Designing the AUC New Cairo: Architects Focus on Creating a Learning Community and Environmental Sustainability. Initial plans for The American University in Cairo campus, including the master plan and architecture design principles, were published in December 2000.  Early the next year, AUC selected two firms active in the early planning — Sasaki and Associates (Watertown, Massachusetts, USA) and Abdel-Halim Community Development Collaborative (Cairo, Egypt) — as co-prime architects to lead the international team that would execute the plan.


By mid-2001, that team was in place. Sasaki and Abdel-Halim CDC would design the university’s three schools and adjacent structures. Three other firms, all with strong prior university experience, received commissions for the remaining campus buildings: Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer & Associates (USA) would design the library; Legorreta + Legorreta (Mexico) received the commission for the campus center and student residences; and Ellerbe-Beckett (USA) was assigned the indoor and outdoor athletic complex. Landscape design went to Carol R. Johnson & Associates of Boston, in association with Sites International of Cairo.

AUC leaders assembled such an accomplished and diverse international team of designers because they did not want the university’s future development to be constrained by a single architectural vision. The finished campus would not all look the same: Instead it “would reflect the work of individual firms, but the process of working together ensured there would be harmony in the diversity,” said Sasaki President Dennis Pieprz.

The master plan made it clear that the AUC New Cairo must be built in ways that respect the “values of liberal arts education, the traditions of the university and its Egyptian character, and the environment of the site,” Abdel-Halim Ibrahim Abdel-Halim recalled. “And the planning outlined how that should be accomplished.”

While the schematic design was in place by 2001, precise details of the AUC New Cairo emerged from an extraordinary series of meetings of the entire team in Cairo, Boston and Mexico City over the next two years.

In a 2002 interview about the process of seven firms from three countries working together, Ricardo Legorreta, the senior member of the father-son Mexico City firm, said: “Without your team members, you can do nothing. Fortunately, we have this collaborative spirit and humble perspective among the architects on this project.” What the team had to do, he said, was to “design architecture that belongs to Egypt and Cairo,” respecting and understanding the culture while remaining true to their own visions.

Steven Terrill of Ellerbe Beckett, designer of the athletic facilities adjacent to the student housing, recalled the team as “highly respected architects with completely different views, critiquing and learning from each other to make the different pieces work together. We were all making alterations in what we were doing to fit the bigger picture, while still being independent.”

“The people with our firm spent a lot of time with the Legorretas to ensure our large arena building didn’t overwhelm the residences across the street,” said Terrill, who is now with HKS, Inc. Terrill and colleagues made the total volume appear smaller by breaking the building into three parts and setting the arena into the sloping topography so that it was the same height as the residences across the avenue.

Much of the overall architectural harmony of the finished campus, Abdel-Halim observed recently, comes from geometry, materials and landscaping. “The avenue along the central spine connects everything and the thoughtful geometric transitions along the avenue — each gateway, courtyard and plaza — orchestrate the passage to a new space. As you move through the campus, the sandstone — all from one mountain quarry in Kom Ombo north of Aswan — creates a unity of material for the central-campus building walls, even when it is used differently by the different architects. And then the landscaping knits the entire campus together.”

It was also clear to the international team that the entire compact campus must be “a learning environment, not just in the classrooms but everywhere,” said Sasaki’s Pieprz. “All the in-between spaces outdoors, the campus streets and byways, the plazas and the courtyards — every place designed to gather or pause — are designed to that end.”

The social design of those “in-between spaces” also helps create both architectural unity and a sense of community. The wide, shaded colonnade in front of classrooms shared by all three schools stimulates interdisciplinary interaction among both faculty and students. Plazas and courtyards connect visually to protected outdoor stairways, corridors and bridges above and encourage chance meetings and social connection. 

The first team workshops in Egypt included intense observation and discussion of AUC, Cairo and regional architecture. The architects chose to include strong references to AUC Tahrir Square in the form and color of entrance gates and arches in New Cairo.  Traditional Arabic “mashrabiya [wooden window screens] for privacy and sun-protection, malkafs [wind catchers] on roofs to capture prevailing winds and circulate fresh air into buildings, and shukshaykhas [vented domes] to remove hot air appeared in modern expression at the new campus, too,” said library architect Stephen Johnson.

Throughout the campus, openings from plazas and courtyards and gateways between buildings were oriented toward the prevailing northeast winds and the University Garden. The water and greenery cool the breeze as it moves up to replace the rising warmer air at the center of the campus. This kind of environmentally conscious design reduces long-term energy and maintenance costs, while contributing as well to the social design of the campus.

The two dramatic mashrabiya-like screening walls of the library, for example, not only shade its large windows from the summer sun, but also create wide arcades that invite passersby to pause and converse. The departmental courtyards of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences do more than create comfortable outdoor places for students, faculty and staff to gather. They also are part of a hollow-square building design, repeated across the campus in different scales, to let as much natural light and air as possible enter offices, classrooms and labs from multiple directions. “Sustainable environmental design is often intensely thoughtful application of local knowledge and common sense,” Stephen Johnson observed.

The architects also stress the unifying quality of the 400-meter-long University Garden.  “People on the avenue above are always connected visually to the garden below,” Dennis Pieprz said. “The interaction and energy of the street are always balanced by the opportunity for privacy, introspection and renewal in the garden. They are complementary worlds, equally important and powerfully intertwined.”

Beyond the garden, the landscaping of the urban upper campus and the campus periphery are also important to the university’s environmental education mission. Maher Stino of Sites International created a “catalogue of all the plants on the campus for future use by the community and in the classroom,” he said.

“We chose trees and shrubs not only for their appropriateness to the climate, variety of color and aroma,” Stino said, but also for their productivity, as “many bear fruit and nuts.” The landscape as a whole is an environmental showcase for things Egyptian and a major part of AUC’s effort to demonstrate ecological leadership in the sustainable use of air, soil, stone and water. All trees and plants across the campus, except the date palms, were propagated and grown at AUC’s own Desert Development Center’s agricultural research station.

“Every landscape decision was made with a limited water budget in mind,” said Christopher Jones, executive vice president of Carol R. Jones and Associates. “All the landscape water used in the fountains and pools across the campus is moving, and it is all recycled.” Even evaporated water is not wasted, he said, “it plays a key role in cooling the campus.”
The garden will also play a central role in AUC’s future growth. While the AUC New Cairo is designed to accommodate a 10 percent increase in student population to 5,500 soon, long-range plans for the site could allow AUC to double in size in the decades ahead. If and as that happens, the land north of the garden is sufficient to accommodate the expansion and the garden would become a future unifying centerpiece between the two built areas.

Following a recent visit, Abdel-Halim Ibrahim Abdel-Halim said: “Approaching the campus, you see from a distance that there is a significant urban architectural statement here. When you arrive, you are greeted by the generous community gesture of the large palm grove of AUC Park at the visitor entrance. It is immediately clear that what you glimpse beyond represents a thoughtful plan.”

Only when one enters and sees up close the quality of the construction and the materials used does it become clear, he added, that “this is a campus built to work for hundreds of years.”

Further background on AUC New Cairo planning and the design and construction team

The earliest discussion of the need for The American University in Cairo campus, designed expressly for the purpose of higher education, began just two years after the university was founded in the city center in 1919. Deciding in 1997 that there was no further room for growth in its downtown location, the university purchased 260 acres of land for its new home. The site, 35 kilometers east of the current campus, is at the center of New Cairo, an extension of metropolitan Cairo that will likely have 4 million residents by 2020.

The AUC New Cairo master plan and site infrastructure design came from Boston Design Collaborative. They were expanded into architectural design principles and community context by Sasaki and Associates of Watertown, Massachusetts, and Abdel-Halim Community Design Collaborative of Cairo. Sasaki and Abdel-Halim CDC were selected as co-prime architects to lead the international team of architects, listed with principals and campus projects below.

Contractors responsible for implementing the architects’ plans and building the AUC New Cairo were the Egyptian subsidiary of the South Korean firm Samsung in a joint venture with the Egyptian Construction Company Samcrete. Construction management and oversight were provided by Fluor International (USA).


Sasaki and Associates (USA, co-prime architect), Dennis Pieprz and Pablo Savid-Buteler


Abdel-Halim Community Design Collaborative (Egypt, co-prime architect), Abdel-Halim Ibrahim Abdel-Halim


Ellerbe Beckett (USA), David Dymecky (now with Sasaki) and Steven Terrill (now with HKS, Inc.)


Hardy Holzman Pfeiffer & Associates (USA), Stephen Johnson (now with Cannon Design)


Legorreta + Legorreta (Mexico), Ricardo Legorreta and Victor Legorreta


Carol R. Johnson Associates  (USA), Harry Fuller & Christopher Jones, with Sites International (Egypt), Maher Stino


EAG Consulting (Egypt), Khalid Z. EL Adli


Robert Luchetti and Associates  (USA), Robert Luchetti

  • MATERIALS, including stone, tiles and fabrics

Shafie-Sherif Bureau, Consultants Architects: Prof. Zakia Shafie and Prof. Ahmed Sherif