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Into Africa
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Photo © James Steinkamp

Universidade Agostinho Neto

Perkins+Will

Luanda, Angola

Under African Skies: The first phase of an ambitious national university creates a community of buildings and outdoor spaces adapted to a hot, dry climate.

By Fred A. Bernstein

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When Perkins+Will's Ralph Johnson first visited the site of the new campus of Universidade Agostinho Neto, near Luanda, Angola, in 2001, the five-mile drive from the city center involved military checkpoints, refugees living in squalid camps along the road, and warnings to steer clear of land mines. Back then, the country was still in the throes of a decades-long civil war.

But Angola was beginning to use oil revenue to improve its social infrastructure. At the time, Angolans seeking higher education tended to go abroad. Officials of Indiana University, which had a number of Angolan students, had begun to advise that country's government on ways of improving its own university system. In 1999, they suggested hiring Perkins+Will—a firm known for designing crisply modern academic buildings and for its painstaking attention to sustainability—to build a new campus for Agostinho Neto, the nation's largest public university. (Agostinho Neto was Angola's first president following the country's independence from Portugal in 1975. The university formerly had campuses around the country; the ones not in Luanda have now become autonomous universities.)

G. William Doerge, Perkins+Will's international-practice director, served as the point man for the project, traveling to Angola dozens of times during the last 12 years. Now the university is starting to move into its new campus, the first phase of which comprises 350,000 square feet for the faculties of math, physics, chemistry, and computing, and can accommodate 3,000 students.

Perkins+Will has always practiced what the firm's president, Phil Harrison, describes as “human-centered Modernism.” On trips to Angola, Johnson and Doerge confirmed that their Corbusian aesthetic was appropriate to that country. In fact, Luanda is filled with mid-century buildings (from the last years of Portuguese rule). The trouble, says Johnson, a principal in the firm's Chicago office, is that the Modernist buildings have been poorly maintained. That observation served as a warning: Make sure the new university buildings are easy to care for, or, as he put it, “have very few moving parts.”

The land set aside for the university presented a blank slate, but the architects were determined to create a sense of place even before the campus reaches its ultimate form as an institution accommodating 40,000 students. They did so with an elliptical ring road that helps define an academic village and a pinwheel master plan that arranges buildings around a series of courtyards and orthogonal paths. The first phase concentrates buildings at the center of the plan, with additional faculties to grow along its outstretched arms of streets. Student and staff housing will be added around the academic village.

Phase one includes four classroom buildings and a central library—the latter an R-shaped structure, most of it raised four stories above the ground to allow cooling breezes to reach classroom blocks on its leeward side. (Right now, the library building includes student-union and administrative facilities, which will eventually get their own structures as the library expands.) The library is the only building that is air-conditioned; other structures depend for cooling on the ingenuity of the architects (and consulting engineers Battle McCarthy, based in London) in limiting solar gain and stimulating airflow.

To reduce energy consumption, the architects arranged the academic buildings in what Johnson calls “a simple, linear bar scheme,” with short east-west facades and long north-south facades (adjusted 19 degrees to increase shadows and give prevailing winds—which don't follow compass directions—the maximum cooling effect). A variety of devices, including painted aluminum sunscreens, allow daylight into the buildings while minimizing solar gain. (Because Luanda is near the equator, sun can shine from north or south, depending on the time of year.) Corridors also buffer classrooms from too much direct sunlight, since a hot corridor is less of an impediment to education than a hot classroom.

But the buildings' most distinctive features may be their roofs, angled to serve as airfoils. When the wind blows, the zigzag surfaces of galvanized and painted steel reduce the air pressure above the buildings. The decrease in pressure pulls hot air up and out of the classrooms through operable louvers. The louvers, says Johnson, allow air to get through while keeping dust out. Such methods to keep air moving have been known for centuries, as Doerge points out, but in recent years computer modeling has given architects the ability to fine-tune them for maximum efficiency.

Construction was carried out by a succession of companies, including contractors from South Africa, Portugal, and, ultimately, China, which has been aggressively pursuing business in Angola and throughout sub-Saharan Africa. The poured-concrete frames, formed mostly by the Portuguese contractor, are “as good as I've seen anywhere,” says Johnson. (The writer was not able to travel to Angola for this article.)

The firm learned a lot about doing architecture—and business—in Africa. “As with many foreign projects, it sometimes took a while to get paid; we had to be patient,” says Johnson, who notes the firm is now doing 15 percent of its work overseas, including a hospital and a health center in Kenya. The 12-year effort on Universidade Agostinho Neto was an investment. Its second phase—775,000 square feet–should go out to bid later this year. If the campus is built out as planned—a total of 6.45 million square feet—it will be a kind of “annuity” for the firm, says Doerge. Looking back on the project, Johnson says, “Not only is it important socially, but it's a real prototype for sustainable design in developing countries.”

Contributing editor Fred A. Bernstein studied architecture at Princeton and law at NYU and writes about both subjects.

Completion Date: 2011 (Phase 1)

Size: 350,000 gross square feet (Phase 1)

Cost: $175 million (Phase 1)

Architect and Site Design:
Perkins+Will, Inc.
330 North Wabash Avenue
Suite 3600
Chicago, IL 60611
t: (312) 755-0770
f: (312) 755-0775

August 2012
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