When Saudi Arabia announced Vision 2030, a framework to end its economic reliance on oil, reform the government, invest in public sector programs like education and healthcare, develop capital markets, and grow tourism in an effort to diversify the economy, the plan was deemed hyper-ambitious. It includes a $200 billion solar farm and $500 billion smart city, dubbed Neom, spearheaded by Bjarke Ingels Group but encompassing 21 of the biggest names in architecture.
The economic hardship inflicted by plummeting oil prices and COVID-19, as well as reputational damage caused by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and other contentious international incidents, have thrown Vision 2030 in doubt. Despite the downscaling of initiatives such as the solar farm, the kingdom insists the plan is still on track.
A milestone was reached earlier this year during the 10th UN World Urban Forum, when Saudi Arabia revealed a framework to turn the northwestern city of AlUla, home to the kingdom’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, Hegra, into the world’s largest living museum and a major heritage, cultural, arts, and adventure tourism destination.
Enter Jean Nouvel, the Pritzker Prize–winning architect known for his fascination with biophilic architecture and desert landscapes, as seen in recent projects such as the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the National Museum of Qatar, whose dazzling facade of undulating discs emulates a desert rose. With the unveiling of a resort in the Sharaan Nature Reserve, Nouvel has advanced the conversation beyond biomimicry to ecological harmony.
Saudi Arabia Vision 2030
Though its human history in AlUla began more than 200,000 years ago, tourism has only been a recent aspiration. Saudi Arabia aims to host two million visitors a year to the region by 2035. “Not only have we opened our doors to travelers benefiting from Saudi Arabia’s new tourist visas, we’ve also delivered the infrastructure that is central to growth,” said Amr AlMadani, CEO of the Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), during the Urban Forum.
He cited the renovation and expansion of the Prince Abdul Majeed bin Abdulaziz Domestic Airport this past summer, and the debut of the Maraya concert hall—a mirrored cube designed by Gio Forma Studio Associato housing an immersive theater and kinetic art installations—as proof of a promising future. “We invite experts from around the world to join us on our journey, which means we learn and innovate together. We see a clear road ahead as we attract investment and continue to protect, preserve, share, and celebrate our heritage and nature with the world.”
The Sharaan by Jean Nouvel Resort, slated for completion in 2024, will instantly make AlUla host to one of the most ambitious hotel projects ever attempted.
A new type of architecture
The hotel’s design isn’t so much inspired by nature as one with it. More than one million square feet, 40 rooms, three villas, and 14 pavilions will pay tribute to the endemic Nabatean design seen in the landscape’s sandstone rock dwellings that trace back millions of years. “AlUla is a museum. Every wadi and escarpment, every stretch of sand and rocky outline, every geological and archeological site deserves the greatest consideration,” Nouvel says. “It’s vital we keep all its distinctiveness and conserve its attractiveness, which largely rests on its remote and occasionally archaic character. We have to safeguard a little mystery as well as the promise of discoveries to come.”
Taking cues from the millennia-old Nabatean way of life, Nouvel’s concept, which will draw on emission-free power and new standards in sustainability by integrating into the existing landscape, takes on a museographicalapproach. A sprawling hollow sphere acts as a grand patio and epicenter of the property. Inside, an all-glass elevator will usher guests through millions of years of geological stratum and deliver them to a cavernous great hall adorned in lattice-like moucharaby patterns on the ceiling that filter in natural light. The guest room walls follow the natural formations of the sandstone rock and balconies are crafted from finely chopped stones, a juxtaposition with modern comforts like plush furniture and other amenities.
“Our design principles will guide us as we explore new typologies that reconcile heritage alongside the subtle transformation of the existing architecture,” Nouvel says. “Our project shouldn’t jeopardize what humanity and time have consecrated—it must celebrate the Nabateans’ designs and genius without caricaturing it. This act of creation becomes a true cultural act.”