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Does the race to modernize Saudi put its architectural history at risk?

Abdullah AlKhorayef warns of preserving historical and cultural buildings during rapid modernisation

I wonder if you feel like I do, that we are always either chasing time. Or being chased by it. It can be enough to put in you a state of permanent transit – neither here nor there. We feel it sometimes with age, we are neither young nor old. We feel we haven’t really started life and we certainly haven’t finished it. I’m fascinated with this particular type of time, the reason is, and I have often lived my life in the in-between.

When listening to the audiobook of Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, one particular description of the main character stuck with me. It describes an old prince in a fictional city in Italy during the time of Italian unification and his emotions during the time of transition from multiple kingdoms & principalities to one unified country. The prince sees a new generation embracing a new world while he is too old to participate in the change. He has lost his status. He walks around his ancestral palace – derelict and crumbling, a sign of a different time. This palace, like him, has no place in the future of Italy. This building became in a state of transit—neither old enough to be in the past nor able to move into the future.

In Saudi Arabia, we are living through the making of history, a time of transition, rapid change, and exciting possibilities, toward Vision 2030. But we are not there yet, we are on the journey. We are in transit. And many beautiful houses, public buildings, and government projects are like this palace in The Leopard. They are wondering what their role is today, in a decade and beyond.

One of the things that fill me with pride about the cultural movement happening in Saudi Arabia at the moment is the preservation of historical and cultural buildings – from Diriyah Gate development to the magical AlUla. The boutique hotel group restored old royal palaces to the development of JAX warehouse as an art district. However, most of these projects are of very old sites. Their preservation is not up for debate. What interests me are the buildings that are not old enough to be considered heritage, nor modern enough to serve an obvious function. The architecture of the 1970s and 1980s is the architecture that is neither here nor there. It was a time of optimism when new designs were entering Saudi Arabia—1970’s modernist factories, educational institutions, neighborhood planning, and public parks. A time of, excess, wealth, and monumental buildings. Buildings like the King Khalid international airport, the Saudi Central Bank buildings, and many ministries. Those buildings represented the future of Saudi Arabia at that time. International architects from all over the world designed for this booming nation. It was the first-time modern architecture took inspiration from local architecture. A post-modernist Arabic aesthetic was born. A wonderful example is a small building by the late architect Nabil Fanous which housed the Saudi Holandi Bank in the Diplomatic Quarter. The building was thankfully renovated by the Ministry of Culture and now houses art collections, turning it into a cultural destination.

The sad thing is many of these early modern-era buildings, especially houses and ordinary family residences are being demolished. They’re the ones I want to advocate for. These houses and palaces speak of a time of abundance when families flew in with international architects to design their homes. The designs were experimental, extravagant, new, and impeccably constructed and finished.

At this point, I should explain why I care about any of this. I often say I’m a designer, an artist, or a writer. All of which is true. But the secret I hide is that I’m a real estate developer. And I’m good at my job. As a developer, I do understand the reasoning behind demolishing to start a more efficient project. It’s easier and maybe even more profitable. However, the culture is craving authenticity. The government also supports it. If we stop for a moment and look at these buildings individually with open minds, possibilities will suddenly emerge. Yes, these structures are too big for modern families, costly to run, and in need of major refurbishment. But they are incredibly well-built and can find new lives as cultural spaces, apartments, offices, clinics, restaurants, coffee shops, libraries, studios, beauty centers, schools, and hotels. You get the idea. We should not dismiss the stories of these buildings. They have stories built into them – getting the public to use them will be easy.

I would also argue from a development point of view that it would be cheaper and quicker. How do I know? Because I’ve worked on projects that prove it. Of course, there are challenges, mostly some government regulations of the plot usages and parking spaces, but what project is worth doing that doesn’t have a challenge?

Allowing a second life to these buildings will make our cities more diverse and unique places, places where people and communities will interact. Greek artist Angelo Plessas, who recently completed an artist residency in Riyadh’s JAX District, says “Physical interaction is such a luxury now.” He’s right. I was able to meet him and call him a friend because JAX was redeveloped into an area for human interaction.

Our built environment is always in a state of transit. Its usage should change and evolve every few decades. It happens all over the world. Take the Kodak Theater in Los Angeles which was renovated with the entire neighborhood around it. Now it's home to the Oscars and global entertainment. We could do something similar for the Red Sea Film Festival. (Which by the way I’m still hoping to receive a ticket for 2024, I think I have time to work on it.

It’s time to embrace the kind of old along with the very old that already has a place in our hearts. However, you look at, the state of transit these buildings are in represents the state of transit we are in. Taking care of them is taking care of us.



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