At a glance, one block of the buildings of the American University in Cairo (AUC) New Cairo campus – 35 miles east of the other campus in Tahrir Square – stand out against those nearby. But, underneath the cranberry-red paint, local sandstone sourced from a single mountainside quarry in Kom Ombo, north of Aswan, confirms that the bright, 12-unit complex is an integral part of its surroundings.
Unlike most dormitory buildings, which usually tower several stories above the ground like inner city apartment blocks, the New Cairo campus houses its students in 12 separate units – five for men, seven for women – that rise no higher than two floors. Ground floor rooms open onto courtyard spaces, where tables and chairs are sprinkled about for studying when the weather is mild.
Designed to feel like a ‘small village’ by the late Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta, AUC’s dormitories are currently the home-away-from home for roughly 500 students. ‘AUC has a very diverse community in its student body, and this diversity is concentrated in the student residences,’ says Mohammed Alalem, who works in AUC’s Office of Residential Life, of the 29 nationalities represented in the dormitories.
Alalem graduated from AUC himself in 2011, and knows very well how living on-campus and sharing community spaces can spark personal growth within new university students – he was among the first group of students to move into Legorreta’s newly-built housing units in early 2009.
‘I lived there for three and a half years, in a double room, and then in a premium double room. Ever since day one, we had to share everything,’ he recalls, fondly, of his Yemeni roommate, whom he met as soon as he arrived on campus and lived with each year for his entire attendance.
‘The cultural exchange channelled through the common kitchenettes, laundry rooms and computer labs extends the learning experience from the classrooms to the living rooms of the students,’ he continues.
Although they may look aesthetically similar, with their distinctive red colour, shaded outside corridors and greenery, each unit offers its residents a different living experience.
One unit, for example, looks out onto the arterial avenue of the campus, which students use to walk to and from class; others onto a magnificent 400 metre-long garden (a ‘spectacular view’, according to Alalem). One of the units is known for its windows, which offer a fine breeze, and another for its pleasant open area that is ideal for an evening barbeque.
The housing complex at AUC has several courtyards, where students gather to converse and get classwork done while enjoying the cool breezes under the shade, created by the strategically placed buildings and angled walls.
These quiet shaded courtyards, surrounded by the buildings’ outer façades, are reminiscent of the traditional Egyptian family homes still seen throughout the country. ‘It’s very common in all Arab countries to have a huge space in the middle of the house, where the family sits and has most of its activities,’ Alalem explains. ‘These courtyards are still visible in northern Egypt and in rural areas where an extended family can live in one building.’
Lining the dorms are outdoor corridors shaded by mashrabiyat that protect pedestrians from the sunlight and give them a cool place to pause and meet others in passing. Except for the date palms, all of the foliage planted throughout the courtyards and along the outer passageways was grown at the AUC Desert Development Center to ensure that the agricultural elements were derived from local flora.
Another distinctly vernacular feature of the New Cairo campus is its rooftops, or lack of them. The rooftops of each building – with their characteristic absence of triangular gables – offer a unique, wide-open space for students to make use of.
In fact, the people behind the Office of Residential Life plan on taking advantage of a few of the rooftops by making them more appealing to students looking for a comfortable and expansive place to spend their time amongst the local verdure.
‘We are currently working on having green roofs with trees and improving the seating to encourage students to use [them] more often, as they are quite cool areas for studying,’ Alalem adds enthusiastically.
Omar Soliman, a senior mechanical engineering student who lived on campus for a year, nostalgically remembers the times he spent on the rooftops. ‘The roof is a great spot to spend some quiet time at night,’ he recalls.
But, of all the carefully detailed features of the New Cairo campus, the common areas – both inside and outside the units – are the physical spaces that students benefit from and enjoy the most. Clearly designed with students in mind, they foster interaction and encourage cooperation.
All of the residence halls have their own organised activities in the communal spaces, but Alalem jokingly mentions how the women’s dormitories have a special appeal. ‘I used to envy them because they had their own gardens and open spaces in front of the units, and activities and events there like yoga,’ he teases, begrudgingly.
Zeyad Lasheen, another Alexandria native, like Soliman, who studied Business Administration at AUC and lived on campus for three semesters, says that the communal spaces were key to enhancing student life.
‘The student housing in general has a motivated atmosphere. The common area, for instance, creates a family mood that unites all of the residents in one area and helps students to make friends,’ he says.
‘Moreover, study rooms encourage students to study hard – giving them the chance to help each other and achieve better grades.’
Soliman agrees. His favourite parts of the dorms were always the places that students could be together after class. ‘The communal spaces have to be at the top of my list. Most of the students socialise and study there,’ he chimes.
But the real value that the AUC housing complex adds to students’ lives is the way in which it empowers undergraduates, to discover for themselves that their time at university will propel them forward into their careers and, eventually, the rest of their lives.
‘I might even feel more comfortable living on campus at AUC than I do at home,’ Lasheen adds. ‘I feel free, independent and totally self-reliant.’
This article can be found in Brownbook’s November/December 2014 Issue.
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