Some of the most prevalent structures found everywhere around Al Ula are walled date plantations, usually rectangular in shape with large, centrally aligned gates.
With palm tree crowns peaking above the sand-colored walls, we can imagine the refreshing shade within, a place where one could rest from the surrounding arid desert. Not far from Al Ula is Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site for its rock-cut monumental tombs. The most significant of these are decorated in an eclectic weave of architectural styles in precisely cut sandstone columns, arches, and cornices: fine examples of delicate design and incredible craftsmanship. Interior space is usually a clear, carved void defined by the mass of cut stone – and by Meda’in Saleh’s siq there is an intriguing traditional dining hall lined by three benches for holding annual banquets.
The Visitor Centre is a simple square building, carefully isolated at the entrance of the Hidden Canyon welcoming visitors for the first Desert X Al Ula exhibition: it offers basic amenities such as an information center and a café as well as a generously shaded courtyard and a viewing deck outside. It is a place to rest and find shelter in the open desert, while its courtyard frames views into the sky and the magnificent landscape. The few, precisely located windows create various focal points up and down the canyon and increase the contrast between the domestic and the unlimited: an expression of our scale and our relationship with nature.
The circular roof opening creates a particular atmosphere – a perfect shape framing the rocks and the sky. The two entrances into the courtyard are viewing axis extended by the transparent doors into the information centre and the café: the opposing windows in each of those spaces giving a framed view back into the desert. The moment one enters the apparently enclosed courtyard is the very moment when one sees through the building – while it’s scale and depth is made ambiguous, there is an immediate spatial and functional clarity.
The floorplan is symmetric and nondirectional with each of the two main public spaces accessed from the centre of each side of the courtyard; facilities such as restrooms, staff, and storage are located in the corner diagonal to the courtyard. The metric of the building is strict and reoccurring in all dimensions of its spaces and openings: its structural grid is simple, and the uniformly dimensioned spaces allow for the reorganizing of the structure for a future change of use.
Desert X Al Ula Visitor Centre is a modest structure, designed and rapidly built with mostly local materials, drawing from two local references: an archetypal walled garden, expressed in the ruled symmetrical geometry and enclosed appearance, and constructive clarity, with spaces appearing to be carved from a solid mass through simple subtractive operations.
Photography by Colin Robertson with courtesy of KWY.studio