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Volume 36, Number 5September/October 1985

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A Campus for KSU

Written by William McQuade and Joseph Fitchett
Additional photographs by Robert Azzi and M. S. Al-Shabeeb

North of Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, the gently rolling land is broken by long outcroppings of rock resembling waves breaking on a sea of sand. And riding these waves, like an immense dreadnought, is the exciting new campus for the kingdom's King Sa'ud University (KSU), an opulent, nine-kilometer-square institution (3.5 square miles) that was built from scratch in less than 40 months, cost a staggering $4 billion and accommodates more than 15,000 students.

In recent years in the Arab East, many architects, especially Western ones, have attempted to impose on Arabia a variety of imported styles - ranging from austerely brittle glass-modern to wild Hollywood-Kasbah. At KSU, however, designers turned to a pattern of building traditional to the central plateau of Saudi Arabia - the Najd style - and respectfully updated it.

In the primitive past, for example, the usual building material here was sun-baked brick covered with mud-stucco of light brown color - so King Sa'ud University wears the same hue in concrete. Najd buildings were huddled together to shade each other from the fierce summer sun, and most of their few windows were deeply set slits, just large enough to bring in the minimum required light while resisting the scorch of direct summer sun - so the slit windows, also the pattern at KSU, are dramatized by occasional large well-shaded openings. Traditional Najd buildings are almost all flat-roofed, with notched parapets, and ornamented with fine detail - so the buildings of King Sa'ud University are too.

The apparently simple reproduction of Najd architecture, however, is deceiving; actually the university was built with highly sophisticated building technology. The 620,000 square meters of academic buildings (6.7 million square feet) are the equivalent in area to more than one and a half New York World Trade Center towers and their repetitive combinations of precast elements permitted a building-by-numbers system that in itself took three months to work out.

At KSU university, colleges are arranged along three intersecting spines - open-sided walkways covered with a pattern of shelters supported by arches to protect walkers from the sometimes savage sun. These airy corridors, partly opened to the sky, were elevated above the surface of the site, so that services such as water and electricity could be run underneath - a considerable economy over blasting the rocky sub-surface.

The various colleges stand out at right angles to the walkways like piers jutting from a wharf, their entrances punctuated on the paved passageways by exquisite, color-coded fountains. Grouped along one spine, almost a mile long and indicating the university's tilt towards technology are the colleges of engineering, science and agriculture. Along another, a half mile long, are education and arts and business administration; on the shorter spine are the pharmacy and dentistry colleges as well. Altogether, there are 1,492 classrooms and labs, an 800-bed teaching hospital and a medical college commissioned earlier by the university.

At the intersection of two of the spines are the core establishments for all the colleges: the student union, the dining hall, the two-million-volume university library, a pair of auditoriums, the administrative offices and a mosque - all grouped around a towering concourse with its ceiling seven stories above an inlaid marble floor covering an area which approximates the size of two American football fields. Called "the forum," this concourse, located at the end of a long ceremonial road lined with palm trees, serves as the formal entrance to the entire complex.

Intended as a sociable space for students, the forum is lit by a continuous skylight framed by the brawny steel trusses that support it. It is completely air-conditioned, and a little forest of fig trees grows neatly within it, with a tea and coffee cafe among the trees. Across from the cafe are the entrances for two theaters, which seats 2,700 and whose staging facilities are probably equal to those of any commercial theater yet constructed anywhere. The other, a more intimate house, seats 750.

University authorities are also turning various parts of the campus into small oases with parks of planting, and automobile traffic, except for emergency vehicles such as the university fire department, is limited.

When pressed for a characterization of his gigantic creation architect Gyo Obata says: "The movement of students and faculty shaped this university, and so it is the avenues down which they flow between classes that got the architectural emphasis, really." His partner, George Hellmuth, says simply, "It's a comfortable building for people to be around."

Faculty and students agree. "It's a great university," says 'Ali Abu Ziab, a Palestinian student working on a computer science degree. 'Ali lives on campus and enjoys it. "Life here is good inside and out of the classroom," he says. "Our rooms are very nice, and the food is excellent - most of my friends here have gained weight! The university wants us to be happy."

A decade ago, when the new campus was first envisaged, architects and engineers from around the world vied for the immense commission. The winner - after nine months of intensive effort - was the architectural-engineering consortium HOK + 4 led by St. Louis-based Hellmuth, Obata & Kassabaum, whose chief architect, chairman and president, Gyo Obata, is the author of the recently completed international airport serving Riyadh (See Aramco World, January-February 1984). The other four firms were architects Gollins, Melvin, Ward of London, which shared the design work; Houston-based Caudill-Rowlett-Scott, which participated in the structural and civil engineering; Syska and Hennessy of New York, which carried out the sophisticated mechanical and electrical design - including the single biggest air conditioning plant in the world; and Dames and Moore of Los Angeles, the geo-technical engineers.

Design work began in mid-1975 and two years later - after 6,000 sheets of working drawings and 10,000 sheets of specifications - a design for the university was complete. Five contracting consortiums then battled it out for one of the single biggest construction plums ever awarded. The vast general contractors job finally went to a French-American joint venture: Bouygues, based in Clamart, France, and Blount International, Ltd. of Montgomery, Alabama - combined as BBJV.

The cast of subcontractors was also large - 171 companies from France alone - as well as international: Italian and French companies did the mechanical installation; Turks built the campus mosque; the telephone system, capable of handling 30,000 lines, was made in Sweden; and West Germany's AEG-Telefunken was in charge of automation controls. Although most of the basic labor was Korean, craftsmen of 23 nationalities contributed their skills and the job site was a babble of 16 different tongues. When the job hit its full stride, 12,000 workmen were on site, putting together $4 million worth of construction a day.

As a result, the contractors called the university "the job of a thousand and one challenges" - because, as a French engineer put it, "on this scale and at this speed, there are a thousand and one things that can go wrong every day, fatally."

He was not exaggerating. Even in Saudi Arabia, where eye-popping architectural and construction feats have become commonplace over the last decade, KSU presented unprecedented problems for the Bouygues-Blount joint venture - BBJV. Though both Bouygues and Blount have first-class technological and management skills, and extensive experience in the Arab East, the problems involved in putting up 16 major buildings in a strictly specified time, taxed their resources to the outer limit.

This was partly because of the size of the project. At nearly $2 billion, the contract was the largest fixed-price project ever undertaken by a French construction firm. Indeed, with the hospital and student housing - awarded separately to other companies - the whole $4 billion contract is possibly the largest of its kind in history, according to the Engineering News-Record. But size was only one aspect. There were also risks. To meet the stringent conditions laid down by Saudi Arabia and the U.S. consultant, HOK + 4, the contractors could not afford either delays or mistakes; the stipulated cost penalties, up to 10 percent of the contract's value, were ruinous.

Like many U.S. government contracts, the bulk of the big contracts in Saudi Arabia used to be negotiated on a cost-plus basis - which guaranteed the company's profit, but left the customer unsure of the final bill until the job was finished. For KSU, however, Saudi Arabia insisted on a "fixed-price agreement." This meant that BBJV guaranteed delivery at a certain time for a certain price - no more, no less - and, as a result, faced added risk. "If there's something that isn't right, the contractor fixes it, at his expense," explained Francis Bouygues, 70, founder and head of Bouygues.

Even so, Bouygues (pronounced "Bweeg"), was confident. France's largest privately owned construction firm, Bouygues has grown over the last 35 years from a firm that worked on municipal housing in Paris to an international giant with projects all over the world; it had, furthermore, earned a reputation for fast work cost-cutting ingenuity and, above all, a willingness to risk its own profits to bring in contracts at low figures, but according to specifications.

Still, KSU was a supreme test. For one thing, in short-listing candidates, Saudi authorities insisted that several companies must join forces to make final bids; this complicated the bidding, but Saudi Arabia insisted. No single company, the Saudi officials believed, could assume the enormous financial risks involved.

One result of that was prolonged - and careful - negotiations; with the French construction industry in the doldrums, a mistake could be fatal. But in the end, after 41 months of bargaining - one month longer than the actual construction time eventually allowed under the contract - the contract went to BBJV.

"There will never be another contract like it," says Philippe Montagner, the French engineer and Bouygues' project manager in Riyadh. Under the contract, KSU was to complete its work in less than 40 months, which, in effect, he said, was "overnight." At the peak, the various companies were working at a pace that could produce three 10-story office buildings a month in the United States.

This was particularly impressive given the number and nationalites of the sub-contractors. "Never in history have so many organizations from so many nations come together in one land to help build a nation - and to learn so much from each other in the process," commented Engineering News-Record.

Because timing was crucial, Bouygues formed a core team in Riyadh - "a state within a state" - from among the French firm's 22,000 employees around the world. On site, Bouygues and Blount fused their executives into a single team, with Frenchmen and Americans sandwiched in decision-making tiers and working directly with the key Saudi representatives: Dr. Mansour al-Turki, the rector, and director-general Muhammad al Jarallah, a member of the university's engineering school faculty, specializing, luckily, in job planning.

Since client and consultant approval was needed for every item right down to doorknobs, BB also brought consultants, architects and engineers from HOK to Riyadh for 18 months to make quality-control decisions together on the spot. "It was expensive for us, but without that investment, we would never have finished on time," says Montagner.

To avoid expensive delays in manufacture or delivery, and to minimize costly defects, the contractor also set up a unique, worldwide computer network known as the Project Control System (PCS) to keep track of millions of individual orders. At the heart of the network was a huge IBM mainframe computer in Riyadh, which checked the progress of every item at 11 different points from the moment they were ordered, including purchase, manufacture, loading, shipment, delivery, customs clearance and arrival on site. Whenever an order fell behind schedule a computer alerted the responsible teams, and at the peak of construction, the computer was producing more than two miles of tracking documents - known as schedule plots - every month.

At the start, no existing software was capable of coping with such a complicated puzzle, so the Bouygues team - with some outside help - created their own programs. "Without PCS, we could never have maintained an overall view of the situation," says Nicholas Bouygues, son of Francis, and head of Bouygues' construction ventures world wide. At one point, for example, a German contractor mixed up all his precast parts, so the order had to be redone. Another time, a heavily laden freighter sank with its KSU cargo and at another a shipping company went bankrupt, leaving loaded ships stranded in ports from Piraeus to Tokyo. And once, as construction was underway, 40,000 ventilator grilles started coming unglued, apparently because of the heat. Bouygues had to take down all the double ceilings - 300,000 square meters of them (3,210,000 square feet) - and use a different sealer.

Nevertheless, morale never flagged, says Montagner. In fact, he said, "the pressure was so high it was invigorating," and in August 1984, right on schedule, university authorities accepted the new campus, after Saudi engineers inspected the project with a thoroughgoing professionalism that moved Montagner to say: "I know that KSU is going to have a good engineering faculty with that bunch."

Although most of the components of the KSU complex were imported, the basic building material is a native coarse aggregate scraped from a nearby desert wadi. This was mixed with shiploads of Portland cement and stiffened with a horde of steel reinforcing rods to make 78,000 precast concrete pieces that form the bulk of the buildings. The pieces - 5,500 different types - were produced by a consortium of 11 German and Swiss firms in one of the largest on-site pre-casting yards in the world.

Though the new campus has been in use for a year, building is still going on. More academic space is already required, particularly in the engineering and agricultural colleges, says Dr. al-Jarallah, the Saudi executive most responsible for the construction of the campus, and plans are being made to enlarge the two King Sa'ud University satellite campuses at Abha and Qasim; the first of these will have a capacity of 15,000 students.

Plans are also underway to construct a completely new women's university; there is no mixing of sexes academically in Saudi Arabia. But meanwhile, buildings vacated by the male university in various areas of Riyadh are being adapted for 5,000 women students. At their own college, women will be able to take any course offered the men except engineering, which is considered inappropriate. Another women's college is planned for Dammam, a coastal city in the Eastern Province and an Islamic university is under construction near Riyadh, with another planned in Medina.

Conditions for getting a higher education in Saudi Arabia could hardly be more inviting. All university students attend completely tuition-free, are supplied with books at no charge, are provided meals and housing, and, in addition, receive living allowances. This is also true for students from other Muslim countries who attend, and even for a small group of Americans enrolled to study Islamic culture.

All these scholars and their professors not only are enjoying the fiscal encouragement of the Saudi government to hit the books, but have now been given a truly unique architectural presence in the desert to dignify them.

"The students are much more serious now" says Ahmed al-Fakhri of Riyadh, a third year engineering student. "I think that this huge new campus has given them more respect for study and more respect for themselves as students. Now we can see and feel how strongly the government feels about education. Saudi students no longer feel that we must go to America or Europe for a good education."

Walter McQuade, a former senior editor of Architectural Forum and a member of the Board of Editors of Fortune, has written several books on architecture.

Joe Fitchett is a reporter for the International Herald Tribune.

The Riyadh Tapestries
Written by Joseph Fitchett
Photographed by Jill Hartley

To enhance its monumental architecture, King Sa'ud University commissioned a program of art almost as ambitious as the new campus itself - standing sculptures in front of all 16 colleges and interior decoration of public places throughout the university. Largely in fabric, this decoration is undoubtedly the largest, boldest use of tapestries since the heyday of French chateaux in the 18th century.

The art program was carried out by Sheila Hicks, an internationally known American artist who has lived and worked in Paris for 30 years. Her studio, where she creates her own fabric sculptures and teaches students from all over the world, is a spacious converted stable a few yards from Boulevard St. Germain, the famous street running through the Left Bank in Paris. It stands in a small cobblestoned courtyard, Couer Rohan, which has inspired generations of French artists.

Despite her spreading international recognition as a sculptress, fashion consultant and expert on crafts, Hicks has not lost her missionary zeal for fabrics. She has helped restore traditional cloth-making by reviving ancient patterns and half-lost craft skills in developing countries and marrying these traditional arts with contemporary colors and marketing knowledge. She did this work successfully first in India, then in Morocco - an experience that brought her into contact with the Arab world and ultimately led her to work in Saudi Arabia.

Despite the need to keep up with the dizzy pace of construction at KSU, Hicks rejected the usual approach to decorating public buildings - purchasing works of art through dealers and reselling them to clients. Instead, she had all the university's works produced under her own supervision.

Among the most striking of these works are 31 tapestries handwoven with the same attention lavished on European monarchs' tapestries in by-gone centuries. In fact, many of the tapestries at King Sa'ud University were done at Tapisseries d'Aubusson, the renowned 400-year old factory in Lyons where some of the world's finest carpets and tapestries - for Versailles and other palaces were woven on giant looms by master craftsmen. "We took advantage of France's extraordinary facilities in this specialty, which can't be matched anywhere else," Hicks says. The Saudi contract was a shot in the arm for the high-quality fabric sector in Lyons, local officials acknowledge. Only foreign orders - increasingly rare these days - preserve enough of the hand-weaving sector to allow France to repair and refurbish its own heritage of tapestries.

In addition to France, though, other works were done - to Hicks' specifications - in every corner of the globe: England, Scotland, Spain, Malta, Goa in southern India, South Korea, Japan and, of course, Hicks' beloved Morocco.

Despite her use of French traditional weaving, Hicks' themes are far removed from the classic tapestry panels in Western history. The works in Riyadh are totally modern in their often startling conception and technique. Woven panels are juxtaposed with printed fabric, or a mask of string: textures, like hues, seem infinite in variety. Yet the overall effect is subtly evocative of Arab traditions. "A lot of the techniques are similar to those used by the Bedouin, who were always inventive in twisting, wrapping, braiding cloth to get a decorative effect," Hicks said. "And," she adds, "some of the wall hangings have designs drawn from the Saudi landscape like palm fronds or other local design motifs." For example, a set of wall hangings derived from medieval maps by Islamic cartographers seems mysterious to foreign visitors, but are immediately familiar to Saudis.

Saudi cultural history is a theme in all the sculpture too. The metal sculptures by Hicks' associate, Daniel Grifin, an Arabic-speaking French sculptor, in front of all the 16 faculties are based on instruments invented by Arabs - and Hicks' commitment to detail is particularly evident in one of the most striking three-dimensional works at the university - a flight of metal birds filling the upper reaches of the lofty forum - (See page 39), the central meeting place on campus. As sunlight and cloud vary during the day, followed by nightime lights and darkness, the winged flock seems to evolve in immobile flight. Though simple-looking this monumental sculpture required not only extraordinary imagination, but also sheer stamina; at one point, Hicks found herself inching along the open beams nearly 30 meters (100 feet) above the tiled forum floor. "I had to go out there to check the paint they were using on the beams because it's impossible to distinguish hues when you view them from below," Hicks recalls, adding with a satisfied smile," but after that, people were extra ready to help the crazy American who cared so much about her project that she was willing to go out on a limb."

This article appeared on pages 32-40 of the September/October 1985 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1985 images.