When you are planning your next vacation, do you see sand, palm trees and fantastic design? The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture offers you that and the latest technology in sustainable architecture. OK, maybe you weren’t thinking about the Saudi Arabian desert just now…
Let’s have a closer look at this phenomenal building in Saudi Arabia’s largest province, a mere twenty miles from the borders of the Kingdom of Bahrain. In honor of its 75th anniversary in 2008, Aramco, the world’s largest oil company, set its sights on building a monumental knowledge and culture center in Dhahran, home of the first commercially viable oil rig, “Prosperity Well,” and pretty much a lot of desert land.
The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture, also known as iThra — the Arabic word for enrichment —is Aramco’s most important corporate social responsibility initiative. It opened its grand doors on December 1, 2017, to welcome Saudi children and adults, and people from all walks of life for a one-of-a-kind immersive experience.
It’s no secret that the world we live in is evolving and transforming rapidly. Lesser known is that Saudi Arabia is changing at an even more rapid pace heading toward Vision 2030. Attempting to fulfill the themes of a vibrant society, a thriving economy and an ambitious nation, the construction of the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture was an important milestone in this direction.
Designed on a monumental scale by the Norwegian architecture firm Snøhetta that won the project for its architectural concept of multiple layers of symbolism inspired by energy, iThra was built to reflect Saudi Arabia’s oil history and to set a standard for sustainable and conscious architecture, design and social progress in the Kingdom.
The hot desert climate with high temperatures and humidity informed the architectural expression in various ways. The building design draws from inspirations such as the past, present and future; intro- and extroversion; diversity and unity to only name a few.
As an analogy to the distinctive rock formations in Dhahran that preserve the petroleum energy, the distinctive design of five pebble-shaped buildings that seemingly lean on each other illustrate solidarity. The layout embraces the past, the present and the future.
The underground structure alludes to the past, the present is represented at ground level, and the future is pointing high into the sky with the 90-meter-tall Knowledge Tower.
The 85,000 square meter Center of World Culture contains diverse cultural facilities including a public library, a museum, exhibition halls, a children’s learning center, an auditorium and a cinema. They promote, encourage and inspire the knowledge economy, creativity and developments in science, technology and the arts.
The exterior of the building is wrapped in 350 kilometers of three-dimensional curved stainless-steel tubes. The architectural and engineering challenge not only lay in the organic form of the Center but the harsh climatic conditions. The incessant curves of the 30,260 square-meter façade pushed the designers to new limits and allowed them to demonstrate the strength of the engineering culture in Saudi Arabia.
With the ambition to be one of the most environmentally friendly buildings in the region, the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture has the objective to protect and revitalize the planet. The hypermodern metal façade of the three-dimensional free forms was specifically chosen (over ceramic tiles and glass) for its resistance to sand abrasion and the lower building energy demands. The weather-tight envelope wraps around the structure to build a feature shade veil.
The thin, reflective stainless-steel tubes are prebent to fit the curves and flatten towards the window to allow natural light into the internal spaces. The design takes the form of a complex composition to balance and harmonize the project and presents it as a unique entity.
While the engineering departs from the country’s architectonic traditions with its abstract and spectacular form, it could only be built with the application of locally known building techniques such as the rammed earth method and the use of local sand, gravel and clay to build the original walls.
Fifty percent of the construction waste, including wood, steel and paper, was recycled and the wood finishes throughout the property came predominantly from sustainable sources. Responsible and efficient water use is guaranteed by water-efficient fittings, water meters to monitor the volume of water used and smart water controllers that schedule irrigation levels based on the local landscape and weather conditions.
The surrounding 220,000-square-meter Knowledge Park is a space that sparks the imagination. It features an enormous vertical garden that is home to more than 15,000 plants. These measures contribute to Aramco’s ambition to achieve LEED Gold certification shortly.
With its unusual geometric structures, this Saudi all-purpose cultural institution and mega building is one-of-a-kind in modern architecture, and it sets the bar high for the industry.
The interior is no less inspirational. With more than 220,000 books in Arabic and English plus more than 500,000 books, periodicals and reports in the digital archive, iThra promises transformative experiences for anyone who visits.
Time Magazine put the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture on its 2018 World’s Greatest Places to Visit list and we think you should do the same.