Atkins designs centre for learning and culture in Alexandria

A self-contained, sustainable and smart city is set to rise from the sands of the remote Egyptian desert, incorporating residential, leisure, retail, educational and cultural facilities along with plazas and public spaces.

Influenced by the ancient architecture of Alexandria – famous for its libraries and lighthouses – Nabta Town is the vision of Mohamed Khairy, CEO of developer Upscale, with the urban design work being undertaken by Atkins.

The initial landscaping was even based on a map of the ancient city, but the design team say the development is actually a new concept for Egypt – a country where, away from urban centres, it is considered normal to drive for an hour or more to get to a restaurant or supermarket.

Salim Hussain and Mohamed Khairy posing next to Nabta masterplan. Photo by Richard Hall/ITP Images.

Khairy said: “Egypt’s cities are reeling from overpopulation and we want to offer something different in an urban context.

“We want people to come and live here because of the services that will be available. We want to incorporate the latest in smart technology. For instance people will be able to use their phones to navigate through the streets and when the devices will then record usage of a facility for payment later.”

The project is located approximately 50km from Egypt’s second city – modern-day Alexandria ­- and has a plot size of around 600,000m2. It is designed to be a LEED Silver Neighbourhood.

Architect Salim Hussain called it “a unique and sustainable masterplan that incorporates world-class academic institutions, cultural, leisure and commercial centres, a business park, generous public spaces and holistic housing neighbourhoods”.

A central facility is the library – designed to reflect Alexandria’s position in the ancient world as a centre of learning.

Hussain said: “The brief proposed a multi-user learning facility that caters to the needs of both the general public and students from nearby academic facilities. The design emphasises an architectural language that is deeply rooted within its historical context, which encourages the user to ponder, innovate and explore.”

The design allows the building’s external spaces to connect with the public realm of the cultural neighbourhood, thus drawing visitors inside.

There is also a route through the building that leads to more private landscaped areas with zones for reading, meeting and socialising. This route is at the centre of the building, which is the main arrival area where visitors can then go to the academic wing or the main library.

Hussain explained: “Porous funnel towers create striking atrium spaces, bringing natural daylight to all corners of the building, which houses open reading spaces as well as individual learning rooms.

“These funnels are a modern-day reinterpretation of Alexandria’s historic lighthouses and the locally prevalent pigeon towers. The sun position for local prayer timings informs the orientation of each funnel and the skylight on each funnel is carved in an angular fashion that compliments this sun-path.

University building.

“As a result, the amount of sun-light entering each funnel varies based on the sun’s position, thus enabling a natural lighting strategy that animates spaces differently throughout the day.”

Subtle brickwork detailing delineates a cultural and historical narrative on the façade of the building while the urban grid of ancient Alexandria, a city that was planned based on the positioning of constellations, is referenced on the façade.

Hussain said: “Star systems represented on the roof through delicate pores act as an allegorical reference to the significance of astronomy in ancient Egypt.

“In addition, the tallest funnel offers an observatory space, where constellations unite to create an other-worldly atmosphere.  At night, the entire building illuminates surrounding spaces through light emanating from its permeable façade.

“The Public Library is a landmark structure that aims to unite different communities in the region to learn, live and create, all in one place. It rekindles the cultural significance and notion of Alexandria as the centre of enlightenment and culture for the region and beyond.

“Building on Egypt’s rich heritage, the design seeks to create a vibrant public space that offers new worlds of learning and exploration for all.”