By any superficial account, Norway and Saudi Arabia share one thing in common: oil. Saudi Arabia has the world’s second-largest proven reserves; Norway has the world’s largest oil-based sovereign wealth fund. Otherwise, the contrasts almost defy comprehension: taiga and desert, democracy and autocracy, civil liberties and Wahhabism. One other difference: Saudi Arabia has no international architecture firms of note, which helps explain why the Saudis turned to Snøhetta, the celebrated practice founded in Oslo, to design the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture in Dammam.
The center is a rollicking multiuse complex, covering over 1 million interior square feet, that is as aesthetically impressive as it is ethically unsettling. A gift to the people of Saudi Arabia from Saudi Aramco—the national oil company that, with annual revenues topping $450 billion, is the most valuable company in the world—the project was meant, in part, to mark the 75th anniversary of Aramco’s founding. Snøhetta won the commission in 2007, just before the firm earned international renown with its glacier-inspired Oslo Opera House. After a series of delays, the center was dedicated in December 2016 and opened in stages during the following two years (landscaping work continues today). It is not only Saudi Arabia’s first bona fide work of starchitecture; it is also, by some measure, the kingdom’s first attempt at a tourist attraction. It is open, at no charge, to all Saudi citizens and visitors—though the kingdom does not issue tourist visas, and business visas are tightly controlled. As envisioned by Saudi Aramco, the center (which goes by “Ithra” in Arabic, meaning “enrichment”) started as a library but grew into a far more ambitious $800 million complex that is neither museum, nor theater, nor conference center, but rather all of the above.
Ithra occupies a rise on the northern edge of the company’s headquarters, a mini city in its own right, not far from the “Prosperity Well” that started the oil boom in 1938. Overlooking tanks, pipes, and other trappings of the petroleum industry, it is an inauspicious site for an extravagant work of architecture. Dammam is largely a bedroom community for tens of thousands of Saudi Aramco employees—a drab sea of cinder blocks along the Persian Gulf that features little in the way of a city center and essentially no cultural amenities. Snøhetta’s challenge was to incorporate, under one roof, a series of institutions that in most cities would occupy landmark structures in their own right. Ithra has all the ambiguity of a presidential library, many of the functions of a college campus, and possibly no real precedent.
Snøhetta also had to invent, or at least reinvent, the notion of public space. Public institutions in Saudi Arabia have grown especially scarce since 1979, when the kingdom turned to a socially conservative version of Wahhabism. The country’s most notable museums are Riyadh’s National Museum and the Masmak Fort, the now-restored historic site that Ibn Saud captured in 1902, establishing what would become the Saudi dynasty. Much of Saudi social life, at least among wealthier classes, takes place in private, behind the walls of lavish residential compounds. Ithra aspires to change that dynamic, championing the sort of cultural creativity and innovation that has long been frowned upon in conservative Saudi society.
Stones in a Zen Garden
I visited Ithra on an uncharacteristically mild, rainy day in November, when the building’s grayish exterior nearly blended in with the sky. The design of the complex, like that of the Oslo Opera House, draws loosely on geology—a cross between programmatic design and abstraction, with echoes of Zaha Hadid’s fondness for curves and Daniel Libeskind, FAIA’s fondness for clashing geometries. Comprised of six buildings, the tallest rising to 18 stories, Ithra is meant to resemble a pile of stones smoothed by desert winds and arranged organically yet harmoniously, as if in a Zen garden. No two views of the center are exactly alike; only the central “Knowledge Tower” is visible from all angles. Each of the “stones” is clad in over 200 miles of pipes—4-inch metal tubes that cover nearly the entire exterior and also some interior ceilings and walls. The symbolism is obvious.
Ithra’s interior organization, on the other hand, follows an appealing contrivance: that of past (below grade), present (at grade), and future (above grade). As with oil drilling, most of the action takes place underground. The main entrance is a tunnel that extends horizontally some 65 feet down before opening up into the complex’s centerpiece, the Great Hall. The hall feels and functions like an airport concourse, with appendages extending at odd angles, suggesting the potential for adventure around every corner. It is vast enough to feel like an outdoor space, with concrete pillars rising like trees and concrete walls that are artificially weathered to resemble rammed earth, one of the only durable building materials in pre-modern Saudi Arabia. The hall may eventually become one of the kingdom’s great public spaces, on par with its indoor shopping malls, with throngs of visitors crisscrossing it en route to performances or exhibitions. But midmorning on a Tuesday, when I visited, the crowd was sparse—mostly mothers and their toddlers visiting the children’s wing of the museum.
The five main public components of Ithra—the museum, library, conference center, cinema, and performing arts hall—draw on different stylistic tropes, each clean and modern, but varied enough not to feel monotonous. The convention hall is the simplest but most self-consciously spectacular space. A roughly pillow-shaped structure, its domed ceiling spans a multipurpose space for banquets, lectures, and the like. Perforated copper siding covers the walls and ceiling; backlighting creates a celestial effect that makes the entire room feel like a planetarium.
The library—futuristically clad in bone-white paneling—sits directly above the Great Hall; visitors access it by escalator, to dramatic effect. The library’s three levels surround an atrium that overlooks the hall, an effect reminiscent of the Guggenheim Museum in New York (and of Snøhetta’s new Calgary Central Library). Designed to hold 200,000 volumes, the library was, at least when I visited, far from fully stocked.
The most breathtaking part of Ithra may well be the proscenium-style performing arts space, if only for its existence in a country where live performances are as rare as churches. Three semicircular balconies hang over the orchestra section of the theater, giving it the feel of a diminutive opera house. The cinema, in contrast with the theater’s crimson color scheme, takes a jauntier turn: Its multicolored seats look like they were plucked out of a bag of tropical Skittles.
The most formless of Ithra’s major components, meanwhile, is the museum. Located entirely below grade, it descends three levels, each level going progressively further back in time—contemporary art, then historical decorative arts and artifacts, and finally natural history displays, including animated projections that turn entire rooms into habitats for primordial beasts. The museum surrounds an atrium that is Ithra’s most explicit, if disturbing, homage to petroleum. The floor of the atrium is tiled in black and features a replica of the rigging for the original Prosperity Well—a display that resembles a dystopian set from a Mad Max film.
Ithra, of course, is an ode to innovation as much as anything else, and that’s reflected most clearly in the “Do Tank,” an egg-shaped space that will host students and entrepreneurs who are developing everything from business plans to gadgets. Groups will present their products in a small lecture hall and can develop them in a lab with 3D printers. From there, capitalism presumably runs its course (as long as the entrepreneurs in question are men). Ithra expects to host 2,000 workshops, seminars, and brainstorming sessions each year, but the Do Tank remained unused when I visited.
A Celebration or a Mea Culpa?
Aesthetically, Ithra rivals recent showpieces constructed in the Gulf region, including I.M. Pei, FAIA’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA’s Qatar National Library, and Jean Nouvel, Hon. FAIA’s Louvre Abu Dhabi. Many of those projects take cues—however distant—from regional traditions or principles of Islamic architecture, or they reflect their respective architect’s idiosyncrasies. Ithra, however, looks self-consciously novel and organic, as if designed by the hand of nature itself. When carried to its ultimate conclusion, the center aims to put Saudi Aramco out of business—by inspiring Saudis to embrace an economy based on innovation rather than extraction. It’s a tall order, especially for a building.
A video tour of the museum
Any exhilaration the project inspires must be tempered by the knowledge that Saudi Arabia’s social strictures still hang over the country like a veil. The center’s niceties—gift shops, screening rooms, and the promise of a knowledge-based economy—stand in sharp contrast to the kingdom’s reputation for human rights abuses. Are the center’s stylistic flourishes a celebration or a mea culpa? As with many things in the kingdom these days, it is probably both and neither. The Saudis have, for years, acknowledged the risks of an economic monoculture based on oil as well as the environmental risks of carbon emissions. The kingdom’s “2030 Vision” for economic development promises openness and seeks international business collaborations. Likewise, Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman has liberalized aspects of Saudi society, lifting bans on movie theaters and, most famously, on women driving. And yet, as the murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi reminded us, the kingdom remains an autocracy that tends to trample on civil rights. That includes, of course, the right to assemble.
Secretary of Energy Rick Perry visiting Ithra in December 2018
Ithra is not necessarily a symbol of the Saudi government or the royal family. Notably, it is located on property owned by Saudi Aramco, which may be a state-owned enterprise but is a cosmopolitan one, operating with the efficiency of any other multinational juggernaut. Aramco can give the “gift” of Ithra to the Saudi people without the government sanctioning its contents and programming in their entirety.
Which brings us to Snøhetta, which undoubtedly earned a tidy fee for the project (the firm declined to comment for this article). It is hardly the first studio to work for a repressive regime: Zaha Hadid Architects, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, and Henning Larsen all have active projects in Saudi Arabia. But none of those commissions—metro stations, office towers, and the like—relate as directly to Saudi Arabia’s public image. Ithra clearly projects a progressive vision that the government can strategically tout. It celebrates all the right things: assembly, free speech, history, and cosmopolitanism. The question is whether Ithra will serve as a catalyst to promote these values or whether it will serve as a diversion. As impressive as Ithra is, it is still a bauble. As welcoming as Ithra is, it is still a barbed-wire-ringed compound. As cosmopolitan as Ithra is, it is still a tourist attraction in a country that does not admit tourists.
Ithra, then, represents a true test of architecture’s ability to promote social change. As one of the only venues for (relatively) free thinking in the kingdom, it will either help inspire a nationwide movement for more open minds, or it will help burnish the kingdom’s reputation while atrocities persist behind closed doors. Either way, two things seem certain in the short term: the oil pumpjacks will keep pumping in Saudi Arabia, and the glaciers will keep melting in Norway.