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Volume 50, Number 5September/October 1999

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History's New Home In Riyadh

Written by Trevor Boddy

In each period of architectural history, one type of building stands in historical memory as an emblem of time and place. In the late 1920's in North America, Art Deco office towers captured the optimism of unprecedented economic growth; in late 19th-century Europe, the train stations glorified industrial technologies and a new ethos of movement. In the late Middle Ages, cathedrals gave form to Europe's unity of religious faith and social organization; and in the Islamic world, congregational mosques epitomized the spirit and the esthetic that reigned and the unified faith that informed them.

Today, the burden of architecture's effort to express culture is borne most heavily by museums. Witness the astonishing popular and critical attention accorded recently both to Frank Gehry's Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and Richard Meier's hilltop Getty Museum in Los Angeles. These are only the most recent cases of "celebrity museums": In major cities throughout the world, the opening of a new cultural or historical museum raises a degree of architectural expectation and invites a level of critical attention that are simply not generated by new offices, housing developments or government buildings.

These thoughts occupied me as I was driven through the boulevards and streets of Riyadh. It was my first day in the country, and I had come as an architectural correspondent for a Canadian newspaper and magazine on the occasion of the opening of the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, timed to coincide with the hijri centennial of the founding of the modern Saudi state, the recapture of Riyadh by 'Abd al-'Aziz ibn 'Abd al-Rahman Al Sa'ud. (See Aramco World, January/February 1999.) It was one of the few times in a two-decade career as a design critic that I was about to visit a building without first having seen photographs of it. As I sped by office buildings, apartments, hospitals, shopping centers and government complexes, it was instantly clear to me that contemporary architecture plays an unusually powerful role in urban Saudi life—if only because, in a city so extensively enlarged and rebuilt in the past three decades, there is simply so much of it.

We approached the National Museum from the rear, where a parking lot is shaded by translucent fabrics in a technique reminiscent of the award-winning Hajj Terminal at the Jiddah airport. (See Aramco World, July/August 1981.) Rising above the museum's rectangular, ochre-brown massings of locally quarried limestone protruded a wide cylinder. I walked around toward the front, which faces the plaza of the King 'Abd al-'Aziz Historical Center and, across it, the equally new Darat al-Malik 'Abd al-'Aziz (King 'Abd al-'Aziz Foundation for Research and Archives) and the renovated Murabba' Palace. I noticed that, up close, the limestone had distinctive, faint swirls of brown, cream and orange, and its exceptionally warm texture was as pleasing to the hand as it was to the eye. I followed a wall of this stone to my left into the tall, narrow, canyon-like passageway that offers visitors a shaded and breezy path behind the high, curving façade that is the museum's most distinctive feature. This walkway of finished limestone, with its cooling breeze and dramatic, rhythmic shadows cast by a lattice of wooden beams above, made an enticing entry.

But before entering, I first walked out into the plaza and the landscaped Gardens of Riyadh nearby, filled with newly planted trees. On the other side is Darat al-Malik 'Abd al-'Aziz, the simultaneously constructed new museum center dedicated to the life and memory of the king. A companion institution to the National Museum, it was designed by Jordanian architect Rasem Badran, who also built the Qasr al-Hokm complex in the historic heart of downtown. (See Aramco World, January/February 1999.) Unlike the National Museum, Darat al-Malik 'Abd al-'Aziz uses a contemporary updating of the traditional decorative detail used in central Saudi Arabian (Najdi) mud-brick construction. I realized that I had expected to see something akin to this on the National Museum, considering that its mandate is to interpret the range of Saudi cultural history to its citizens and international guests.

But as I turned and looked back onto the full, sweeping façade of the National Museum, I realized that its architectural vocabulary included neither the allusions to historical buildings nor the polished, high-tech decorative pastiche that characterize Darat al-Malik 'Abd al-'Aziz. Rather, the façade has simplicity and quiet authority. Its long, asymptotic curve is rendered with an almost casual naturalism, at once an accelerating, kinetic gesture and one that conveys a gentleness, despite its scale. Together with the cylindrical exhibit hall—the "Unification Drum"—rising from the flat roof, the curve lends the museum touches that seem almost paternal.

Even from the outside, the façade curve helps the museum project serenity, implying that inside is a respite from visual hyperactivity, such as is found in Darat al-Malik 'Abd al-'Aziz and, more important, in the pulsing city beyond. The building is not an overtly ambitious form, but a timeless one, appropriate for an institution whose projected lifespan is some 300 years, and which is charged with interpreting all eras of Saudi history. As I looked at the curve more closely, there was something familiar about its elegantly tapering form, but I could not find the metaphor that seemed right. As it turned out, I would have to wait for several days, and take a trip into the desert with the building's architects, to understand the source of the form.

Inside the National Museum, the same understated qualities prevail, making the museum a building that is both dignified and approachable, theatrical and intimate—a respectable feat for a structure that covers 3.6 hectares (9 acres). In the lobby, the polished granite floor doubles as Riyadh's first indoor urban square—it will be open 24 hours a day, even when museum exhibits are closed—and as a musalla, or prayer space, for special occasions. From the high ceiling, colorful banners fall in serried ranks, softening and pacing the space, helping give it human scale while announcing the exhibit themes. Leading off the lobby are the two main exhibition wings, devoted respectively to history before and after Islam. Each is built around a courtyard oasis of water and foliage.

The first begins with the geology and natural history of the Arabian Peninsula, and moves through galleries varied in shape, size and lighting qualities to displays that cover early settlements, trade routes, art and crafts, and the patterns of daily life from prehistoric times to the early seventh century. It is immediately apparent that, unlike in other museums in the Middle East—Cairo comes first to mind—the emphasis here is not so much on displaying objects as it is on education: Explanations in both Arabic and English are well-written and abundant, and they are clustered in ways that help make complex histories accessible to general audiences.

Dividing the two wings is one of the museum's architectural set-pieces, which starts with a dark, winding tunnel representing al-jahiliyah, the "age of ignorance" that preceded Islam. It leads to an escalator that carries visitors up to a brilliantly day-lit landing with white walls, evoking the ascent into the spiritual illumination of Islam. This in turn opens into an equally brightly lit but sparsely appointed room in whose center is a single, glass-encased, handwritten copy of the Qur'an. The emphasis here, again, is not on this particular manuscript as an antique exemplar of a particular artistic school, as one might find in a Western museum. Rather, it is on this single Book as a symbol of the great historical event of the revelation of the Word of God through the Prophet Muhammad.

This room leads to a bridge, some 40 meters (130') long, that links the pre-Islamic to the Islamic-era wing. A contemporary ceramic mural enhances the right wall, and faint music with children's voices is piped in to the far end, which grew louder as I walked. The effect is strongly emotional, and it is symbolic of the Prophet's flight to Yathrib (Madinah), known as the Hijrah, which marks the beginning of the Islamic polity.

"The story of the Hijrah is fundamental; it is in the very plan of the museum," says Abdulrahman al-Sari, an architect and a senior official of the Riyadh Development Authority, which guided the museum's construction. "It gives us an opportunity to explain to the world the unity of religious and political views in our history." Fittingly, the hallway ends in a large gallery dedicated to the history of the Muslim pilgrimage, or Hajj, and of the two holy mosques in Makkah and Madinah, whose maintenance and support, for use by Muslims from around the world, is a supreme responsibility of the Saudi state.

Like the first wing, the Islamic wing also takes pains to cover not only "official" periods of history as defined by political events, but also everyday concerns of trade, food, clothing, shelter, crafts and folk art. Leading up to the "Unification Drum" are façade recreations of vernacular architectural styles from, each of Saudi Arabia's four key areas—Hijaz, 'Asir, Najd and the Eastern Province. Each is animated with displays of traditional arts and crafts, making this one of the most visually lively exhibits. Inside the Unification Drum, architecture, photographs, text panels, banners and a multi-media video/laser show highlight the founding of modern Saudi Arabia.

Several days after my tour of the museum, I joined the museum's lead architect, Raymond Moriyama, on a sunrise trip to the red dunes west of Riyadh. Our path retraced a trip he had made a bit more than two years earlier, shortly after he received the commission to design the museum. Moriyama, now nearly 70 years old, squatted near the ridge of a dune. We watched as the wind blew sinuous, shifting ripples into the light-raked sand. He turned to me and asked, "Do you see now where we got the idea for the museum?"

This kind of naturalistic acumen is typical of Moriyama, who over four decades has earned a reputation in Canada as a disarmingly low-key designer of fine, often underappreciated, buildings. Yet as we neared the top of the largest dune, Moriyama talked not of the museum, nor even of the magnificent landscape around us, but rather of his boyhood experiences during World War II, when following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, his family's Vancouver home and hardware store were confiscated by the Canadian government and he and his relatives, with other Japanese-Canadians, were shipped to an internment camp. With his father in a different camp, it fell to Raymond, the 13-year-old eldest son, to support his mother and siblings with hard labor at five cents an hour. His architectural career began in that wilderness camp, he says, when he built a bathhouse-cum-treehouse as a personal refuge.

These early challenges, he believes, gave him a strong character coupled with sensitivity, qualities that have come through in his architecture. His first major commission was the 1958 Toronto Japanese Cultural Centre, a boldly modernist concrete pavilion in a ravine, which has come to be recognized as one of the city's best buildings of that decade. His 1969 Scarborough [Ontario] Civic Centre integrated government offices, library, commercial functions and a generous indoor plaza, and inspired countless similar suburban civic buildings in Canada and the United States. A few years later came the Ontario Science Centre, one of the first "hands-on" science museums. In 1995, his Bata Shoe Museum won a City of Toronto Urban Design Award. By late 1996, his record was such that the visiting Saudi delegation included the firm of Moriyama & Teshima Architects among the four invited to compete for the National Museum commission.

As effective as the National Museum is today, I was astonished to learn that the museum building, collections and displays had been created from scratch over a mere 26 months, working constantly to the deadline of the January 1999 centennial celebration. This pace compares to the 12 years it took to build the late British architect James Stirling's Stuttgart Staatsgalerie, which is credited with starting the current boom of architecturally ambitious museums with its completion in 1984. Meier's Getty Museum took nearly as long. Many additions to existing museums take more than 26 months to design and build, never mind creating an entirely new institution with neither pre-existing staff nor collections.

Yet the project had its genesis, in concept at least, as early as 1983, when urban planners at the Riyadh Development Authority (RDA) were considering how to make more public the area about the Murabba' Palace, which had been built in mud brick in 1932 for King 'Abd al-'Aziz. By 1989, the RDA produced outline plans for a "cultural precinct" east and south of the palace that would offer, among other things, a library, public gardens, a rebuilding of Darat al-Malik 'Abd al-'Aziz and a museum. The RDA had previously overseen the construction of Riyadh's Diplomatic Quarter (see Aramco World, September/October 1988), and numerous other planning and construction efforts throughout the capital. Although the 1991 Gulf War slowed down its work, by 1994 the cultural precinct had been re-named the "King 'Abd al-'Aziz Historical Center" and, with the centennial only five years away, the RDA was committed to providing the city with the best possible gardens and civic spaces along with the buildings planned.

"The concept of the integrated green areas evolved with the rest of the project," says al-Sari, "and they are essential in order to integrate this complex into the daily life of the city."

With pre-design studies complete, an RDA-sponsored team made technical tours of many of the world's finest museums constructed over the past two decades. From the list of potential designers, four were selected: New York-based SITE ("Sculpture in the Environment"), designers of the Saudi Arabian pavilion at the Seville world's fair; Hellmuth, Obata + Kassabaum, designers of King Saud University in Riyadh; Richard Meier & Partners, designer of the Getty Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Barcelona; and—the least known—Toronto-based Moriyama & Teshima.

The challenge the RDA put to the architects was "to establish the complex as a cultural focus for the whole nation, and to make it a vibrant part of the urban fabric of the center of the capital," creating a sense of continuity and dignity for all Saudis.

According to senior RDA manager Ibrahim al-Sultan, Moriyama won the museum commission "because he is very sensitive to cultural difference. We actually found his approach quite similar to our own."

Riyadh-based Omrania Associates acted as local associate under the auspices of one of the Kingdom's most internationally recognized architects, Ali Shuaibi, whose previous work includes the Tuwaiq Palace, winner of a 1998 Aga Khan Award. A few weeks after the announcement, Moriyama made his first excursion into the red desert, returning with his color palette and textures, and with the idea of the museum's signature image, the dune-shaped façade.

In its finished form, the National Museum is proving remarkable for two qualities seldom found in contemporary museum design: modesty and flexibility. Saudi planners had decided early on that splashy architecture was not for them, nor did they want an interior scheme along the lines of the Bilbao Guggenheim, which has individualized its room designs according to the key artists whose work will be displayed in them. As a new institution, the Saudi museum is designed to accommodate change over time, particularly as archeological research continues and cultural historians provide ever-clearer accounts of Arabian life in ancient times. In addition, the fast-track design and construction cycle meant that foundations were being poured before final decisions had been made about the functions of the galleries above them. With the collection of artifacts also only then beginning, the galleries had to be designed for as-yet-unknown displays.

"The new museum's collection of actual artifacts was not rich enough to make for a full interpretation of Saudi history" based on artifacts alone, explains Anthony Reich of Reich + Petch Design International, who served as senior display designer. This challenge, he said, led the team toward the construction of architectural and archeological replicas that would accomplish the didactic goals of the institution. Thus the austerity of the National Museum's own architecture actually opens the structure for a visually rich approach to the installations within. Considering the number of historic replica displays, there is in a sense more architecture inside the museum than out—and the learning-oriented institution is richer for it. Reich points out that his display regimen lends itself well to enrichment with new artifacts as they are discovered, and indeed the current installation at times evokes the spirit of a world's fair pavilion more than that of a traditional glass-cases-and-labels museum. Yet today, even in the most scholarly of international museums, this populist approach is slowly winning favor, as curators learn that it can actually enhance a museum's educational mission by increasing the institution's appeal to diverse publics.

In this spirit, some of the most effective displays in the museum are not even replicas, but interactive, bilingual computer screens and large-screen video installations. These take simulation and replication to a further level of abstraction with well-animated, seemingly three-dimensional computer graphics showing how Arabs of prior epochs farmed, transported, housed, fed and amused themselves, all in engaging detail based on new research by Saudi scholars and the kingdom's Department of Archeology. With their combination of visual power and informative detail, they make for some of the most intellectually and emotionally engaging displays in the museum.

Organizers of course hope that as the museum leaves images and stories in the minds of its visitors—particularly young Saudi visitors—it will help increase domestic tourism. The low-key architectural approach ultimately helps the displays do what an educational museum should do: Stimulate interest in the real locations and events they denote. For visitors from abroad, there is now a place to spend a few comfortable hours and gain a rich, comprehensive understanding of Saudi Arabia and Islam, all in an architectural setting that, while pleasing, does not overwhelm the significance of its contents. As I prepared to return to Canada, I realized that, thanks to the museum, I had a new desire to see the rest of the country—but that would have to wait for another assignment.

On my last evening in Riyadh, I visited the museum at sunset, and I found then a visual dimension to the design that I had not noticed: As the deeply orange sun projected the silhouettes of the towers of Darat al-Malik 'Abd al-'Aziz onto the museum's curving, dune-like façade, it was as if a shadow-play had come to life: Tiny moving silhouettes of Saudi visitors moved among the towers, some pausing to gesture at their own images on the Museum. This ephemeral blending of past and present was to me the seal of success on Moriyama's design: On a form drawn from the desert, re-made in contemporary technology, lay the shadows of the past, animated by the present.

Trevor Boddy, an internationally published Canadian writer on architecture and culture, has taught at architecture schools across the continent. He is the author of The Architecture of Douglas Cardinal and of Picturesque, Tectonic, Romantic: The Houses of Helliwell + Smith.

This article appeared on pages 22-29 of the September/October 1999 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for September/October 1999 images.