When Tradition Meets Modernity: The GCC’s Buildings of the Future
by Nikola Zukalová
The politics that drove the historic Al-Ula Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit, which produced the important confidence building measures to end the intra-GCC crisis, eclipsed an often overlooked aspect of the region’s meta-narrative: the architectural and infrastructural revolution that is outpacing most of the developed world.
Instead of focusing on what certain places and spaces in the Gulf generate (in terms of economic, social and/ or political goals) it is of equal importance to understand the key drivers behind the emerging wave of innovative development. Of course, the dialogue that took place within the Maraya Concert Hall in Al-Ula showcased a political meeting-of-minds just as the building’s interior and exterior showcased innovation prowess. It is not alone, designers working in the Gulf are increasingly leaving visitors gobsmacked. From new sustainable cityscapes, to marvels of design and a budding culture of environmental awareness the new GCC is cutting edge.
This short expose introduces readers to some of the more architecturally edgy buildings that now dot the Arab Gulf skylines.
The Maraya Concert Hall—Saudi Arabia
Located in north-western Saudi Arabia, Al-Ula is an important historic, archaeological and cultural site. It houses the Kingdom’s first World Heritage property, Madain Salih (Hegra), showcasing tombs and water wells built by the Nabataean civilisation around the 1st century (BC), adjacent to a major ancient trade route and other historical landmarks, such as the Al-Ula Tantura and Jabal Ikmah, displaying impressive inscriptions from ancient civilisations.1 With the goal of revitalising Al-Ula, using its rich heritage to boost its potential as a major cultural hub, the Royal Commission for Al-Ula employed a Milan-based company, Gio Forma, to design what is now the world!s largest mirrored building, the Al-Maraya Concert Hall. Its fully-mirrored facade reflects Al-Ula’s unique landscape and masterfully combines the new with the ancient, in line with the Kingdom’s vision for the future. The construction of the building was finished with dizzying speed—six short weeks.2 Al-Ula is nestled in a geographic depression where temperatures can floor to 2℃ during winter and spike to 50℃ in summer and sandstorms are fairly regular. Pressures for a quick completion demanded innovation, which led the Guardian Glass company to develop a state-of-the-art solution to cover the building’s 10,000m² exterior facade in 3,000 mirror panels.3 The building also includes a massive outdoor terrace and an 800m² retractable window in the main theatre, which can seat some 550 people.4 The hall already hosted some landmark events, including the Hegra Conference of Nobel Laureates in January 2020, the Winter at Tantura cultural festival and, most recently, the 41st GCC Summit that brought rapprochement between Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Bahrain and Qatar in January 2021.5
The Museum of the Future—Dubai, UAE
In 2017, the Emirate of Dubai dove into one of the most challenging architectural projects ever—the low carbon Museum of the Future—in line with its goal of becoming a global hub for innovation by 2021. The Museum showcases inspiring solutions for future challenges to humanity and building ‘the foundation of tomorrow.’ These lofty goals are no less ambitious than its complex construction process that fused modern computational technologies and innovative solutions, such as Building Information Modelling (BIM), parametric design, passive solar architecture, low-energy and low-water engineering solutions.6 Only the stainless steel frame required 14 months to complete in the column-less 7-floor atypic building, which includes an auditorium for 420 people.7 The 77 metre high eye-shaped Museum is covered in 1,024 uniquely curved, robotically-manufactured panels with Arabic calligraphy of the Dubai Ruler’s quotes about the future, designed by the Dubai-based Killa Design.8 The 30,000m² eye-shaped building, perched on a grassy knoll, represents a visage of the future, while the elliptical void represents the unknown and the quest for innovation.9 The Museum’s unique shape presented an architectural challenge and once solved contributed to advancing the industry. BuroHappold!s Project Director explained to the BBC that: ‘Everything we have ever known about doing buildings has changed within the space of this one project…It has changed how we work.’10 The building’s inaugural illumination was in October 2020—as its last panels were affixed and the final checks undertaken.
New Palace of Justice—Kuwait
Kuwait City is getting a facelift and central to its regeneration is the refining and modernising of the country’s Palace of Justice by the company Pace.11 Once complete, the 26 story building will become the region's largest judicial building, spanning some 356,189 m², housing 141 courtrooms, numerous offices, public spaces and a car park for almost 3,000 cars.12 The design of the building reflects symbols of fairness and integrity as part of the country’s Vision 2035 development goals.13 Two dominating, cantilevered wings on the exterior represent the Scales of Justice linked by a central golden geode-like space running between them.14 At the heart of the building is an elevated open plaza, offering sea views. The space is decorated by hanging golden bars that seek to evoke an impression of a storm cloud.15 The building’s metal elements together with the ever-present sunbeams will create an elegant light play. However, as much as the majestic building should impress the visitors, it should be also easy to navigate. With the help of modern construction technologies, the majority of structural works was completed at record speed—the project began at the beginning of 2019 and construction is about half way done.16
The National Museum—Qatar
The tender to construct Qatar’s National Museum was awarded to Hyundai Engineering & Construction, in 2011 as one of the residual projects ahead of Doha’s hosting of the 2022 FIFA World Cup.17 The five story building, designed by Jean Nouvel, was completed in 2019 and masterfully incorporates the historic Palace of Abdullah bin Jassim Al-Thani (1880-1957), which previously housed the government and later served as the National Museum.18 The main materials used for the construction of the 50,000m² building is steel and concrete.19 On the exterior, the 350m-long atypically-shaped Museum is decorated by 316 sand- colour interlocking, cantilever discs, inspired by the desert rose petals, which also provide much-needed shade from the scorching sun.20 The construction of the discs, which are made of steel and 76,000 fibre reinforced concrete panels, was technically challenging and required cutting-edge solutions, including the BIM—each disc took around four months to complete.21 Construction also had to contend with adverse weather and issues with inflowing seawater.22
Conference and Exhibition Hall at GUtech—Oman
The Conference and Exhibition Hall at German University of Technology Oman (GUtech) in Halban, was borne of an architectural partnership between Muhammad Sultan Al-Salmy and Ernst Hoehler— between Oman and Germany.23 The 1,200m² building, which was crafted in 18 months (2016), blends modernity and tradition, connecting science, geometry, nature and art and24 the hall showcases replicas of ancient Islamic inventions.25 The elevated internal building was inspired by a traditional Omani house, which is surrounded by a separate concrete trelliswork cut out in traditional Islamic geometric patterns, mashrabiya.26 While designing the mashrabiya with large spans, the designers took into account the sun and wind, which resulted in a carefully placed shading on the windows and inside the building. Once a year, on 21 July, the solar eclipse together with the mashrabiya shell create a unique immersive artistic experience.27 The designers replicated the pattern, which adorns the 9th century Qarawiyyin Mosque in Morocco; one of the largest mosques in Africa and among the world’s oldest universities.28 The building also includes a meridian sundial based on researchers’ careful measuring.29 The unique two-part structure and the complexity of the mashrabiya, built as a monolythic concrete shell with varied thickness and requiring a tailor-made solution, represented its own technical challenges and demanded meticulous planning and measurements.30
The National Theatre—Bahrain
While certainly not the latest addition to the country’s skyline, Bahrain’s 12,000m² National Theatre deserves special mention among the Kingdom’s most remarkable buildings. Designed by Paris-based AS.Architecture-Studio, which also worked on the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the Theatre was completed in November 2012 during the celebrations of Manama as the Capital of Arab Culture.31 At that time it was the third largest opera house in the Middle East after Cairo and Muscat. The construction began in mid-2011 under (then) Culture Minister, Shaikha Mai bint Mohammed Al-Khalifa, known for her efforts to preserve and expand Bahrain’s cultural scene.32 Inspired by the famous tales of One Thousand and One Nights, the main concert hall is able to seat 1,001 guests.33 It was built next to the Bahrain National Museum, overlooking the lagoon in the northern part of the archipelago, replacing the Bahrain Heritage Village, which was moved to the adjacent Muharraq island. The design reflects the flatness of Bahrain’s archipelago and its maritime character.34 The building is dominated by the wide canopy roof made from woven aluminium strips, inspired by the traditional wicker roofs, that provide sanctuary from direct sunlight and create a unique gem-like light and shady effect underneath.35 The interior of the main concert hall is covered in elm wood, known for its excellent acoustic qualities and shaped to evoke the inside of a dhow’s hull, which were used in the Kingdom for pearl fishing.36 From the outside, the concert hall resembles a hull from stainless steel, which is visible through 11 metre-high glass walls.37
1 UNESCO World Heritage Centre. “Al-Hijr Archaeological Site (Madâin Sâlih).” n.d. https://
2 Royal Commission for AlUla. “MARAYA WINS PRESTIGIOUS ARCHITECTURE AWARD.” n.d.
3 Glass Online. “Guardian Glass: Guinness World Records hails Maraya Concert Hal.” Glass Online, 19 March 2020, https://www.glassonline.com/guardian-glass-guinness-world-records-hails-maraya-concert-hal/; Royal Commission for AlUla. “MARAYA REFLECTING ALULA’S BEAUTY.” n.d. https:// www.experiencealula.com/en/business-special-events/maraya
4 Royal Commission for AlUla. “Maraya AlUla Brochure.” n.d. https://issuu.com/experience_alula/docs/maraya_brochure_english?fr=sZjI2ZDE1Mjk3NTI
5 Business Wire. “Hegra Conference of Nobel Laureates 2020 Launches in AlUla, Saudi Arabia.” 31 January 2020. https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200131005566/en/Hegra-Conference-of-Nobel- Laureates-2020-Launches-in-AlUla-Saudi-Arabia
6 Al-Maktoum, Mohammed bin Rashid. “Twitter Post.” 3 October 2020, 19:52. https://twitter.com/
hhshkmohd/status/1312450384657481729?lang=en; Killa Design. “MUSEUM OF THE FUTURE.” n.d. https://www.killadesign.com/portfolio/museum-of-the-future/; Bains, Elizabeth. “Museum of the Future: The building designed by an algorithm.” BBC, 29 October 2019. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20191028- museum-of-the-future-the-building-designed-by-an-algorithm
7 Bains, “Museum of the Future”; Al-Maktoum, “Twitter Post.”
8 Al-Maktoum, “Twitter Post.”
9 Killa Design. “MUSEUM OF THE FUTURE.”
10 Bains, “Museum of the Future.”
11 Pace. “New Palace of Justice Kuwait: Changing the dynamics of justice in Kuwait.” n.d. https://