“We have not yet experienced the fragile, perhaps even ephemeral, architecture of the physical and psychical integration of man into his environment. But we seek the architecture of understanding and of the great vision of a synthesis of all the objects of nature” – Frei Otto
Recipient of the 1998 Aga Khan Award, the Tuwaiq Palace was conceived by Frei Otto in collaboration with the Saudi Arabian architectural firm, Omrania and the British engineers, Buro Happold. The start of this collaboration can be traced back to when a limited competition was organized by the Arriyadh Development Authority in 1981 for a new diplomatic club. The two winning entries of this competition, belonging to Otto and Omrania, were divergent interpretations of a brief that rejected imitative neo-orientalism. In response to the distinct characteristics of these two entries, the ADA insisted that an amalgamation of the two schemes would yield a design that truly captured the essence of Najdi culture. The final design of the palace was thus largely guided by this agenda.
Identification of Place
Tasked with the objective of designing a social recreational facility on a plateau surrounded by a desert, the architects started by placing an 800-meter-long and 12-meter-high wall that organically enclosed space. The function of this rampart was to define and protect the enclosed space, divide the interior sanctuary from the world ‘out there’. In its mass and magnitude, the rampart is reminiscent of a fortress, yet its form departs from tradition to create a dynamic, smooth-flowing surface that resembles wind crafted sand dunes.
The rampart contains 500 living quarters and hence referred to as the ‘living wall’. Otto’s placement of these quarters added another layer of separation between the inner oasis and the harsh external environment. It also provided its inhabitants’ spectacular views of the sweeping Wadi Hanifa below2. Openings in the ‘living wall’ were strategically planned, keeping the climate in mind. These openings took the form of stylized arched windows and gateways. External windows were kept small as a manner of protection from the scorching sun and heat, whilst larger ones were oriented inwards.
The arched gateways of the wall lead to winding corridors within, providing easy access to the Palace’s three levels3. Staying true to its precedent of the desert fortress, an open-air walkway runs along the top3 of the rampart and provides panoramic views.
Relationship with Landscape
“Preservation of the natural look and feel of the plateau was the top priority in the design and construction of the Tuwaiq Palace”3.This key principle impacted the design in a variety of ways: The strong horizontal form reduced the influence of the palace on the landscape and the external courts that spilled out of the rampart were placed lower than ground level3, surrounded by trees. The material palette of the Palace was also largely influenced by this intention. The thick concrete structure of the meandering wall was cladded with Riyadh limestone masonry to make it seem like an extension of the surrounding desert. As a result, the Palace seems to have grown out of the desert, and “like the desert, it exudes both permanence and fluidity rare in man-made structures”3.
The Natural World as Precedent
Frei Otto described himself as “a form seeker, and sometimes a form finder”. His life’s work was characterized by his attempts to learn from nature and imbibe its qualities in his designs. The Tuwaiq Palace is no exception to this. The shape and dimensions of the windows and door openings in the meandering Palace wall were derived through complex calculations that simulated the wall as a fluid and the openings as bubbles within the fluid3. This was not the first time that Otto had analyzed bubbles to resolve the structure of a design. Earlier, he had used soap films to model surfaces in tension. These experiments resulted in his signature membrane structures, that are also employed in the design of the Palace.
Three large tent-like structures interrupt the Palace wall and are public spaces for celebrations and conferences. The design of these structures was partly based on Otto’s earlier experiments. In referring to the design, Otto had said “Hanging roofs cannot be designed. When every impure tone is avoided, one can help them unfold.”1. The construction of the tents employed Teflon coated fiberglass fabric that is doubled up to allow for the space in the middle to act as a climate buffer. Apart from these three Teflon tents, two blue ceramic tents are located inside the oasis and another glass tent is situated at its center, known as the ‘Heart Tent’4.
Redefining Modern Orientalism
The design of the Tuwaiq Palace refers to traditional vernacular elements but avoids careless imitation. It combines the traditional fortress and tent typologies with the latest technology to create a unique experience for its occupants. This amalgamation of the two is best presented at the heart of the Palace: the ‘Heart Tent’. Otto referred to Bedouin custom in the design of this tent and used deep natural colors and diffused light to provide relief from the sun. For its structure, he used the latest technology of supporting cable nets and 8mm thick glass plates5 – giving a modern twist to the traditional custom.
However, the design of the Palace relates to the local vernacular beyond its mere form. On describing traditional Arab architecture, Hassan Fathy referred to the significance of the sky: “The landscape is for the Arab a cruel enemy, burning, glaring and barren. The kindly aspect of nature for the Arab is the sky”. Inside the oasis of the Palace, which is cut off from the landscape by a high wall, the water and the sky present the antithesis of the harsh climate.
The conundrum of how to incorporate tradition within the contemporary landscape of architecture is faced by most architects. This dilemma is exaggerated in oriental countries where westernized ideals of modernity clash with the distinct requirements of the local climate. The design of the Tuwaiq Palace, derived from its physical and cultural environment, redefines this idea of modernity in accordance to its context.