As medical schools go, Duke University is no slouch. And its views of Singapore’s forested countryside are nothing to sneeze at either.
Yes, Singapore. Duke, like many other colleges, is going global, and has set out to open the first occidental medical school in that country: the Duke University/National University of Singapore Graduate Medical School. It is part of a growing trend toward spreading American college curricula around the world; providing education funded or overseen by American schools to places where advanced research is absent.
One of the minds behind the design of this school, and many others like it, is RMJM’s Gordon Hood. RMJM — the Alexander Park-based architecture firm that merged with Hillier Architecture in 2007 and until last month went by the name RMJM Hillier — is fast becoming the last word on projects like Duke’s venture in Singapore. Founded in Scotland 50 years ago, RMJM carved a name for itself with its designs for educational institutions in the U.K. Over time the firm opened offices around the world that followed the pattern. When the Scotland-born Hood came aboard years ago, he did a number of projects relating to educational facilities. As his own expertise in the field grew, so did RMJM’s. So did the firm’s reach.
And all of this has come to an exquisitely timed head for RMJM. With its position among top architecture firms for education design, RMJM is expanding in a near-recession-proof arm of the industry, in the middle of the worst economic meltdown in decades.
“This is a market where we’ve followed the institutions,” Hood says. Schools have always had visiting professors abroad, and so they have always had a presence far from home. But until recently these schools rarely sought to open campuses in far-off countries. Now especially, with the planet shrinking by the day, schools have accepted that they are as much a business as anything and that their reach need not be confined to buildings in a single town or state.
RMJM has decided to capitalize on this trend with its Global Education Studio, a wing headquartered in the firm’s Alexander Road office. A prototype for the company’s intended broadening of its specialty services, the Global Education Studio was formed in 2007, after the merger with Hillier.
Hood was brought from Scotland around this time to head the initiative here — one that he says is a model for RMJM’s coming science and healthcare, and infrastructure studios. The basic plan is to develop these studios as specialty departments that will tackle projects in a given field. The move, says Hood, helps to zero companies into RMJM by identifying which services it is able to provide.
The science and healthcare studio is currently being developed and will likely be headquartered in New York City, Hood says. As schools are looking to reach across the planet, so are hospitals and research firms.
And it is likely they will move to areas seeing development in the school projects, which so far have gravitated toward the scientific. Likewise, as education and scientific research grows, so will economies. Hence, cities, which will need infrastructure.
As its first step RMJM focused on education and based its operations near Princeton University. “The commercial economy has all but stopped,” Hood says. “But higher education marketing is still continuing. It’s a strong, ‘blue chip’ market.” And one that operates more slowly than most commercial ventures, and is seen as an investment, rather than an immediate fix.
The challenge, then, is not one of meeting demand. It is one of meeting culture. Though RMJM’s education studio is not strictly for the far-off, international market — the firm, in fact, has crafted numerous designs in the United States an United Kingdom — it has designed a lot of buildings in parts of the world that are very different from anywhere in the West. Singapore aside, RMJM has projects in Hong Kong and the Middle East, including its latest projects at Bani Walid and Al Asmariya University in Libya.
This involves an expansion of 7th of October University of Bani Walid, where RMJM is developing a master plan for a 123-acre satellite campus, expected to open in 2010. The firm also is designing a 222-acre campus for Al Asmariya University just outside Zliten and should see it open in about four years.
No stranger to international sensitivities, Hood says the real challenges of such projects lie in making the architecture and design fit with the existing designs and customs of the countries in which they will operate. Libya being a Muslim country, he says, leads to certain styles of architecture and certain attention to religion. But even so, not all Muslim countries are the same, he says. He had expected to design a campus mosque of some grandeur, but Libya’s Ministry of Education wants a small, non-showy place to worship. In other countries, he says, the story might be exactly opposite, and the mosque would need to be quite lavish.
“Libya is drawing from some of the best campus models around the world,” Hood says. “Our goal is to design a modern sustainable campus appropriate for Libya’s culture, tradition, and climate.”
Climate. There’s another thing to keep in mind. While building in the Atlantic Northeast requires the ability to withstand a variety of weather patterns, the same building styles and materials would not necessarily work in a place like sun-baked Libya. And the ones that would work there would not all do well in humid, equatorial Singapore.
Hood says his own experiences, along with RMJM’s history of winning public facilities around the world have made the Global Education Studio a natural next step for the firm. He calls the project a measure of “readjusting to face the current period,” but says it is not merely a reaction to tough times. Once the economy bounces back, he says, RMJM will be ideally placed to keep capitalizing on education and other specialty sectors. “Should things improve, this should make us stronger,” he says.
The son of a sales manager father and homemaker mother, Hood graduated from the Glasgow School of Art with a diploma in architecture. He earned his post graduate degree from Glasgow University and went to work for RMJM in Edinburgh, eventually heading that office for several years. He came to America in the summer of 2007.
An irony about being here, Hood says, is that while America champions itself as the world’s great melting pot, the offices he has worked in elsewhere are significantly more diverse. Here, he says, society is more homogenized, a natural extension of several generations having been born here. In Europe and Asia, he says, the offices employ people from many countries and cultures. Being French here means having grandparents or great grandparents who came from France. In the U.K., being French means being from France yourself.
This, on top of his experiences designing structures for cultures around the world, has afforded him a cherished perspective — that the world isn’t made up of just one kind of idea. Rather than imposing western ideals on an eastern culture, he says, the task is to find out what makes that culture what it is. His favorite project was one he did for the Royal University of Bhutan. A Buddhist country, Bhutan, like neighboring Nepal, is an almost entirely protected ecological zone. Unlike here, where trees and woodlands can come down to accommodate development, building in Bhutan is a bit like building on the Great Barrier Reef or in Yellowstone National Park.
While in Bhutan, Hood says he became enamored with the nation’s perspectives and learned about an interesting paradox — and one that bodes well for education prospects in poorly educated regions. Most educated people in Bhutan, he says, have been educated in the United States or the United Kingdom. And most of the parents of these people cannot read or write, including the parents of the country’s director of education.
“When we go in, Hood says, “we try not to have any prior ideas. We try to immerse ourselves in the culture, do our research, and create a response based on the culture. You have to listen.”
Why this all works out for RMJM is because western education is still seen as the best way, Hood says. Eastern countries in particular, however, are “running fast to catch up” and they don’t want to wait another hundred years for their own universities to catch on. It takes a long time, and American schools have the advantage of reputation. Accordingly, schools are looking to partner with design firms that have good reputations themselves.
RMJM, 500 Alexander Park, CN 23, Princeton 08543-0023; 609-452-8888; fax, 609-452-8332. Sir Fraser Morrison,CEO of the Americas. www.RMJMhillier.com.