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Saudi giga-project designs to merge tradition and futurism

  • Local architecture must be respected
  • Design commission advises on integration
  • Giga-projects are not ‘cookie-cutter exercise’

Saudi Arabia wants to ensure that the futurism of its giga-projects does not smother the diversity of its local architecture, according to the head of the government’s Architecture and Design Commission. 

One of the most striking features of the kingdom’s transformation plan launched in 2016 has been its design – from otherworldly resorts planned for new city Neom to a vast cube structure big enough to fit 20 Empire State Buildings at a new downtown district in Riyadh. 

Preserving heritage and integrating local design into the projects – such as the Najdi style in the Riyadh region, Hijazi style in Jeddah or Aseeri style in Abha – has become an imperative, said Sumayah Al-Solaiman, CEO of the commission. 

“There are sometimes instances where there is reverence for the vernacular and everything new and modern is shunned but that is not the case in Saudi Arabia at all,” she said. “We embrace the new and innovative without losing who we are.”  

The commission – one of 11 overseen by the ministry of culture – has a remit to advise and guide the multitude of projects, which led one real estate consultancy to dub Saudi Arabia the biggest construction site in the world. 

In 2021 it issued a design charter for the burgeoning industry and followed that with an annual competition. One of its key roles in ensuring knowledge transfer from leading global design houses through training Saudi architects and partnering with local firms.  

“We have opportunities where some of the giga-projects come to us and ask for guidance,” Al-Solaiman said. “We tell the firms always that projects with local knowledge and experience will make them relevant, win awards and be easily acceptable by people.”  

Urban development has become a pressing issue in Riyadh as it prepares to host the 2030 World Expo. The once forbidding city has become more livable through the raft of new projects and social liberalisation. 

But traffic snarls have worsened with the city’s expansion, making the completion of a metro system all the more important. 

“It is car centric but the metro system will help with time management, even people being happier, not having to go through hours in traffic,” said Al-Solaiman, an academic in the field. “All of that will make the city more attractive and more livable.” 

Al-Solaiman points out that since the 1970s Riyadh developed a distinctive style that merged vernacular forms with contemporary elements, but it became lost in the urban sprawl. The Diplomatic Quarter, designed by Saudi and German architects, is one example. 

The design of the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar by I.M. Pei started a wave of new buildings integrating traditional styles across the GulfMuseum of Islamic Art
The design of the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar by IM Pei started a wave of new buildings integrating traditional styles across the Gulf

Qatar moved the dial with buildings such as the IM Pei-designed Museum of Islamic Art, which has spurred a raft of locally inflected post-modern architecture across the Gulf.

“We need to be authentic to who we really are,” said Al-Solaiman. “There is a renewed interest in heritage and history and this kind of foundational knowledge of who we are.

“But with all the development in the different regions it’s important it doesn’t become a cookie-cutter exercise.” 

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