University Creates Student Oasis in Egypt's Desert This summer, American University in Cairo is set to open a $400 million campus outside the country's capital. The 260-acre site uses environmentally conscious designs and extensive gardens to keep buildings cool during the day and warm at night.
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University Creates Student Oasis in Egypt's Desert

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University Creates Student Oasis in Egypt's Desert

University Creates Student Oasis in Egypt's Desert

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We're going to take you now to a new college campus in the heart of the Middle East. More than 6,000 students and faculty at the American University in Cairo are preparing to move from downtown Cairo to New Cairo. This newly developed satellite city in the desert is about an hour's drive away. It's a controversial move for the American University in Cairo.

Some don't want to live or commute to such a remote location.

Mr. DAVID ARNOLD (President, American University in Cairo): It continues to be something that we wrestle with.

HANSEN: That's university President David Arnold. He says it's a practical move. The reality is that the center of Cairo is very congested and seriously polluted. Arnold says Egyptian government has been actively encouraging responsible development of such satellite cities as New Cairo to try to relieve the overcrowding, feted air and clogged streets in central Cairo.

Mr. ARNOLD: I have been president of AUC for five years, and when I first visited the site there was nothing there. There was nothing visible in any direction as I stood on the site. Now, development is mushrooming all around the new campus. There are major projects of both residential, commercial, institutional development taking place.

New Cairo, which was a desert just a few years ago, is expected to grow to become a city of four million people by 2020.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

HANSEN: We toured the campus in New Cairo in early April. We wanted to get a sense of how you build a 260-acre state-of-the-art university facility in the desert. On that particular day, a sand storm swirled, but through the yellow dust we could see a few construction teams. They were putting the final touches on the roads that lead to the campus.

We find the construction office, where we are ushered into a wood paneled room to meet one of the chief architects.

We are standing in front of a huge model of the new campus. What would you like to show us in this model?

Mr. ABDELHALIM IBRAHIM ABDELHALIM (Architect): Well, I would like just to show you the main scheme of the campus. As you see, this is...

HANSEN: Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim is one of many international architects who helped build this campus. It's based on a 2001 master plan designed by a Boston firm. Sustainable environmental design has always been a crucial component.

So, almost everywhere you enter this campus you're entering through green trees, palm trees, low trees. There also seem to be those pools of - is that water that will be put in between that row of palm trees?

Mr. ABDELHALIM: We wanted to create an environment that is conducive to the idea of learning. Landscaping plays a very central role in that process.

HANSEN: About the buildings themselves, are they made of local material?

Mr. ABDELHALIM: Of course. Almost 90 percent of the materials are local. The most dominant material here is stone. Stone is very authentic to Egypt. It is here in abundance. We have beautiful sandstone.

HANSEN: We've been looking at this beautiful model, which almost takes up an entire room. But you're going to take us to some of the places that are real.

Mr. ABDELHALIM: There are plenty of magical places in that campus.

HANSEN: Let's go.

(Soundbite of falling water)

HANSEN: The first thing you see when you walk into the campus at New Cairo is a square at the end of a long shaded walkway. The sandstorm is beginning to clear, and as we pass the hundreds of palm trees that lead to the entrance, we see in the square one of 27 fountains and pools of water that can be found on campus.

(Soundbite of falling water)

HANSEN: The American University in New Cairo is designed around a series of courtyards and gardens. The sandstone walls of the campus buildings are expected to cut cooling and heating costs in half. The thick walls keep the balance between inside and outside air so it's cool during the day and warm at night.

As we walk up to the main entrance, we look up and see an intricate series of arches and domes. Abdelhalim says the design is modeled after the great mosque in Cordoba, Spain. The dome represents the height of intellectual and mathematical achievement in Islamic civilization. The architects left the core of the dome open to the sky to create a vertical corridor of fresh air.

Mr. ABDELHALIM: But aside from even the deliberate teachings - just experiences is wonderful. Nobody will deny the feeling of comfort. So that's actually, that's the key to learning.

HANSEN: Abdelhalim wants to show us the administration building next. Like other campus structures, it's no more than three stories high. Only the library is higher at five stories.

(Soundbite of hammering)

HANSEN: Some of the offices have balcony spaces and intricate lattice woodwork overlooking the courtyard. These open spaces will not be air conditioned because the staircases and domes will create a natural fresh ventilation system. Everything here comes from a reservoir of ideas that reflect centuries of tradition.

The mashrabia(ph) or traditional wooden screens, for example, provide privacy and protection from the sun.

We end our tour with Egyptian architect Abdelhalim in the middle of the largest open space on campus.

Mr. ABDELHALIM: I decided to (unintelligible) as large as (unintelligible).

HANSEN: This is where the American University in Cairo will hold its ceremonies. It's expected that the first class will graduate from the New Cairo campus in 2009. For now the task at hand is filling the library with books and the Olympic-size swimming pool with water and getting the faculty and staff tot transition from downtown Cairo.

Lisa Anderson, the new provost at the American University in Cairo, points out that this isn't something the school is taking lightly. She told the Chronicle of Higher Education I know from Columbia that just getting an individual faculty member to move down the hall can be a problem.

Classes are expected to begin September 1.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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