Rising up from the eastern deserts of Saudi Arabia like an ancient rock formation, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture is an ambitious piece of place-making. Nearly a decade in creation, this vast complex has been designed by Norwegian firm Snøhetta to serve as a crossroads for many cultures, a geological form rendered in concrete and stainless steel.
Won in competition back in 2007, the building has been on site since 2008, during which time the brief has evolved and expanded. ‘When it’s finished in the spring, there will be an auditorium and theatre space for around 500, as well as a great hall, education centre, cinema and library,’ says Snøhetta’s Tae Young Yoon, the architect overseeing the project. The client is the country’s national oil firm, Saudi Aramco, believed to be the world’s most valuable company. Aramco’s headquarters in Dhahran, in the Eastern Province, is where Saudi Arabia’s massive petrochemical industry began back in the 1930s. Today, the city is a mixed landscape of nondescript glass towers, industrial parks, quasi-vernacular structures and huge residential complexes, surrounded by unrelenting desert to the west.
The Center for World Culture is the new focal point for a long-running programme of cultural relations and exchanges, a sort of gateway between the traditional culture of Saudi Arabia itself and the more globalised culture of the Dhahran compounds. ‘The wonderful thing about this project is that the client has stayed ambitious all this time,’ says Yoon, and the (nearly) finished building is testament to a steely resolve to create a good, old-fashioned architectural icon, albeit one that is rich with symbolism and history.
The centre is broken up into five ‘pebbles’, smooth, shiny objects that glisten in the sun and appear mysterious and monumental on the horizon. A 98m tower is the dominant heart of the composition, with a smaller ‘keystone’ to one side and three lower, sleeker structures rising up out of the desert. ‘The tower is an educational building. Each floor has a different function,’ says Yoon. ‘The keystone is intended to be the heart of the learning experience, a maker space with studios and equipment. In architecture, the keystone is the element that holds theweight of the arch. Here, it’s a keystone for learning.’ A large oval window, an ‘eye to the future’, looks down on the central plaza.
The five pebbles are arranged around this open space, which symbolises the coming together of past, present and future. Aramco chose the location for its close proximity to Dhahran’s ‘Prosperity Well’, the original site of oil export production that set the kingdom on the path to regional dominance. That past is honoured in basement displays and a small museum; the shape of the tower, with its criss-crossing bands of glazing, evokes the sight of an oil derrick rising up above the desert, which is itself symbolised by the smooth surfaces of the pebbles.
Jonathan Bell has written for Wallpaper* magazine since 1999, covering everything from architecture and transport design to books, tech and graphic design. He is now the magazine’s Transport and Technology Editor. Jonathan has written and edited 15 books, including Concept Car Design, 21st Century House, and The New Modern House. He is also the host of Wallpaper’s first podcast.
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