Layali Diriyah Is Challenging Perceptions of Saudi Arabia

Designlab Experience has transformed a palm farm into a pop-up of architectural (and social) potential. Our contributor writes from Riyadh.

Credit (all photos): Roberto Conte x Designlab Experience

How does change happen? On a balmy Friday night, I stood in a crowded and slightly chaotic parking lot. Before me, an elegant tunnel beckoned. Its structure of metal beams arched into the air, somewhere between scaffolding and a tropical canopy. Once through, a world opened up that only weeks ago seemed inconceivable.

The architecture and creative firm Designlab Experience (DLE)—and the Saudi Arabia Ministry of Sport—had invited me to visit its latest feat of engineering and imagination. Operated in collaboration with local production company Blink ExperienceLayali Diriyah is a 269,000-square-foot open-air installation of art and commerce, woven through a palm farm just outside the walls of the UNESCO-protected Al-Turaif district in Riyadh.

I wrestled with the invitation. I had my American understanding of the country’s human rights records, particularly relevant to me as a queer person. I also had an impression of DLE co-founder Hibah Albakree, who I had met for coffee in New York City a few months ago, as a remarkably accomplished and ambitious woman in an industry, globally, that has work to do in achieving equity for women and other minorities.

Last year, DLE designed scenography for a high-profile Emirati wedding: the bride walked down a reflective catwalk as if on water, within rows of Azuma Makoto sculptures featuring 28 botanicals confined in thick ice blocks. In 2019, Albakree, with DLE co-founder Mootassem El Baba and architect Marwan Maalouf, created an intervention of wire mesh and cork across the ruins of Riyadh’s At-Turaif Fort with Italy’s Studio Studio Studio; the result was somewhere between historical reenactment and Gordon Matta-Clark. If the point of design is to build out the possible, I wanted to see what might be possible today. So I accepted.

Layali Diriyah is open until Feb. 22 as part of the Diriyah Season annual celebration in and of the birthplace of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Elevated wood walkways snake through the site without interrupting the palm farm irrigation system; lights on delicate straps illuminated the path without damaging the trees. Light and shadows are central: 20,000 twinkling lights shine upon 3,000 laser-cut roses. In a farmhouse near the entrance, Dutch designers Vendel & deWolf installed Celestial Time Dust, a blazing swirl of orange LEDs. Studio Toer had two bright ideas: a series of lights that skitter across glistening artificial ponds like leaping fish, and motion-detecting light clouds that form playful iterations of wayfinding.

Deeper inside, treehouses designed by Bangkok’s Atelier 2+ Studio enclose clothing and perfume boutiques. Rope structures and latticework create semi-private spaces for dining, including Japanese, Lebanese, and Italian options, that compliment the boardwalk’s elegant carts for Saudi specialities. Visitors—there have been thousands each night—often spend hours here, wandering and drinking tea and bumping into friends.

“It’s become a scene for people watching and for new behaviors,” Albakree says. The restaurants are popular with women, who arrive in large groups. As the night progressed, women of many backgrounds ate, mingled, gossiped, and shopped. In Layali Diriyah, DLE (with the country’s aid) set a stage for a kind of global cosmopolitanism—part food hall, part art fair, part shopping mall, part flaneur ramble—to launch local businesses.

A harpist plucked her strings on a stage, vanishing after two minutes. “It’s like a ghost,” Albakree says. “You don’t know when she’ll reappear.” Perhaps she reflects DLE’s own quick-change artistry—it built Layali Diriyah in three weeks. A month from now, the lights will come down and the protected site will reappear unchanged, yet charged with potential.

The city is changing quickly, but not fast enough for many. Albakree believes the ephemerality of DLE’s architecture lets them create experiences people think aren’t possible. They may also complicate outsiders’ ideas of the city. “People are trapped in the cliches of their impressions of Saudi from five, six, seven years ago,” Albakree told me over lunch, sighing with exasperation. “They will not let those stories go.” Meanwhile, she’s already onto the next project: changing the location of DLE’s headquarters from Dubai to booming Riyadh.

“The world is changing so fast,” Albakree says. “People are learning to enjoy what we have. And I love that we are living our life to the max in our own country.”

From Layali Diriyah to the inaugural Islamic Biennale in Jeddah, the Andy Warhol Foundation’s lending of work for the AlUla Arts Festival to the massive The Line development in Neom, Saudi Arabia is becoming a major creative hotbed. Whether this will foster further equality for the country’s women, LGBTQ, and labor forces—or paper over the problems—remains an open question. It’s one we should ask in projects everywhere.

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