The landscapes of Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter have become one of the kingdom's most precious urban resources and perhaps Saudi Arabia's most accomplished work of "green architecture."
Saudi Arabia has built a much-admired mix of local, regional, and national parks in the last decades; they provide the country's inhabitants with verdant scenery and easily accessible recreational opportunities. None, however, has come under consideration for an Aga Khan architecture award until now—indeed, these scenic retreats, sought out by all of Riyadh's population, constitute the first landscape architecture project to rank among the contenders for the award (See Aramco World, November-December 1987).
Walking through the DQ's parks today, it is difficult even for those of us who helped design them to realize that, in the mid-1970's, the area was merely a featureless continuation of the bare and rocky Saudi desert. Moving from desert to design required scores of workmen, using powerful cranes and earth-moving equipment, to excavate almost 75,000 cubic meters (98,100 cubic yards) of rock and earth—enough to cover a football field, end zones included, to a depth of more than 46 feet, or a soccer pitch nearly 12 meters deep. Nearly half that volume of rocks and boulders—some 30,000 cubic meters (39,250 cubic yards)—was then put in place to create the parklands, and a further 35,000 cubic meters of topsoil (45,800 cubic yards) was backfilled to supplement the thin desert soil.
One of the members of the consortium commissioned by the Riyadh Development Authority (RDA) to devise a master plan for the Diplomatic Quarter was the landscape architecture firm Bodeker, Boyer, Wagenfeld & Partners (BBW) of Düsseldorf. A year-long analysis yielded the framework for planning the Riyadh project.
From its inception, the DQ was treated as an urban project within the capital city's development, with the aim of achieving maximum integration, interaction, and coordination with the rest of Riyadh. Its site is on the western edge of the city, bordering the Wadi Hanifah, and its basic organizing principle, in terms of land use, is a central spine linking individual neighborhood units.
The core area was designated for embassy buildings and central facilities such as banks, supermarkets, hospitals, community centers, police and fire stations, and Friday mosques. Each of the neighborhood units—five in all—was linked to the core by a ring road or beltway and featured its own appropriate facilities: schools, kindergartens, shopping centers, neighborhood centers, residential areas, and mosques.
BBW's concern was the design of the various landscape areas: the extensive ones around the DQ's perimeter, measuring almost 22 kilometers (7.2 miles) in circumference; the 16 adjacent access gardens; the five neighborhood residential areas with their intensive gardens; and the residential dead-end streets or culs-de-sac. Another firm, Herrick, Carter and Associates, carried out the design of the pedestrian networks and the traffic circles on the DQ's two central boulevards.
Architects of buildings can "invent" almost any forms they want, but landscape architects must start with an existing landscape, however much they may alter it thereafter. In the DQ's extensive landscapes, we used the characteristics of the found landscape to establish the scope and scale of the man-made transformations. This required a detailed scientific assessment of the basic land forms and climatic conditions. Our givens were the generally flat Hammada plateau, the limestone rock formation, the slopes running northeast at a two-percent gradient, the drainage patterns from west to east, and the intense sun and prevailing dryness of the climate. Only with a thorough understanding of the Riyadh ecosystem could a sustainable landscape program be crafted.
In the generally featureless desert-scape, we found the cliff edges of the Wadi Hanifah the most impressive feature. The varied formations of the ravines provide a dramatic focus against the flat plateau on which the city is built; the cliffs present vistas onto the date-palm plantations below, and their canyon-like edges mark the boundary between open desert and development lands. So the cliffs became a dominant motif in the general landscape design. The area close to them was kept free of buildings, to preserve the natural character of the site; an earth berm was raised on the city side of the DQ to reduce traffic noise.
For the sake of convenience, the BBW team distinguished two types of landscape treatment: extensive and intensive. Extensive areas serve as a transition between the found landscape of the wadi, escarpment and desert and the new, built city, and we decided to use only natural construction materials and native plants in these areas. Planting was done along existing or man-made run-off channels and water-retaining basins so the planting patterns found in nature could be duplicated, and we installed an irrigation system that duplicates traditional arid-zone usage: Recycled excess water stored in a water tower supplements the rare hard winter rains.
In the DQ, the extensive areas are designed for both vigorous and contemplative activities. We encouraged the less active outdoor pastimes by positioning pathways, seating areas and picnic places to take full advantage of views into the Wadi Hanifah oases, to give sunset vistas and catch cool evening breezes. For exercisers, there are walkways and jogging paths, bicycle paths, exercise circuits and playing fields.
The intensive landscape areas are an expression of the idea of the Islamic garden, a refuge of aromatic greenery. Located in the neighborhood centers of the DQ, near the mosques and shopping centers, they offer islands of verdancy in the residential areas. Among the outstanding features are the shaded walkways and screened seating areas: Pergolas are used frequently to cast patterns of shade and there are garden pavilions, beloved in Arab and Persian painting and landscape art, throughout the Quarter. Fountains, water channels, and scented flowers—particularly jasmine—create an atmosphere of repose. The elements of traditional Islamic gardens are handled in a manner compatible with the surrounding modem architecture.
The landscape architects designed boskets with lawns for informal picnics, small private sitting areas with benches, sports facilities for tennis, basketball, volleyball and skateboarding, and children's playgrounds.
In contrast to our use of native plants in the extensive areas, earlier schemes in the Middle East used large quantities of imported plants, often at very great expense and often with only short-term success. Native plants, on the other hand, are more likely to survive the rigors of the Saudi climate, and use significantly less precious water than imported plants.
We used a very extensive "palette" of native plants in the DQ extensive-landscape project. Patient collecting of plants and seeds in the desert over a period of two years, followed by the establishment of a specially built nursery, allowed BBW landscape designers to choose from more than 50 herbaceous plants in their work—both relatively well-known varieties such as aloe (Aloe vera), sagebrush (Artemisia judaica) and Gypsophila arabica, and rare types such as the Egyptian broomrape (Orobanche aegyptiaca). Among the trees we used were five types of acacia as well as jujubes (Ziziphus spina-christi), athl tree (Tamarix aphylla) and a relative of the flame tree, Delonix elata. Wild fig trees proved to be among the most successful.
There are both classical and avant-garde elements in BBW's Riyadh Diplomatic Quarter landscape project. It is classical in the design process that we used: A careful analysis of social needs and site-specific conditions were the foundation of the design. It is also classical in its transformation of a raw, natural landscape into a naturalistic one that is, in fact, an almost wholly man-made artifact, carefully shaped, cut, and polished. Thus, the DQ project is very much in the tradition of Frederick Law Olmsted's New York Central Park and other important city parks.
Yet the landscape design is also avant-garde. The choice of indigenous plants, gathered from seed in the desert and grown for planting, and the use of natural building materials are unique to the project. Moreover, it is forward-looking in its responsiveness to the particular social and recreational needs of the inhabitants of Riyadh, who now flock to use the DQ's artfully shaped parks and landscapes.
Landscape architect Klaus Klein worked on the Diplomatic Quarter project with BBW in Saudi Arabia.
June Taboroff is an architectural historian interested in Middle Eastern landscapes and gardens.