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Sat 12 Dec 2009 04:00 AM

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Inspiring culture

The King Abdulaziz Centre for Knowledge and Culture is a project of inspiring architecture destined to become Saudi Arabia's preeminent cultural institution.

Inspiring culture
Inspiring culture
A steam water feature next to the tower and below the “keystone” pebble. (MIR)
Inspiring culture
The Great Hall will cover 1500m2 and be a venue for major exhibitions and receptions. Its inner skin consists of double curved, perforated metal panels. (MIR)
Inspiring culture
A mock up of the stainless steel tube external façade. (GIG Fassaden)

The King Abdulaziz Centre for Knowledge and Culture is a project of inspiring architecture destined to become Saudi Arabia's preeminent cultural institution.

Situated near Dhahran on the eastern coast of Saudi Arabia, the King Abdulaziz Centre for Knowledge and Culture is a project relatively small in size, but big on innovation, ambition and unique design.

The centre is estimated to cost around US $400 million (SR 1.4 billion) and is being developed by Saudi Aramco as part of the oil giant's 75th anniversary celebrations.

Aramco says the purpose of the centre is to promote the development of knowledge and culture in the Kingdom by offering an array of exhibits, events and learning tools that engage and educate students, adults and scholars.

Covering a total of 70,000m2 it will include a library of 200,000 books, a 930 seat auditorium, a 315 seat cinema, a 1500m2 hall, a museum, a learning centre, a children's discovery zone, a 4,000m2 multifunctional plaza and supporting administration areas.

The main construction tender for the project was opened at the beginning of the year with four firms prequalified; Saudi Binladin Group, Saudi Oger, Athens-based Consolidated Contractors Company (CCC) and Turkey's Baytur Construction & Contracting Company.

By the middle of the year Aramco retendered the contract and included more contractors in the bidding process such as Dubai's Gulf Technical Construction Company (GTCC).The bids are currently being evaluated and main construction is due to start in Q2 2010 and finish in 2013.


One of the most striking features of the centre is without doubt its unique pebble-like shapes, which were designed by Norwegian architects Snohetta with engineering by Buro Happold.

Snohetta's project manager Astrid Renata Van Veen says they wanted to come up with a one-off piece of architecture to reflect the centre's cultural purpose.

"It's important that a cultural building has its own expression and doesn't lend images from any other known cultural buildings around the world," she says.

"The client had very clear aspirations for a never-before-seen-building. The idea of the pebbles came into play because the project has a lot of different functions and we thought each of these should get their own outlook. These individual items are then composed together in one frozen moment."

There are five main pebble shaped structures which are arranged to visually and physically support each other, she added. One of the most visually interesting elements is the ‘keystone' which is the only pebble suspended above ground level.

Wedged between the tower and another pebble, the keystone is a key element in the geometry of the pebble composition. The function of the keystone will be as a public ‘dialog, discussion and contemplative space' linked to the library.

The tower itself will be 86m high with 17 floors and three below-grade levels. The various levels will include plant rooms, the learning centre and restaurants and lounge areas.

Underneath the tower, linking all of the pebbles is the 4,000m2 plaza at grade level. The space will function as a large foyer and channel visitors to the various cultural elements.

Van Veen says one advantage to designing the project was that many of the centre's different elements, such as the theatre, cinema, library, exhibition space, museum et cetera do not require large amounts of natural light."That is one of the reasons why we chose introverted shapes like pebbles," she says.

"There are quite a lot of introverted functions in this project which means we didn't have to worry about windows and conventional function - it allowed us play around a lot more with the shapes and design.

"The tower is probably the only place where these rules of conventional function applied."

While the design and the shape and the project may be unique, Van Veen says construction will be relatively conventional for the most part.

The tower will be built using a concrete core containing lifts, stairs, shafts and MEP while the other pebbles will use steel structures. The walls for all pebbles will be constructed using insulated wall systems, which will be faceted to follow the curves of the pebble's unique external facade.

The façade

This bespoke external façade is made from stainless steel tubes and is the secret to the distinctive smooth metallic look of the project. The tubes are 76.1mm in diameter and will be wrapped around the pebbles with a constant 9mm gap in between.

"Imagine wrapping a piece of string around a ball - that's the concept," says Snohetta architect Peter French.

"There is about 350km of pipe in total. Each pipe starts at an opening and keeps on going until it meets another pipe and then they turn away from each other. The pattern itself is self-generating."

French says the tubes will be pre-bent to follow the shape of the pebble using information extracted from a highly accurate computer model.

Where there are windows in the buildings, he says the steel tubes will be squashed thin to allow for a clear line of sight.

"The squashed pipes will be similar to louvers, in that you will be able to direct them to various points in order to control the view," says French.

"They are also a terrific shading element for the windows."

Aside from the aesthetic benefits, the stainless steel façade will also serve a very important function as a ventilated solar shield against the harsh Saudi Arabian sun.

French explains that the metallic surface will deflect a ‘substantial amount' of solar gain and any built up heat will be naturally flushed out due to a 300mm cavity between the steel tubing façade and the inner facetted wall of the pebble.

The result of such a façade will be to drastically lower the air conditioning requirements of the buildings and thus the electricity consumption - a contributing factor in achieving a LEED rating for the project.

French says Aramco is aiming for a LEED gold environmental rating which will be achieved by implementing environmentally friendly design and construction techniques, efficient energy use and optimum building performance.

Project snapshot

• The project is developed by Saudi Aramco and designed by Snohetta

• Main construction is due to start in Q2 2010 and finish in 2013

• The total site covers 70,000m2

• Project includes a library, auditorium, cinema, hall, museum, learning centre, children's discovery zone and plaza

• The central tower will be 86m high with 17 floors and three below-grade levels.

• The façade of stainless steel tubing will act as a ventilated solar shield to substantially reduce the heat load on the building

• The centre is striving for a LEED gold environmental rating