it the first American architecture office to work in the North African country since the U.S. lifted sanctions against it in 2004. While RMJM is based in the United Kingdom, its Global Education Studio is headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey.
Both university projects are being funded by the Organisation for the Development of Administrative Centres (ODAC), an arm of the Libyan government that is spending $35 billion to improve the nation’s infrastructure, diversify its economy, and generally enhance its quality of life. At 675,000 square miles, Libya is about three times the size of France.
The first GES project is a new 123-acre satellite branch of the 7th October University, in the city of Bani Walid, located in a semi-desert region in the northwestern part of the country. The project calls for new buildings totaling 1.8 million square feet, including academic and athletic facilities, a student center, a library, and a mosque. The core of the plan is a quad composed of sunken, shaded courtyards surrounded by densely arranged “shard-like” buildings that house different academic programs.
In designing the plan, the architects first looked to the landscape. While sand dunes cover much of eastern Libya—the Libyan Desert is one of the most arid places on earth—Bani Walid is dotted with scrub vegetation. “Still, the climate is pretty extreme,” explains Gordon Hood, GES director. “We were looking for a response that was both an environmental response to that climate as well as a cultural response.” Hood says inspiration came from two key sources: the ancient oasis town of Ghadames, Libya, whose enclosed courtyards and tightly clustered buildings are “all about how to deal with sun, shade, and wind”; and the crystalline form of the desert rose, which is common in the area. “We blended these two ideas together to organize a highly functional program,” Hood says.
In total, the new branch is expected to serve about 3,200 students. The master plan has received all necessary approvals, and construction is expected to begin in 2009, with a campus opening planned for 2010. The firm also is designing all of the buildings.
Following the approval of the Bani Walid master plan, the ODAC asked the studio to develop a master plan for a 222-acre branch of Al Asmariya University, to be located near Zliten, a small town on the coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Design work is just beginning, but the campus likely will serve about 4,600 students. RMJM expects construction to start in about a year and be completed within three years.