Rasem Badran on revitalising Riyadh’s architecture

“The only way in which I benefitted from the State Mosque competition in Baghdad, was that my work was published in many European architecture magazines,” said award-winning Palestinian architect Rasem Badran, founder of Dar Al-Omran. “And by coincidence, the Saudis got those magazines.”

It was the summer of 1982, and a committee for the Baghdad State Mosque was set up under the chairmanship of renowned Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji, who had personally invited Badran to participate in the competition. By the following October, the Adjudication Committee selected seven regional and international competitors to participate, including Maath Alousi, Ricardo Bofill Taller de Arquitectura, Qahtan Al-Madfa’i, Makiya Associates, Minoru Takeyama, and Venturi, Rauch & Scott Brown. The participants submitted their proposals by January 1983, and come February, Badran’s concept was announced for first place, while Bofill and Alousi were invited to give support.

Badran’s Grand Mosque of Riyadh

Although the State Mosque was never built due to the ongoing Iraq-Iran war, the designs from the competition were largely written about in international publications. And while Badran had developed a number of projects during the 1970s, the Baghdad State Mosque competition was a launching pad for his career.

“I think it was the Architectural Review that published the proposals of the three winners of the competition,” Badran said. “It wanted to show how the mosque could be seen from different points of view. So the client in Saudi ended up seeing the entries and liked my design. He then invited me to Riyadh through a third party to participate in the competition for the redevelopment of its old city.”

Badran’s sketches for the Grand Mosque and Justice Palace

It was the summer of 1984, and Badran was invited to submit a concept that considered the renewal of three existing buildings including a grand mosque, a governor’s palace and a cultural centre. It was the first time he had been to Saudi Arabia, and temperatures were soaring. Hoping to experience the vernacular architecture of the country, he toured a nearby fortress and later, a former majlis of King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud.

“The building was in another quarter of Riyadh, where the monarch family lived,” Badran said. “There were a lot of mud houses with courtyards, but it had been left for a long time and it started to deteriorate. So I took photographs of the majlis building because [I wanted to create a design] that had the feeling of an authentic mud mosque.”

Badran’s first trip to Riyadh also included an excursion to the preserved mud city of Turaif in Diriyah, which sits just outside of Riyadh. The original home of the Saud family, Diriyah boasts not only historical and political importance, but also religious: it was the backdrop to the Expedition of Muhammad ibn Maslamah.

Inside the Grand Mosque complex

“It was so simple and serene,” said Badran, “and I just wanted to have a feeling of place. I also wanted a sense of this innovative culture that once accepted the harsh climate and came up with ways to cooperate with the environment.”

Upon returning to his base in Jordan, he would devise a design concept for the three buildings in Riyadh that would reflect a dialogue with history. After submitting his proposal, the authorities informed him he had won two out of the three buildings, and that he should choose the one he wanted to work on – their plan was to divide the work among three different architects. Badran chose the mosque.

“I tried to create an academic study, not just architectural plans,” Badran explained about his design. “And the Arriyadh Development Authority liked how we proceeded and visualised the whole design. Those sketches were published in many books later on – so the work became well known before the building was even built.”

Established in June of 1974, the Arriyadh Development Authority (ADA) has been largely responsible for the urban, social and cultural development of Riyadh – and has, across the decades, overseen the capital’s largest projects.

“The ADA has won six Aga Khan Awards, and among them is my work. No other Arab city compares,” said Badran. “King Salman is very cultural – he reads a lot and has many archives about the old city. At that time, he had showed us what he liked, which was often more about a feeling of heritage. And I came to understand that feeling.”

According to Badran, the leader of the ADA had suggested that he handle not only the mosque design but also the governor’s palace. “So we did,” said Badran. “And the mosque won the Aga Khan Award in 1995.”

Badran designed the Great Mosque of Riyadh with the spatial character of the local Najdi architectural idiom, without directly copying it. The large complex consists of a group of buildings behind limestone-clad walls, punctuated by traditional elements, such as gates and tall, square minarets. Within the complex, columns, courtyards and narrow passageways reflect the Gulf’s traditional spatial experience. Creating a dialogue between the past and present, the mosque’s walls also feature triangular openings in patterned formations that filter light and resemble vernacular building practices.

Later written about by Charles Jencks, an American architect and architectural historian, as well as the renowned critic who first defined post-modernism in architecture, the Great Mosque of Riyadh was only the beginning of Badran’s ongoing relationship with Riyadh. The project was followed up with the King Abdul Aziz Historical Centre.

Before and after shots of the King Abdul Aziz Historic Centre, built from 1996-1999

“It was 1997, and the authorities told me I wouldn’t be invited to compete because I had already been given too much work and it wouldn’t be fair,” said Badran. “So they held a competition and invited other architecture firms to participate and they asked me to be a jury member. We spent five days going over the submissions, but we couldn’t find a project worth being awarded. There was one submission by Canadian firm Moriyama & Teshima, but it wasn’t completely appropriate. So we told the director of the ADA that we couldn’t find a winner, but he urged us to choose because the project had to be completed by a certain date.”

Badran’s sketches for the King Abdul Aziz Historic Centre

The following day, Badran returned to Amman, but he was quickly summoned back to Riyadh. The committee had invited the dean of architecture at MIT to come review the project proposals, and Badran was invited to collaborate with an award-winning Saudi architect – “he was also my friend,” explained Badran.

“So we presented something within two days,” he added. “And the dean ended up choosing our concept, without knowing who submitted what.”

Inside the King Abdul Aziz Historic Centre

Again the client divided the work among three architects – Badran, the Saudi architect and Moriyama & Teshima. An integrated urban project, providing cultural facilities and green spaces, the core of the project is the museum, designed to be interactive and informative. The project also conserved a number of adobe houses on site and exemplars of the vernacular architecture of the region. Within two years, the historical centre was built and awarded with an American architecture award.

“When Obama came to Riyadh, they had a visitor programme and took him to the Great Mosque, palace and the historical centre,” Badran said. When asked if he ever feels proud, he answered quickly: “I never allow myself,” and he waved his hand in the air. He continued: “And this brings us to our last project – Diriyah, where the Saud family comes from.”

The Bujeiri Development

The client asked for a proposal to revitalise the living quarter that’s located just opposite the mud city in Diriyah, visited by Badran years earlier. Known as the Bujeiri development, Badran would come to design a massive project surrounded by tall, slim palm trees and a wadi. With the weather slightly cooler in Diriyah, which sits on the outskirts of Riyadh, it has long been a popular destination for family picnickers, said Badran.

Designed and executed between 2007 and 2015, Bujeiri features an unprecedented morphological concept in the Middle East – the slanted roof is considered a public plaza, and it offers views of the nearby ancient mud city.

The Bujeiri Development

With Dar Al-Omran offices in Amman, Riyadh and Dubai, Badran has worked across the region. And in addition to his buildings, he can often be found engaging with architectural initiatives, academic programmes and artistic exhibitions co-hosted with his family and children. With modesty seemingly in his blood (“Sometimes, I can be lazy with awards – I never submit”), Badran’s passion for not only the built environment, but also the history and culture of the Arab world, with all of its layers and nuances, is contagious, and has inspired generations of Arab architects.

Badran is currently working on a number of confidential cultural projects across the GCC, particularly in the UAE, and of course, Saudi Arabia. Up for an award by the Society of Egyptian Architects for his achievement and contributions to art and architecture, to be announced this coming March, Badran is still at the peak of his career.

“It’s an ongoing relationship,” he said of his work in Saudi Arabia. “But I guess I will have to keep entering competitions,” he laughed.

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