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Volume 35, Number 1January/February 1984

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The Riyadh Gateway

Written by Richard Hobson
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

At first, as you approach your destination, all you can see is a vast, brown, seemingly empty expanse;  you have to blink away the notion that you're landing on the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert's Dune. But then, after the aircraft touches down, you deplane and, through a carpeted air bridge, enter a sharply contrasting world: the stunningly modern passenger terminal of Saudi Arabia's King Khalid International Airport, the newest, biggest and, possibly, most beautiful airport complex in the world.

Even in a land of mega-projects - where facts so often sound like hyperbole - Riyadh's jetport is a showcase. Inside the domestic terminal, for example, sunlight streams through gaps in a great tiered roof, water cascades down tiled banks into a pool, fig trees grow out of the main staircase and, high above, a roof of 72 curved triangular panels spreads in tiers over a spacious concourse like a skein of migrating birds. It is cool, airy and clean - a space-age oasis for jet-age caravans.

The King Khalid Airport, gateway to the heartland of Saudi Arabia and to Riyadh, the kingdom's capital, is the second of three international airports that will be serving Saudi Arabia by 1988: Dammam, still to be built, Jiddah, the mammoth, prize-winning jetport and pilgrimage terminal which was opened 30 months ago, and Riyadh, which was dedicated by His Majesty King Fahd ibn 'Abd al- 'Aziz in November and was opened December 5.

Like the other airports, the King Khalid complex will be an important hub of the kingdom's swiftly expanding air-transport nexus, and will be a center of operations for Saudia, the national airline. With the largest fleet in the Middle East Saudia averages 175 flights a day in or out of Riyadh including 39 international flights. Saudia will have exclusive use of two of the four terminals at King Khalid, one domestic, one international.

The Riyadh airport, however, is more than just another airline terminal. In response to specifications outlined by International Airports Projects (IAP), a directorate within the Ministry of Defense and Aviation, architects came up with a complex of structures that is at once airport, art gallery, garden, and sanctuary.

According to Major General Sa'id Yusuf Amin, IAP director and deputy president of the kingdom's civil aviation agency, the architecture of the Jiddah Airport was primarily to provide "service to the guests of God," a reference to the millions of pilgrims to Makkah (Mecca), who pour into Jiddah each year for the sacred Hajj, or pilgrimage. As a result, architects provided the unusual Hajj tent terminal (See Aramco World, July-August 1981) which won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Islamic architecture in 1983.

In Riyadh, the point was to relieve air congestion in the capital's small outmoded field; the old airport was hopelessly clogged. But the new airport, IAP planners said, was also to be a facility befitting the capital. At Riyadh, IAP spokesmen told the architects, the airport was to be spacious, comfortable, ultra-modern and fundamentally Islamic in character. It would also have to create a refreshing feeling of welcome, not only for Saudi citizens, but also for foreigners, including the heads of state and other dignitaries who come regularly to the capital. Finally, it was not to obtrude unduly on the stark beauty of the surrounding desert.

To the architects, Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum Inc. of St. Louis and San Francisco (HOK), this assignment was a challenge they eagerly accepted, and Gyo Obata, the partner in charge, and his team, met it brilliantly.

Built well away from the bustling metropolis of Riyadh, the airport lies on a great plain. From the control tower - at 81 meters (262 feet), one of the world's tallest - you can see a steep escarpment of the Tuwaiq highlands jutting up in the distance. Everywhere else is flat. The airport site stretches across 225 square kilometers (87 square miles), more than twice the area of King 'Abd al-'Aziz International Airport in Jiddah, which opened in 1981 as the world's largest (See Aramco World, November-December 1982), and in compliance with IAP's specifications the terminal complex and 65 support buildings are beige and off-white to blend with the brownish and blanched terrain, and the tiered construction of the four main passenger terminals and Royal Pavilion suggest low-slung tents. Only the control tower and central mosque alter the natural skyline; with its immense dome and single minaret, the mosque is the airport's visual pivot.

Up close, the airport unfolds as a tightly integrated whole that is a stunning blend of futuristic and traditional Islamic design concepts. In designing the mosque and Royal Pavilion, HOK achieved this synthesis through geometry. The simple triangle - geodesic à la Buckminster Fuller - is the dominant theme, leading by extension to the hexagon, both fundamental shapes in the richly complex patterns of traditional Islamic ornamental design.

Obata and his team have created a terminal complex in Riyadh that is an overall, three-dimensional arabesque. The passenger terminals, with their interior garden courtyards, are essentially triangular and the pre-fabricated roof panels are gently curved triangles, supported on structural steel arches laced by triangular braces that frame triangular, double-insulated windowpanes. Even the carpeting in the waiting areas pick up the triangular pattern of the ceiling and lights shining upwards are contained in large, stainless steel cannisters in bundles of three.

The Royal Pavilion, a smaller version of the main passenger terminals, is also triangular - as is the stem of the control tower; it is capped by a six-sided observation room. And the blocks of stone in the walkways, inside and outside the terminals, are hexagonal - as are countless joints, metal grids and other details throughout the complex.

The design of the mosque pursues this theme even further. Large enough to hold 5,000 worshippers, the mosque is a huge hexagon. Six columns support its geodesic dome - which measures 33 meters (108 feet) across and is triangulated by more than a thousand panels of shiny brass - and the ceiling that slopes away from the dome is triangulated by steel beams supporting triangular tiles of ceramic. And outside, there is a hexagonal courtyard - which can hold up to 4,000 more people - surfaced with blocks of crushed stone laid in hexagons, quadrilaterals and triangles.

Inevitably, the airport's geometry engages the intellect - precisely as the great Muslim masters of the decorative arts intended. As art historian and designer Claude Humbert put it, geometry lent itself to the Islamic artist's task of communicating an inspired inner world to others. In tracing the elements of a polygonal design, he suggested, "all other thoughts and preoccupations are driven from the mind. It can even induce a physical state of abstraction."

The logistics of the King Khalid Airport also presented a challenge. Just the planning and economic analysis - which started nearly 10 years ago - ran to 30,000 pages of reports, and the budget for the project approached $3.2 billion. At the peak of activity, more than 14,000 workers were engaged and 66 separate construction contracts were let - more than a third of them to Saudi firms.

The project required hundreds of thousands of tons of freight from around the world: cement from Spain and Greece, structural steel from Korea and Japan, wire mesh from Germany and countless special items such as 34 passenger air bridges - manufactured in Texas and shipped intact on roll-on, roll-off cargo vessels. For the mosque, Travertine marble was quarried in Italy, shipped to England, where it was etched with kufic script, and then sent to Riyadh to surface interior walls. The marble facing of the outside walls was carved with floral designs in Italy; woodworking companies in Syria, Switzerland and Jiddah worked geometric designs into teak, mahogany and oak doors; and the immense hexagonal carpet bathing the entire floor in a soft slate blue, was woven in Hong Kong.

To house the work force, the contractors - Bechtel Saudi Arabia Ltd. - built a 10,000-man compound - as well as a 36-bed hospital. Built as a permanent facility, the hospital delivered more than 100 babies born to wives of workers during the construction phase. A permanent mini-city to house airport personnel and their families also was constructed; it contains more than 500 apartments, town-houses and villas as well as schools, a mosque, grocery store and recreational areas.

Construction contractors also put up rock-crushing, asphalt and concrete batch plants near the site, built water treatment plants, fed by four wells drilled a mile deep, constructed a sewage plant with a 2.7 mil-lion-liters-a-day (700,000 gallons) capacity, an elaborate jet fuel storage and pumping system, and emergency generators that can restore power to the airport within 20 seconds of an outage.

Other support facilities include a series of administrative buildings, a fully automated air cargo warehouse with over 56,000 square meters (600,000 square feet) of covered space, and a meteorological center. In addition, a central food plant was erected to serve up the thousands of meals consumed daily in the airport's numerous snack bars and restuarants. In ultra-modern kitchens, this center also provides inflight catering to Saudia.

In all, the construction of the airport required 7.8 million concrete blocks, 86,100 metric tons of rebar, more than 7 million tons of aggregate, over 408,000 tons of cement and 29.6 million cubic meters of earthworks.

To cope with such massive logistical problems, Bechtel, a firm with experience in huge Middle East projects, installed a powerful computer at the job site and opened logistics control offices in Dammam, Tokyo, Rotterdam and Baltimore. Using satellite information relays, this system enabled Bechtel to track shipments every step of the way between point of origin and project site - and intervene when there was a snag. Company spokesmen say the system shaved costs by minimizing lost construction charges.

Next came the greening of the airport: an estimated 750,000 plants, including more than 300 varieties of trees, shrubs, flowers and creepers. Most were placed by hand along the access roads, on embankments and in or around the terminals, mall, mosque and pavilion. And most were nurtured from saplings or propagated from clippings in the airport's own greenhouse.

The landscaping also had an international flavor. Planeloads of Mexican fan palms from Southern California arrived with their roots bare, in accordance with government regulations designed to limit the importation of plant disease by keeping out pathogens contained in potted soil. Indoor plants arrived mainly from Britain and Holland, and date palms were shipped from the al-Hasa oasis in the Eastern Province. Nutrients, root stimulants and anti-disease agents were injected into a special soil mix at the greenhouse, where pots and other equipment are regularly fumigated with methyl bromide in a gas chamber. These and other measures have cut the plant death rate at the nursery to less than five percent - extremely low by any standard, according to Al Petrie, a desert plant specialist from Tucson who runs the operation.

Nearly every outdoor plant at the airport is watered individually through a network of underground drip lines. To conserve water, treated effluent from the sewage plant irrigates the greenery. Fertilizers and nutrients can be injected into the system.

Meanwhile, flowers at the indoor fountains and in beds throughout the terminal are changed the moment they begin to lose their bloom. Petunias, for example, may appear one week and mums the next.

The result is an airport that is refreshing, as well as comfortable, and permeated by an air of quiet efficiency. You can have moments of pleasure here. As one Saudi from the Eastern Province said upon seeing the indoor garden at the Saudia domestic terminal for the first time, "I feel I don't want to leave this place."

At King Khalid, it is easy to get around - and get to. The airport has 80 escalators and elevators serving the terminals, the mosque and the sprawling three-level parking complex, and buses operated by the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Co. (SAPTCO) leave downtown Riyadh for the new airport every half hour from before sunrise to just before midnight.

If you drive, you can easily find a spot among the 7,500 spaces now available at the parking complex, a capacity that is growing to 11,600 spaces under the second-phase construction program. Conveniently located in front of the terminals, it provides a striking contrast to the mad and exasperating scramble for scarce parking spaces at the old airport.

The new airport is the first in Saudi Arabia to have moving walkways, which hurry passengers and their baggage between the domestic and international terminals at nearly one meter per second. It is also the kingdom's first airport to rely exclusively on the "air bridge" for boarding and deplaning. In Jiddah, for example, most passengers are shuttled between plane and terminal in hydraulic mobile lounges, while in Dhahran they walk off the plane and into waiting buses. There are eight of these retractable corridors at each Riyadh terminal and two at the Royal Pavilion.

Continuing a program begun for the Jiddah airport, airport authorities also commissioned works of art for the public areas of King Khalid International. But whereas artists from throughout the Arab world were commissioned for the Jiddah project, in Riyadh mostly Saudi artists were used. IAP's Major General Amin, who was personally involved in the year-long talent search, said, "We felt that most of the art works on view should be by Saudi artists, in order to provide an appropriate welcome for visitors to the capital." An art committee comprised of Saudi and international art consultants, including the Vesti Corp. of Boston, chose an impressive array of mostly modernistic paintings, murals, mosaics, tapestries and sculpture that add bold splashes of color and pockets of interest to the airport facilities.

The size and beauty of the King Khalid airport is testimony to the growth of Riyadh. In the early days of the kingdom, Riyadh was a remote desert town; only the most intrepid foreigners ventured there. Air travel and several decades of development, however, have changed that; today Riyadh may be the largest city in the kingdom. Furthermore, it has become an important commercial and banking center and the home of the Saudi Arabian Monetary Agency (SAMA). Riyadh also has the most sophisticated medical centre in the kingdom, King Faisal Specialist Hospital (See Aramco World, July-August 1979) and two of the largest universities: King Sa'ud University with 22,000 students and Iman Muhammad ibn Sa'ud Islamic University with 11,000. Riyadh is also headquarters of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) (See page 22) and the regional home of several international agencies.

And, of course, Riyadh is the seat of a highly centralized government whose role in international energy, monetary and diplomatic circles is well known. By the end of this year, moreover, most of the embassies long based in Jiddah will have moved to the new Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter, a self-contained city within the capital.

Accordingly, Riyadh is opening its doors to the world. With the inauguration of the new airport, the Saudi government has granted landing rights in the capital to foreign carriers for the first time. Previously, foreign commercial airlines had regularly scheduled access only to Jiddah and Dhahran. Among the initial foreign users in Riyadh are Gulf Air, Kuwaiti Airlines Yemenia, Swissair and Air France. According to civil aviation officials other international carriers keen on entering the Riyadh market can be expected to follow suit, pending bilateral negotiations.

In planning the airport, civil aviation planners decided to take the long view; thus they built a new airport that would run little risk of outgrowing itself or being squeezed out anytime soon. The airport was designed to handle 20 million passengers a year, nearly three times the current demand.

Air traffic to and from Riyadh, in fact, has already increased sharply, and all indications are that the pace will continue, or even accelerate. In 1975, less than a million passengers boarded or deplaned in the capital, but by 1983 the total was roughly seven million and by the turn of the century could be 15 million - by which time Riyadh's swelling population will have passed the two million mark, according to current projections. This is why such a huge site was staked out for the new airport.

Flights from Riyadh already link the capital with numerous foreign destinations: Cairo, Karachi, London, Paris, Khartoum, New York, Kuwait, Bombay, Bangkok, Athens and Frankfurt. Domestically, Saudia shuttles more than 200 times a week between the capital and Jiddah and 190 times to or from Dhahran. Other well-traveled routes fan out across the kingdom to Qasim, Taif, Medina, Abha, Tabuk, Jizan, Hail and Hofuf.

The kingdom's network of 21 domestic airports and three international airports represents a dramatic turnabout for a nation that four decades ago had no civil aviation program whatsoever. The kingdom's first aircraft was a DC-3, presented to King 'Abd al-'Aziz by President Franklin Roosevelt at their historic wartime meeting of 1945 in the Suez Canal Zone. Later, the king ordered two more Dakotas and, with this fleet of three planes, Saudi Arabia made its belated entry into the age of aviation.

The impact of the kingdom's extensive modern day network of aviation facilities on the Saudi people and the national economy cannot be overstated. As Major General Amin points out, it has both enriched the lifestyles of the citizenry and contributed toward boosting the standard of living generally.

"It goes without saying that the civil aviation system is one of the lifelines of the nation. Without our air transportation system, our economy could not flourish and grow."

Amid this nexus, King Khalid International Airport is destined to become a centerpiece. While not nearly as busy as such overworked feed airports as Heathrow or JFK, it is a world-class airport dispatching world-class jets at a pace that makes its computerized flight information boards flutter, especially on Wednesday evenings, the start of the Saudi weekend. And with ample room in which to expand its operations, the Riyadh gateway - airport, art gallery, garden and sanctuary - will offer a welcome to generations of travelers as warm as the legendary hospitality of the desert on which it was built.

Dick Hobson, a former reporter with the Miami News, writes on Saudi Arabia for Aramco World magazine.

“From The Inside Out “
Written by Richard Hobson

Architect Gyo Obata, chairman and president of Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum, Inc. (HOK), and the man responsible for the King Khalid airport architecture, says that all his projects "grow from the inside out." That is, the function of the structure - how people will use the indoor space - largely determines the rest of the design.

This HOK rule of thumb has been applied to works as diverse as the Galleria in Houston, Levi's Plaza in San Francisco and terminals at Dallas-Fort Worth and Lambert-St. Louis airports. It also has been applied to the highly praised National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., which Obata claims can handle 60,000 people a day - without queues.

In Riyadh, Obata and his team - blessed with a lavish budget and virtually free creative rein - were able to work the inside-out principle with special flourishes like imported pink marble inside the Royal Pavilion and stained glass inside the mosque. "We had enough of a budget to use high-quality materials to enrich the interiors," said Obata from his office in St. Louis.

But it was at the passenger terminals that the basic design problems were resolved. The airport unfolded from there. "In most airports," Obata said "arriving passengers are shuffled through a lot of passageways and rooms without ever really getting a feel for the airport as a whole. We wanted to avoid this in Riyadh, especially because it would be the gateway to Saudi Arabia."

The aim, therefore, was to provide a memorable experience to both arriving and departing passengers - by ensuring that their movement through the terminals would be not only efficient, but engrossing.

The solution came, Obata said, from the positioning of the eight gates at each terminal, which is organized, pavilion-like, around a central garden with trees, a fountain, a waterfall and flowers. Arriving passengers descend through the terminal to the customs, immigration, baggage claim and pickup points below; departing passengers ascend to their gates from a middle-level mezzanine; and everyone using the gates is exposed to the full effect of the terminal design: they see the garden, hear the cascading water and absorb the natural light streaming through the roof.

The basic design only evolved, however, after an exhaustive study of Islamic architecture - "from Spain to China" - conducted with the help of a Harvard professor of Islamic art Oleg Grabar, Obata said. Traditional Najdi architectural forms - which are similar to the flat-roofed pueblo of the American southwest - also were examined. And while Najdi architecture was incorporated in the design of the new King Sa'ud University campus in Riyadh, for which HOK is the lead architect in a consortium of five firms, Obata wanted to reach beyond this for the international airport, he said.

"We paid careful attention to several Islamic forms - the arch, the dome and also the use of geometry," Obata said. After analyzing a variety of shapes, the triangle emerged as the most suitable to accomodate numerous passenger waiting areas. As the simplest polygon, the triangle also proved the most versatile. "The basic triangular floor plan of the terminals developed into an entire triangular system throughout the complex," Obata said.

At the same time, Obata wanted to utilize the sunlight that shines during all but a few days during the year. The result was the system of 72 gently curved triangular sections that rise above the terminal concourse in six tiers to a center height of 33 meters (108 feet). "Lifting these arches brought in the beautiful, natural, soft light," Obata said.

This design is strikingly modern, but with an Islamic feeling: the terminal roofs domelike and richly geometric. And at numerous points in the complex, especially in the pavement patterns and at the mosque, the theme of triangles gives way to hexagons, a favorite Islamic motif - the geometry used both ornamentally, as in the sidewalks, and structurally, as in the geodesic dome of the mosque and the terminal roofs.

One curious footnote to the airport design is the layout of the runways and terminals. As at all airports, the runways were positioned according to a "wind rose," a meteorological diagram showing the relative frequency and strength of winds from different directions. The four main passenger terminals were positioned on a line parallel to the two main runways. On the perpendicular to this line went the mosque, ceremonial mall and royal pavilion. As it turned out, according to HOK, the southwest directional of this axis points toward Makkah (Mecca).

It may be less of a coincidence that three of the most distinctive examples of modern architecture in the Arab world are all at Saudi airports and that two of them were designed by Japanese-Americans. Obata's work in Riyadh was preceded more than 20 years ago by a terminal at Dhahran International Airport designed by Minoru Yamasaki. Writing in the May-June 1971 Issue of Aramco World, architect Friedrich Ragette said Yamasaki's work, completed in 1961, "was one of the first examples of modern Arab' architecture and has influenced subsequent design throughout the Middle East." But Obata, who worked in the same firm as Yamasaki for about four years prior to 1955, downplays the brief association. "Yama and I have gone totally different ways. He is more classical and symmetrical."

As to the third example, the late Fazlur Khan's Hajj terminal in Jiddah, a great tent (See Aramco World, July-August 1981), Obata was enthusiastic: "a marvelous solution" to the problem of protecting the huge numbers of people who use the terminal.

George Hellmuth, one of the founders of HOK has called the Riyadh airport "Gyo's masterpiece" - but Obata demurs. "If an architect says that one piece is his master-work, it sounds as through his creativity has ended. Every project has its own set of problems to solve and a million variables to be considered. I do feel it was one of my best works, but at the same time I would hope that I have not yet reached my peak." With works like the Riyadh airport to his credit, there is good reason to hope that Gyo Obata, who turns 61 this February, has yet to reach that peak.

This article appeared on pages 6-19 of the January/February 1984 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1984 images.