Perkins+Will uses traditional architecture for Saudi’s Diplomatic Quarter


Could a lone falcon rescue a 5-star Saudi hotel project from potential ruin? It could and it doesn’t have to be real. But we’ll get to that later.

Perkins+Will, established in 1935, was founded on the belief that design has the power to transform lives and enhance communities.

Never has the company been put to the test of proving that belief as it had with the challenging task of designing the Diplomatic Quarter (DQ) Hotel in Riyadh.


Benjamin Piper, the company’s director of architecture, explained the complex subtleties of the project. It started with a simple challenge. “The project was actually a competition, which we won. We were asked in quite a curious way to build a hotel that wasn’t going to be a landmark, and this goes against any contemporary architect’s natural instincts,” Piper said.

Riyadh is not known for its quality of streetscape and pedestrian walkways, but the DQ is one place where there is a genuine attempt to do that.

When Perkins+Will were asked to respond to the local vernacular architecture in the Diplomatic Quarter area, the company suggested a sustainable model as a solution.

The first time Perkins+Will presented this to Arriyadh authority, who have direct jurisdiction over the DQ, the architects had gone with a toned down version of sustainability and with only free-form used on the building’s façade, while everything else remained in rectilinear form.

Piper said: “But surprisingly enough, the authority liked this and wanted the free-form everywhere and said: ‘tell your client that they have to have it all over’ and mid-way through the design, the project went LEED Gold, shifting it into the 5-star category.”

As a starting point, the company looked at some of the ancient architecture of the region and noticed that a number of buildings looked like those in Petra, Jordan.

“Not as well known, because the Kingdom is not yet open to the kind of tourism these sites perhaps deserve, but there were really some interesting pieces of architecture where people have literally inhabited the rocky cliff face and carved that away and made it sort of a negative form of architecture,” Piper said.

Additionally, there were also mud construction techniques with layered strata and man-made geological formations that provided a certain character.

“One of the sustainable issues is to maintain that kind of vernacular, but another inspiration was the landscape of the region, where this incredibly arid place is brought to life by these oasis like moments of water and fertility,” Piper said.

In the proximity of the site, there is the Wadi Hanifa a 120 km long valley running across Riyadh, offering lush grass and running water. Riyadh is a city which has grown as a monocentric city because it doesn’t have much natural containment like mountains, rivers, or coastline.

“Wadi Hanifa is a pleasant disturbance in terms of that growth and we wanted to take a little piece of the wadi and grow it within our sites,” explained Piper.

The oasis began with a courtyard shape, made possible by recessed perimeters of a building that looked part of the landscape.

The spaces within that organic landscape are negative spaces carved away by the water. Man-made elements like tea and coffee rooms are all in the same material as their surroundings with layered designs simulating different densities of stone as they erode over time.

“We were keen to present something that was rather simple, free-form, non-landmark type to construct,” said Piper. So all the curvatures at the hotel were two-dimensional, and could be cut out of sheet material perhaps glass reinforced concrete. On the sustainable end, the architecture makes use of sunlight-controlling louvers, cool air trapping techniques and self-shading designs that take advantage of sun angles.

“The hotel acts like a wadi, a micro climate that supports life, and as such we looked at extending the time where external F&B can be utilized to up to 4 additional months and when dealing with hotel operators, if you put these in real terms, it starts to make sense,” said Piper. It’s an inspiring financial model that’s both local and contextual. So what additional costs did sustainability add to the project?

“A 5% difference as a rule of thumb for additional capital cost and a five year window for ROI” Piper said.

In keeping with their motto of enhancing community development and sustainability aims, the company was keen on connecting the rear of the site, with the front of the hotel. “So the hotel is no longer a private entity but a plaza, a place to meet in that space. So what about all the dust and associated maintenance? Doesn’t it take away from the sustainability issue?

Pipier said: “This is not a building, but a wadi, and as such it doesn’t need to be cleaned. It’s the colour of dust. You don’t need to clean the louvers, or walls.” Ok, but what about pigeons and birds? Wadis have them and if they start to release their droppings all over the place, it tends to blow the project right out of the oasis.

“The solution is a natural one. We get a falcon, which as soon as pigeons see it they learn not to come back. Or we install a permanent stainless steel statue of one,” said Piper.

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