Grand Mosque by Rasem Bradran. Image courtesy of Dar al Omran

Saudi Arabia and its path towards a contemporary architectural identity

About the Author
Rima Alsammarae
Rima Alsammarae is an architecture and culture journalist. She is the co-founder of Round City.
About Red Envelope
Red Envelope is a series of journals published by LWK + PARTNERS and is a collaborative project between the practice and Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae.

In Riyadh, context-driven architecture marks the city’s development during the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but where does the architectural identity of the Saudi capital stand today as it tries to navigate between its foundation and its future?

One of the Middle East’s great historical cities, and the capital of Saudi Arabia, Riyadh has long intrigued Islamic and Arab historians, economists and planners. Following the rise of oil prices in the 1970s, Riyadh witnessed an extraordinary boom in development with an average of 11,500 building permits issued each year between 1977 and 1986. The city’s relentless development was studied worldwide, and the American publication, Newsweek, went so far as to label it “the biggest construction site in human history”. Sparking a rise of Saudi architecture firms and authorities, as well as attracting well-known architects from all over the world, Riyadh quickly became a breeding ground for experimentation in the built environment, and a stage for the blending of modern architecture with vernacular building traditions.

During the late 1970s and early 80s, a number of newly erected buildings greatly influenced the evolution of architecture in Riyadh. These include the buildings of the General Organization for Social Insurance by Omrania & Associates (phase 1, 1973; phase 2, 1982), the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency Head Offices by Minoru Yamasaki (1978), and the Saudi Fund for Development building by Urbahn and Coile International (1980). Such examples proved to be pioneering, as they applied a mix of international architectural approaches with local building techniques, like glass facades, sun shading devices, atriums and slit-type windows sometimes crowned with small square openings – a common feature in traditional Riyadhi buildings.

Traditional Riyadhi forms illustrated in the Justice Palace by Rasem Badran. Image courtesy of Dar al Omran

Other notable buildings from this time period include the Institute of Public Administration by Walter Gropius’ The Architects Collaborative, as well as the 1984 campus for the King Saud University, which was carried out by HOK and the 4 Consortium for Design, Engineering and Construction Administration. According to Dr Saleh Al-Hathloul, a Saudi educator and architecture critic, the era’s architects initiated an approach to façade articulation that was later adopted by a number of architects working in Riyadh.

The mid-1980s marked the formation of a new awareness regarding architecture and construction in the kingdom’s capital, and a number of Arab and Saudi architects began playing a bigger role in the development of the city, inspired by the local architectural heritage. Some of the most notable Saudi architects and firms of this time include Basem al-Shihabi, principal of Omrania & Associates (although he had been designing buildings prior to the mid-1980s); the Saudi Beeah Group Consultants; and Abdul Rahman al-Junaidi.

Al-Shihabi designed the buildings for the Gulf Cooperation Council Headquarters in Riyadh, which intended to evoke the region’s traditional architecture. He was also responsible for the conceptual design of the Tuwaiq Palace, which was later completed in collaboration with Atelier Frei Otto of Germany and Buro Happold of the UK. The Tuwaiq Palace, completed in 1985 in the Diplomatic Quarter, was applauded for drawing a connection between the past and present, with its structure consisting of reinforced concrete, limestone clad external walls and tensile-structure tents.

Tuwaiq Palace by OHO Joint Venture, Atelier Frei Otto, Buro Happold and Omrania. Image courtesy of Aga Khan Award for Architecture

It should also be noted that Ar-Riyadh Development Authority (RDA) had (and continues to have) a significant role in the architectural development of Riyadh, as it undertook many projects, such as multiple ministries, the redevelopment of Riyadh’s Old Center and the King Abdul Aziz Historical Center. Established in 1974, the authority oversees the development of the Saudi capital, and is in charge of its strategic development.

According to Saudi Architecture, an independent initiative that researches and archives architecture in the kingdom, the architects of the 1970s and 80s aimed to develop their own approaches as well as how those approaches could relate to its local context. “In my opinion, Omrania was really trying to set the tonality for what modernism looks like in a city like Riyadh,” said Nojoud Alsudairi, one of the co-founders. “Most of its projects were modernist-inspired, contemporary buildings, while Beeah was more focused on context-driven, Najdi-esque architecture that was trying to preserve a look of the past.” Fellow Saudi Architecture co-founder, Sara Alissa, added, “Yes, and for Abdul Rahman al-Junaidi, we can see buildings that are very brutalist – Islamic brutalist.”

Image courtesy of Saudi Architecture

The 1980s and early 90s further witnessed an increase in the development of contextual architecture in Riyadh, which drew from traditional Najdi vocabulary through a contemporary lens. Examples are abundant, and include Palestinian-Jordanian architect Rasem Badran’s design for the buildings of the Great Mosque of Riyadh and Qasr al-Hukm (1992). Here, Badran and his firm Dar al-Omran successfully recreated the character and spirit of the old Islamic city, not only by incorporating traditional Najdi forms, such as flat roofs, courtyards, arcades, limestone cladding and slit-type windows, but also through the mosque’s integration into the urban fabric of the old city centre.

Along similar lines, Egyptian architect Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim was commissioned by the RDA to design the Al-Ta’ameer Center (1997), which features several components including a central market, commercial market, residential units and offices. The design of the project further implies a link between the urban development of the city with the social and cultural identity of Riyadh by integrating urban invariables such as heritage, environment and movement patterns.

“With the revitalisation of Riyadh, those projects gave the city the identity we see today,” said Badran. “Some of the projects we did in the city centre, or Hayy al Deera, like the Grand Mosque and the ruling palace, gave the city thakerrat makan, meaning they reflected the memories of the area through the understanding of its architectural heritage and by incorporating the values and morals of society. This produced an architectural product, which is also connected to the local environment, climate and geology.”

Al-Bujairi Development by Rasem Bradran. Image courtesy of Dar al Omran

“The most significant aspect of these projects was that they created an architecture that engaged the community and brought a social aspect to the city for its betterment,” Badran added.

With an incredible foundation for architectural identity developed between the 1970s and 90s, how can architects move forward today with new projects that impact the city’s urban fabric? And furthermore, with mega-projects taking place across the kingdom, drawing the attention of large, international firms, how can local identity be preserved and further developed to meet the growing needs of a changing world?

The Saudi government is finding a balance between the past and present. As it continues to modernise, it also celebrates and appreciates the heritage of the city, avoiding the loss of historic structures and villages.”

“In my opinion, there are three facets to the way architects design buildings in Riyadh today,” said Palestinian-Jordanian architect and founder of Badran Design Studio, Jamal Badran. “The first includes those who try to incorporate the heritage in a more literal way. The second is when they try to take the concept of heritage and incorporate the values of the community, such as privacy and familiar values, into the design. And the third sees those who incorporate a more contemporary approach, most often in their use of modern technological features.”

One driving force protecting the architectural identity of the capital as it moves from its foundation to its future is the prevailing vision of Salmani Architecture – an approach to development that derives from King Salman, who was governor of Riyadh for more than 40 years. All of the major projects since the 1980s under the Riyadh Municipality are connected to his school of thought. King Salman’s great pride in the historical, political, social and architectural heritage of the kingdom drove his own personal insight into how the city should develop. Opposing the adoption or transplanting of modern Western or Eastern styles that are irrelevant to the local environment, Salmani Architecture pushes for an approach that is at once modern and futuristic, while embodying the authentic local architectural heritage.

An example of Salmani Architecture. Tuwaiq Palace by OHO Joint Venture, Atelier Frei Otto, Buro Happold, Omrania. Image courtesy of Saudi Architecture

“The term ‘Salmani Architecture’ is in all project briefings,” said the Saudi Architecture team, which, in addition to Alissa and Alsudairi, also includes Mansor Alsofi and Felwa Albraik. “It was originally coined in the 1990s and it’s now resurfacing, as new projects are coming along under the king’s wing.”

While Riyadh stands atop an incredible, contemporary foundation, moving toward its future is all but unavoidable. While it hangs between the two, many are confident that positive contributions to the city’s built environment are a growing priority of architects today, particularly as they are encouraged by overseeing powers. As Rasem Badran put it, “The Saudi government is finding a balance between the past and present. As it continues to modernise, it also celebrates and appreciates the heritage of the city, avoiding the loss of historic structures and villages.”

Al Waseel Retreat by Jamal Badran. Image courtesy of Badran Design Studio

“The general architectural identity of Riyadh can vary in extremes,” added Jamal. “It is like the identity is always being questioned…Identity is fluid and changes over time, and what changes this identity relates back to social, economic and geopolitical influences. So, buildings always reflect this evolution, and having a connection or creating a hybrid between the future and the past is the way forward.”

This article was originally published in the Red Envelope series, as part of the second journal themed ‘In Between’. The Red Envelope journals are published by LWK + PARTNERS, and edited by Round City co-founder Rima Alsammarae. They aim to provide knowledge and insight on global urban design for readers interested in architecture, design, development and the built environment.

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