Earlier this year, RMJM Hillier became the first U.S. architecture firm to receive a commission in Libya since the United States normalized relations with the North African nation in 2006. Working in a country that has had a highly contentious relationship with the United States for decades and is led by a man—Moammar Gaddafi—most would describe as a dictator might give some firms pause, but this is nothing new for RMJM, which designed the Olympic Green Convention Center for the Beijing Olympics and the Okhta Center tower in St. Petersburg, Russia, for state-owned energy company Gazprom. "We do a lot of due diligence on the people we work for," RMJM CEO Peter Morrison told ARCHITECT last spring (" The House of Morrison," May 2008). "If we believed there was something morally deficient, we wouldn't work for these clients." The project in Libya, a branch campus in Bani Walid for the 7th of October University that will serve more than 3,000 students, is being designed by the Global Education Studio, based in RMJM Hillier's Princeton, N.J., office. Construction on the 123-acre campus is expected to begin in 2009 and finish in 2010. Firm principal and studio director Gordon Hood spoke with ARCHITECT about design inspirations, dealing with the desert environment, and the development potential of a country with enormous amounts of open land and an equally large checkbook to pay for new construction.
How did the firm end up getting into Libya?
The Libyan government has a procurement arm called ODAC [Organisation for the Development of Administrative Centres], and they contacted us to see if we were interested in doing education work. We met them at our office in London and showed them our capabilities.
Inspiration for the campus comes from the desert rose, a silica crystal. How did this happen?
The campus is in the desert. We visited the site and did a lot of background research. We wanted something indigenous and discussed a number of ideas, of which the desert rose was one. That appealed to them.
Are you working with a local firm?
No. We are doing the designs from here but are visiting Tripoli to meet the client, and we have some meetings in London and some by videoconference.
Do you plan on opening an office in Tripoli?
Hard to say at the moment. That would be down the line. We wouldn't be doing that for two projects, but we might review that in the future.
What are your impressions of the country?
Huge potential, if you think how all of the other sides of the Mediterranean are some of the most expensive real estate in the world. The country has huge oil reserves. Basically, they have money in the bank. They've decided, I think, to go on a modernization program of nearly every one of their social services—education, health, residential—but they're also moving forward with a huge tourist program, looking at developing 400 kilometers of coastline. There are not that many tourists there at the moment. They have some of the best Roman ruins in the world.
Does Libya have a vernacular style you are drawing from, or is what you're doing entirely new?
Libya has a very rich history. Many civilizations have left their mark in terms of architecture. But to some degree, they have all colonized Libya. We looked for indigenous forms, particularly forms that could deal with the severe desert climate. We found a very interesting settlement called Ghadames [a UNESCO world heritage site]. It deals with climate in terms of buildings being clustered close together, with narrow courtyards and connecting spaces. They're very interested in the campus buildings being contemporary. There's no pastiche. So, in a sense, the origins of the culture are used as inspiration, but not in terms of re-creating a historic style. It's used as a starting point.
Are you trying to make the campus as green as possible?
They are very interested in it being sustainable. We are looking at introducing as many areas of natural ventilation as we can, having areas of circulation which are open walkways rather than air-conditioned spaces—but some of the more technical spaces are air-conditioned. We're trying to make it low-energy. We're trying to use materials which can be delivered locally. We have to figure out the technologies which are most appropriate to be delivered by the Libyan construction industry.
Have you met Gaddafi?
I have not. He meets Condoleezza Rice.