Having designed 10 buildings in the King Abdullah Financial District (KAFD), architectural firm FXFOWLE Architects is certainly setting the stage for upcoming developments on the 1.6 million m2 site, situated in Riyadh, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
Ranging from mosques and museums to residential and office buildings, the New York-based firm was handpicked by Saudi Arabian real estate developer, Rayadah Investment Company, to deliver contemporary design solutions across its various projects.
However, designing for a diverse Islamic country meant that the architectural team needed to educate themselves to understand the cultural and religious nuances that define the culture of Riyadh.
Amongst the first things Sudhir Jambhekar did when he found out they were designing a mosque in KAFD, was to send two architects to gather information from the imam at New York City’s largest mosque.
“We had to undertake an intense research process in order to be able to philosophically understand meanings and the importance of certain rituals. From there we could attempt to present a modern re-interpretation in our designs,” explains Jambhekar, senior partner at FXFOWLE.
Upon discovering that purity was a key tenet of Islamic faith, the team chose to pursue a design for the mosque that communicated values of simplicity by having it project a pure form. The end result was a rectilinear structure made from Macedonia Bianca Sivec pure white marble, similar in quality to the material used for constructing the Sheikh Zayed Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Occupying a space of 1650m2 the mosque is expected to be completed next year.
In addition, the design team was also inspired by a passage from the Quran in which God “placed his throne on water and then created the world,” and translated that by having the mosque overlook a reflecting pool.
“I come from a school of thinking that believes it is very important for us to represent our own time as designers and human beings. For that, we have to interpret cultural and religious traditions such that its deeper meaning is retained while showcasing a fresh and modern design,” says Jambhekar during the interview at FXFOWLE ‘s headquarters in New York City. “We are all trying to preserve our culture but at the same time we are all part of the global world.”
While the entire goal of the KAFD is to create a modern environment to live, work and be entertained, the designers realised that modernity in Saudi Arabia manifested itself in different ways compared to the West. “The whole sensibility on privacy in the Middle East is very different. We have to consider these differences but yet deliver a project that presents a contemporary language of architecture,” says Jambhekar.
For example, when designing the residential and commercial towers on plot 5.05, one of the seven plots that FXFOWLE designed for, the architects were especially sensitive to the cross views that could arise from having the towers located at close proximity to each other.
According to Jambhekar, the placement of the plot was such that the office building would look into the residential building. After a series of design innovations, the designers decided to have the building’s façade fitted with a thin layer of marble laminated on a panel of vision glass so as to direct views away from the residential building.
As a result, on-lookers in the commercial building will be able to see a translucent wall on one end instead of peering into the residential units.
Furthermore, as Jambhekar explains, the Spanish-manufactured laminated marble glass adds a natural radiance to the building’s interior.
“It is like the translucent and glowing effect experienced when standing inside the Taj Mahal. The only difference is that for this building we innovated the technology so that we use only a thin strip of marble to deliver a similar effect.”
To mitigate the effects of high temperature, the team incorporated shading devices into the façade and angled its form to increase the shaded area of the building. The buildings are also connected by air-conditioned skywalks and atriums with water features so as to create a cooling urban experience.
Given the site’s desert location, the architects were determined to maximise daylight for all their developments.
To achieve this, while at the same time control solar heat gain, the design team used specialized software to simulate the effects of orientationand individual architectural elements.
“Apart from designing with respect to cultural sensitivity and climatic constraints, the team had to constantly challenge themselves to meet the high aspirations of their client.
“In the Middle East, clients want their buildings faster, bigger and better,” explains Jambhekar.
“Contrary to what the West perceives, people there are far more informed than I expected.”
While Middle Eastern expectations and aspirations might seem exaggerated and superfluous to some, for Jambhekar, it was one of the best scenarios to be working in.
He says: “For an architect, if the client has aspiration, a willingness to explore and experiment, commitment to doing good quality work and has a project typology they are venturing into, it is an ideal situation to be working in.”
To ensure that the high expectations were met and delivered in a timely manner, FXFOWLE relied on its global pool of consultants to work collaboratively on its various projects, despite the difference in times zones when it came to communication.
Citing the example of the Musuem of the Built Environment, one of FXFOWLE’s projects in KAFD, Jambhekar explains: “While the project was based in Riyadh, we had people working on it from the United States, China, France, Germany, United Kingdom and India. ”
Although all the architects for the KAFD project were based in New York City instead of being in the Middle East, Jambhekar explains that the arrangement worked to the advantage of both the architects and the client.
“We are able to better serve them because the quality of staff we get here is better and they are also more informed of the project, hence enabling delivery of a more unified service.”