Rahaf Al Muzaini presents her work at CU Denver College of Architecture and Planning

Saudi architecture students visit

CU Denver leadership returns favor

May 4, 2016
Hiba Al-Amoodi

“My dream job? I want to be an architect who influences people,” said Hiba Al-Amoodi. “Philip Johnson—I want to be him. I want people to know my name and point to me as the way to do things.”

It is an ambitious goal for a petite 22-year-old in her fourth year at Dar Al-Hekma University (DAH), a private institution of higher education for women in Jeddah, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. But with the help of faculty and peer mentors on opposite sides of the planet, it is a goal she may achieve.

Exchanging ideas

Al-Amoodi is one of eight students and two faculty members from DAH Department of Architecture who visited CU Denver’s College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) this spring. The group came under the auspices of the Fayez International Exchange program, which was created by the generous support of Dr. Zuhair Fayez, an alumnus of CAP and chairman of the largest architecture/engineering/management firm in Saudi Arabia.

The eight senior students were accompanied by two DAH faculty members — Dr. Mona Helmy, Chair of the Architecture Department, and Ms. Sherin Sameh, ARCH lecturer. The women spent a week in Denver participating in educational activities and several events that had been planned, organized and developed by Keith Loftin, CAP professor and director of the Fayez International Exchange Program with the help of CAP staff. The students from DAH also worked on small teams with CU Denver students, engaging in a charette (an intense period of design and planning) that was written and directed by Loftin. The project was supervised by Loftin and DAH faculty members. Their goal was to design a theater for Ubuesque, a Denver theater group.

Farah Aqrabawi will return home with respect for Denver’s appreciation of historic buildings. “It’s very interesting that people here care about the life of a building,” Aqrabawi said.
Keith Loftin, CAP professor and director of the Fayez International Exchange Program and Dr. Mona Helmy, Chair of the Architecture Department at Dar Al-Hekma University

Dr. Helmy watched with pride as the Saudi students immediately got down to work brainstorming with their American counterparts. Helmy enjoyed observing the “teamwork in action” and believes the experience is good for both the DAH and the CU Denver students because it introduces diversity and new dimensions to the learning process. “When students exchange ideas, it gives them more richness and confidence in their abilities,” Helmy said. “It confirms and manifests the quality of their education and their level as international students.”

Aseel Sahab

Aseel Sahab, a fifth-year student at DAH, added, “It’s interesting how architecture can be a universal language and people around the world can still approach it in different ways. This experience enriched my understanding of the relationship of architecture and culture. We learned that our approach to design reflects the culture and the environment we come from, and indeed having the chance to engage with other students brought up a wider perspective towards design and architecture.”

“We are using architecture as a mechanism for cultural exchange,” said Loftin. “Through the act of working together, students from both sides of the world begin to understand the viewpoints of someone from another culture.”

Final review

By the end of the week, all the students gathered for a design review by faculty and professional architects from the community. The students received rave reviews for what they managed to achieve in just two days of work.

As she answered questions about her project, Nadine Lingawi, a fourth-year student at DAH, confessed that she had come on the trip feeling nervous about working with CU Denver graduate students, but was delighted to find that she comfortably fit in. Even better, she felt her knowledge complemented that of the collaborating students. “Our architecture influences us and yours influences you,” she said.  “But through a collaboration like this, you realize how architecture is a universal language spoken in different dialects. It’s wonderful to know that I have given some ideas to the CU Denver students as well as I have learned from them.”

CU Denver and DAH students and faculty celebrate the end of the charette.

Traveling to DAH

Within weeks after the women returned to Saudi Arabia, a team of administrators from CU Denver traveled to DAH to discuss how to move the relationship between the two universities forward and inspire future collaboration. The visit was one stop on a two-week trip to visit CU Denver alumni in the region.

The CU Denver group included John Sunnygard, executive director of International Affairs; Andrea Wagner, vice chancellor of Advancement; Noelle DeLage, assistant vice chancellor of Advancement; and Brian DeLevie, associate professor and chair, the Department of Visual Arts in the College of Arts and Media.

From left, Brian DeLevie, associate professor and chair, the Department of Visual Arts in the College of Arts and Media; Andrea Wagner, vice chancellor of Advancement; Noelle DeLage, assistant vice chancellor of Advancement; John Sunnygard, executive director of International Affairs; Yara Sobhi, architecture student at DAH. Sobhi served as guide to the group as they toured

The group was impressed by the dedication of both students and faculty at DAH. DeLage described the university as an “inspiring place for women to learn” where architecture students were motivated to show off their work to the visitors from Denver.

“At DAH, they are extremely proud of their students, alumni and accomplishments,” DeLage said. “They have created a place for women to express themselves freely, and they want to inspire current students to accomplish great things and influence the world.”

Making connections

Sunnygard spent time with his counterparts at DAH, discussing possibilities for CU Denver students to travel to Saudi Arabia and future student exchanges with other CU Denver units. DeLevie met with the Head of the Visual Communications program at DAH to discuss opportunities for collaboration. Wagner and DeLage met with the advancement leadership of DAH.

Nadine Lingawi, one of the students who visited CAP, also met with Denver leadership in Saudi Arabia.

The team also met with Zuhair Fayez, co-founder of DAH, whose philanthropy originally created the exchange program. At the outset, the collaboration between the two universities helped DAH develop curriculum for their undergraduate program. Now, the two schools are exploring future opportunities.

“We are so grateful for the generosity of our alumnus, Zuhair Fayez,” DeLage said. “Through his vision and passion he has opened a world to us that we, as an institution, would not have had otherwise.”

Dr. Fayez hosted a reception at his Jeddah home for the CU Denver delegation, CU alumni, and the Dar Al Hekma students and faculty. Two DAH architecture students who had traveled to Denver shared their insights and expressed appreciation for the opportunity to visit Denver. They discussed forming an all-women architecture firm when they graduate. Their dream enterprise bears an uncanny similarity to the Zuhair Fayez partnership founded by Dr. Fayez and two other Saudi Arabian friends following their graduation from CU’s College of Architecture in the 1970s.