Drawing on and updating precedents for designing in the tropics, this new university campus in Angola cultivates an architectural language that responds to place and climate
Independence came late to Angola but the toxic mix of diamonds, oil and the geopolitics of the Cold War gave it little chance of avoiding the then well-signposted pitfalls of post-colonialism. Civil conflict that was a proxy for superpower relations ravaged the country for a generation after the Portuguese pulled out in 1975. It had little chance to develop the civic institutions a modern society needs from the seeds left by the colonial power until the nearly simultaneous collapse of the Soviet Union and apartheid in nearby South Africa. That allowed the government of former communists to turn its attention to nation-building, but the tension only really ended with the death of Jonas Savimbi, leader of the CIA-backed Unita movement, in 2002.
By then, though, Ralph Johnson of Perkins+Will was already a year or two into planning a new campus for Agostinho Neto University on the outskirts of the capital Luanda. Named after the country’s first president it was an iconic institution but, split between various sites and lacking facilities, it had little chance of meeting the needs of a population growing in expectation, size and affluence. The move to the fringe site was intended to overcome those drawbacks, as well as to reflect the egalitarian ideals of the client body of academics and civil servants who governed Angola during the Communist period.
Its size and location gave an opportunity to develop a clear identity for the university through a campus that would grow out of the climate and context – and where possible transform those particular conditions to serve the academic and social goals of the university. The 2,000ha site has capacity to grow to 40,000 students in 600,000 square metres of teaching, research and residential buildings. Completed earlier this year, its first phase for 3,000 students in four faculties of maths, physics, chemistry and computing reflects the bias towards science and the wish to educate Angolans with the technical knowhow to allow the country to control its natural resources. Later phases will strengthen that capability with specialist research institutes for petroleum sciences, engineering, medicine and education. A further faculty for economics, arts and law will broaden its curriculum and prepare students for graduate study abroad.
From the start Johnson and his clients were determined to ensure that the initial ‘core’ campus would be able to function as an institution in its own right. Including the central library in it was part of this strategy. As it will serve the whole campus it has rather more library capacity than the initial core campus needs, so in its first iteration it includes facilities like student services and a cafeteria. As more teaching and research are added, they will move out and library provision expand to fill the entire building.
All that is generic in planning new university campuses. What gives Agostinho Neto added significance is the way it meets the standard of its Western counterparts in a country where climatic, economic and social conditions make this particularly difficult. Johnson mentions several times in our conversation HH Richardson’s campus for Stanford University, but he stresses that its relevance here is not as a formal model, but in the way it indicates the value of an approach which responds to local circumstances. Indeed it is the way this design responds to these local conditions through a series of moves that are all contingent on them and each other that results in its particular qualities.
The two most obvious practical conditions are climate and construction. Angola is just south of the Equator on Africa’s Atlantic coast. The cold Benguela current which comes up from the Antarctic keeps Namibia to the south arid, but off Angola it mixes with warmer tropical waters so there is some rainfall, creating savannah that eventually merges into tropical rainforest. Left to its own devices the campus site would be lightly rolling savannah but war and slash-and-burn agriculture have scarred it: on early site visits Johnson was warned not to stray too far because of land mines. Perkins+Will, working with London-based engineers Battle McCarthy, set out to find a way of making the climate and the landscape work together to temper the environment on the campus, and ultimately to construct buildings that meet the symbolic and functional goals of the university in a way that is sustainable in the long term.
Defining the campus as an oval shape made a good fit within a system of river beds which are mostly dry but flood in the wet season, giving them relatively rich vegetation which helps to give a character to the campus within the overall development. A ring of woodland between these river beds and the oval ring road which bounds the actual campus will strengthen both the university’s identity and the strategy of regenerating and improving the natural landscape.
The next stage was to establish an orientation for the buildings. Johnson quickly came up with the pinwheel form for the buildings, which avoids the explicit hierarchy of Beaux-Arts-inspired axial symmetry, and it also had promising characteristics for working with the landscape to create a comfortable microclimate by passive means. Being well into the tropics, sun can come from north or south suggesting an east-west orientation, but the cooling wind comes from the south-west so to maximise its benefit the final campus orientation is 19 degrees off the north-south axis.
The pinwheel form suits these natural characteristics. It results in four courtyards each with a distinct microclimatic condition. One has a series of converging linear forms which harvest the wind, directing and accelerating it to enhance its natural effects. Two are given over to horticulture, one a plant nursery and the other for botanical research, symbolising in a small way how architecture alters natural conditions to serve intellectual ambition. The final courtyard leads on to the savannah.
In working out how to make an architectural idiom out of these basic moves Johnson was taken by buildings in Luanda. The city originated with the slave trade but grew into an elegant colonial metropolis with a magnificent corniche and some good mid 20th-century Modernism: until 1975 its population was largely European but as the Portuguese left it has grown to house about five million people, about a third of the country’s population. Johnson was especially taken with the core of well-detailed if run-down Modernist buildings. Raised on pilotis and shaded by brise-soleil, the debt to Le Corbusier is obvious, but so is the skill of Portuguese architects in adapting Modernism to a hot climate.
The design reworks these principles with the benefit of modern computational techniques. Half a century ago architects may have known that the shape of a building can enhance air flow, and facade treatment can improve internal comfort. But here the position and shape of each building was modelled to enhance and unite the advantages of several different effects. The roofs are angled to use the prevailing wind direction to create differential air pressure and to avoid the build up of stagnant hot air – as well as to provide shading. Each facade has precisely calibrated porosity which can be altered by openable louvres to take advantage of the turbulence. This formal language also readily incorporates screening and shelves to control sunlight. Buildings are generally one room deep, with the corridor providing protection from the warmest sun: if the corridor is hot it’s merely uncomfortable; if the classrooms overheat they’re unusable.
The result is remarkably uplifting, reminiscent of the optimistic feel of the first generation of post-colonial architecture by designers such as Jane Drew, Max Fry and above all Le Corbusier. But they rarely understood the long-term effects of the formal devices, materials and techniques they so deftly appropriated. Above all these subtly handled courtyards and buildings are recognisable descendants of traditional university quadrangles – and as Johnson intended, expressed in a way Richardson, or indeed Wren, would not have envisaged but might have respected.