The fight to save Saudi Arabia’s modern architecture
A year ago, an elegant white mosque in Jeddah, with a blue-topped minaret and an active congregation, was due to be demolished. For three months, jackhammers hacked its dome, revealing the rich golden calligraphy inside, when calls began to stop the destruction. Local and international architectural practices wrote letters of complaint, and there were rumors that the Saudi Culture Ministry had intervened to save the 1980s building. But last month, the Al Rabooa Mosque was razed to the ground, leaving a pile of rubble that will soon be transported to build a new, larger place of worship.
Although he was unable to save Al Rabooa, the one-year story shows changing perceptions around 1970s and 1980s architecture in the Gulf. New initiatives seek to create more robust mechanisms for the conservation of modernist and post-modernist buildings.
Much of the urban environment was built during the second oil boom of the 1980s, when architects flocked to the Gulf to set up housing, mosques, administrative buildings, and shopping centers for growing cities. Many were part of the non-aligned movement, coming from neighboring countries like Syria and Iraq. Other architectures were part of the tradition of Arab-influenced modernism, such as the Al Rabooa Mosque, which the architect Abdul Wahid Al-Wakeel studied under the direction of the famous Egyptian modernist Hassan Fathi.
Most of this backstory goes unnoticed; many of these buildings are now sitting with crumbling facades or internal systems such as air conditioning or lighting that have stopped working. In the current construction boom in Arabia, it seems easier to tear them down and rebuild.
“There is an urgent need to document things and value architecture that people may not perceive in high esteem,” says Nujoud Al-Sudairy, who is part of the Saudi Architecture collective. “Part of it is about realizing and documenting things before they go away, as we live in a world dominated by real estate developments and private stakeholders.”
Saudi architecture formed last year in Riyadh to advocate for greater conservation of buildings from the 1970s and 1980s and to create an archive of endangered buildings.
“We want to document the existing architecture at a time of rapid redevelopment,” she continues. “We have seen such a leap forward in all of the Gulf countries in terms of construction and architecture. It is therefore important to recognize important projects and the people behind them, as well as the socio-economic mode by which they materialized.
Saudi Arabia has conservation laws, but in practice conservation mainly concerns buildings perceived as national heritage, such as the 18th century Salwa Palace in Ad Diriyah. As construction proliferates under the new Saudi economic plan, many structures from the 80s and 90s are demolished without much discussion.
The four members of Saudi Architecture come from a range of fields: Al-Sudairy and Sarah Al-Issa run an architectural firm, Syn Architects, in Riyadh. Photographer Mansor Alsufi documents the sites the group has set aside for research and Felwa Albraik takes care of the graphic design of the project. Through open calls and events, they are also building a larger network across the country.
Their work is part of a larger grassroots effort among a younger generation in the Persian Gulf, who appreciates the buildings of the 1970s and 1990s both formally and as buildings of their youth. In Jeddah, the architectural firm HAK helped lead efforts to save Al Rabooa. In the United Arab Emirates, the Sharjah Art Foundation restored the city’s iconic flying saucer, dating from the 1970s, and seized the Khorfakkan cinema in the eastern emirate, from 1978. The architect Todd Reisz and collector and art historian Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi also documents Sharjah modernism and postmodernism in their upcoming book Building Sharjah, and a new Sharjah Architectural Triennial was launched, paying greater attention to discipline. In Abu Dhabi, the Bauhaus-inspired Cultural Foundation, from 1981, was also saved from alleged demolition and was restored and reopened in 2019.
Despite a few years of delay, Saudi Arabia is catching up in terms of conservation. Al-Sudairy claims that the Ministry of Culture has taken over Erqah Hospital on the outskirts of Riyadh. The facade of the 1987 structure, which housed Kuwaitis during the first Gulf War, is now partially covered in graffiti, and Saudi Architecture says it will be restored by the ministry.
And the private Misk Art Institute restored the 1980s Prince Faisal bin Fahd Arts Hall for its flagship building, on a project that Al-Sudairy was the architect.
“It’s not an easy process,” Al-Sudairy says of the renovation. “But these buildings just need some attention.”