Looking to past present and future

Archeological excavations are powerful cultural informants. Layers of earth are methodically dissolved from top to bottom – new towards old.

Remnants found in the ground mark their specific place in time, leading to an understanding of the culture that once lived there.

Oslo-based architectural firm Snohetta’s design of the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia physically incorporates a theoretical timeline into its architecture.

“The idea of culture extends both back in time, searching for historical roots, and reaches into the future to new possibilities”, explains Robert Greenwood, Snohetta partner and managing director, UK, Middle East, Africa & Asia.

Metaphorically connecting the kingdom’s past, present and future, part of the structure is below grade, deeply embedded in rock, while a separate component thrusts 86 meters into the sky. The location of the centre is culturally meaningful, located a few hundred yards from the site where oil was first discovered in 1938.

Snohetta was selected to design the 70,000 m2 centre through a competition by client Saudi Aramco.
“The conceptual theme for the project is derived from the idea of cultural interdependency in space, time and context”, Greenwood explains.

This notion of cultural interdependency is the core of the building’s spatial organisation, as each component of the building is given, he describes, “its own discrete and recognisable form as a ‘pebble’”.

The project is comprised of five sections, or pebbles: a library, inclusive of a 315 seat cinema; a museum featuring an auditorium for 930 guests; a great hall/multifunction space; a tower featuring classrooms and administrative areas; and the keystone, which serves as a venue for debate and discussion.

The complex is arranged vertically to represent the past, present and future. Located below grade, the museum represents the past. The plaza, Greenwood describes, is where visitors orient themselves and symbolises the present. Areas above ground – the tower, keystone, and a monosurface, signify the future.

As the complex is arranged vertically to represent time, its horizontal composition embodies the interdependency of culture. Individual pebble elements are placed adjacent to one another, visually and physically supporting each other.

“No single object can be removed without the collapse of the larger composition”, Greenwood adds.
A series of wrapped stainless steel tubes create the centre’s ventilated façade. Use of the tubes, Greenwood divulges, was the most appropriate response to the harsh environment and are an honest approach in describing building volumes. They also provide shade, privacy and views out — like mashrabiya, he points out.

The tubes, which are manufactured in the Czech Republic by Seele are made of Duplex stainless steel with a 320 grit finish to offer greater corrosion resistance. Lengths measure between five and six meters, and total an impressive 360 km. Up close, the façade resembles a fingerprint with all its ridges and whorls.

“A constant offset of pipes over a warped surface originating at the volume’s opening gives individuality to each volume. All have differing functions, but as a composition, are read together,” Greenwood concludes.

To provide visibility and light into the building, the tubes are flattened from a diameter of 76mm to 12mm thick at window areas. The shape and thickness change is translated linearly on the façade, creating the sweeping, encircling lines.

Ellipses are a strong design component within the complex. Greenwood attributes the shape with “completeness and enclosure”. One ellipse defines the existing exhibition centre and another, the desert. Where they intersect, a lush garden is created and where the complex is entered, he explains.

Whereas the lush garden will serve as a park for evening strolls and shaded seating, the adjacent monosurface is a landmass that is raised away from the road, creating a gap, or floating landscape.
Dividing pedestrians from vehicles, the monosurface will be a park featuring regional geological forms and drought-resistant plants.

The King Abudulaziz Centre for World Culture is currently under construction by general contractor Saudi Oger. Anticipated to have a gold LEED rating, the centre is expected to be finished in 2015.

When asked what is seen as the most successful aspect of the project, Snohetta’s reply: “Bringing people from different cultures together. In designing, building and using.”