Situated in the Eastern Province of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia the new Cultural Center will be sited at the heart of the oil fields that have been so central to the formation and development of the Kingdom. This initiative to promote the development of culture and knowledge in Saudi Arabia was undertaken by the Saudi Aramco oil company as a part of their 75th anniversary celebrations and is particularly relevant in the context of the Saudi Arabian demographic with a very large young population under the age of 25, thirsting for cultural programs.

Interview with landscape architect Kari Stensrød/Snøhetta

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture pursues an ambitious goal: being a platform for knowledge, creativity and intercultural involvement. How has that influenced your architectural concept?

The conceptual theme for the project is derived around the concept of cultural Interdependency in space, time and context. The idea of culture extends both back in time, searching for the historical roots and reaches into the future, to new possibilities. This theoretical time line connecting past and future is embedded in the architecture, partially dug deep into the rock and partially stretching 90-meters up toward the sky. The concept of cultural interdependency is at the heart of the building’s spatial organization. Each element of the building is given its own discrete and recognizable form; however, these individual pieces are put together in such a manner that they each support each other. No single object can be removed without the collapse of the larger composition. This idea is developed to the extent that the different elements physically and structurally support each other. Culture is not a collection of singular independent efforts but a collective ensemble of interacting forces and ideas that together create a new cultural context.

Is it an architect’s dream-come-true to not have to take a heavily built-up urban area into account?

Both are great challenges, – in different ways. The project is situated on an empty plot by a heavy trafficked main thoroughfare in this part of Saudi Arabia, – in an area deeply connected to oil business since the first oil wells were discovered! And there are two populated cities nearby, - Dammam and Al Khobar. The project will be seen, and hopefully admired, by thousands of people each day.

What challenges did you face – both in terms of form and of substance?

From the landscaping side, – the extreme climate has been a challenge. Cultural awareness is of course an important facet of the design.

Cornerstones of the architectural concept...

The many architectural elements each have their own character, logic and aesthetic while at the same time adhering to the overall conceptual theme.
The physical and spiritual heart of the building is an area referred to as the source, around which all of the other elements are arranged. Placed three floors down into the bedrock the source is a metaphor for the source of Arabian wealth to be found in the deep oil fields beneath the building. It also provides the physical setting for the roots of Saudi Arabian culture displayed in the museum that spirals down around the Source.

The 6000 square meter plaza is the entrance space for all of the cultural components. It is conceived as an urban space providing a setting for the many visitors and differing cultural events in the building. In the vertical time line through the building it is at grade level, between the sunken museum and the elevated cultural pebbles. It lies between the past and the future, representing the present.

Surrounding all four sides of the Plaza is a ring wall constructed of rammed earth. This wall binds the urban plaza together with a visual element that is constructed from the very earth that the building is sitting on; a direct reference to Saudi cultural roots and the context of the center itself.

All of the building elements that are elevated out of the landscape and into the sky refer to the future and are covered in a cloth-like reflecting metal skin. The metal is the counter point to the rammed earth wall; it is manmade, futuristic and reflective of the strong Arabian sun. To achieve this complex curving metal skin a bespoke tubular steel sunscreen has been created. The tubes are wrapped around the shapes of the pebbles, flowing from a predetermined starting point around the objects in a manner that creates a unique but related pattern to each of the pebbles. The tubular system provides for 100% passive solar shading of the building fabric.

ewo’s Up series was used, among others, for the outdoor space. What role does exterior design play in this project?

The setting for the Cultural Centre is a manmade landscape using minimal methods of maintenance and sustainability known as “xeriscaping ”. This area is planted with indigenous vegetation to the desert region, requiring a minimum of irrigation. Walkways are interwoven with the planting to provide the natural setting for social gathering during the pleasant winter days or under the starlit Arabian nights.

We hope it will give the users a possibility to use and explore the outdoor areas, – both the "regular park" and the desert gardens (xeriscape) around the "pebbles". The landscape is also creating the roof of a decent part of the centre, imbedded in the sand. The desert landscape has a big collection of plant, which will be labelled and hence enriches the project pedagogically. There are also geological "gardens" in the desert garden area, – also bringing knowledge of the geological richness of Saudi Arabia, – which is much more than the oil!

Architect: SNØHETTA
Project year: 2008 TO 2015