Spatial Awareness

A Multi-Island Oasis Springs Up on Riyadh’s Ever-Expanding Horizon

Rolling lawns, shady expanses, and ample amenities make Riverwalk a destination for the growing city’s millions of young people.

Credit (all images): Cass Calder Smith

America may have officially declared the mall to be dead, but Riyadh’s denizens clearly see things differently. The Saudi Arabian capital and financial epicenter is ballooning into a beacon of the mall’s cultural potential, thanks in some part to the country’s ambitious Vision 2030 program, which is promoting businesses of all scales to diversify the economy, according to architect Cass Calder Smith. The city’s population includes millions of young people, and in the Taawan district, where the architect’s eponymous firm recently completed the Riverwalk hub for shopping, dining, and gathering, “two-thirds of the population is under 30 and seek unique experiences and exceptional places to go,” Smith tells Surface. With that in mind, the firm designed Riverwalk as a park first, while the surrounding architecture is  a modernist twist on tent markets to provide shade throughout the day.

Here, we take a closer look at the project. 

Firm: Cass Calder Smith Architecture

Practice Location: New York City and San Francisco

Instagram: @casscaldersmith_ai 

Key Players: Design principals Cass Calder Smith and Taylor Lawson.

What was the vision behind Riverwalk?

Conceptually, Riverwalk is an oasis in the desert surrounded by tents with poles. In reality, it’s a park surrounded by distinctive buildings. It has become an instant landmark that balances public social space and granular commercial uses. It’s designed equally as a unique daytime and evening destination for locals to walk to for frequent enjoyment, as well as for interested experience-seekers from other neighborhoods.

Which colors and materials are central to the visual identity?

The buildings are off-white with smooth plaster for a modernist and sculpted appearance in the bright natural light, while also establishing shade for comfort. They are a variety of geometric shapes with solid walls, voids, columns, and glass to facilitate commerce like a town that has developed over time. These shapes contrast with the neighborhood’s primarily earth-colored, boxy, and introverted multi-unit residential buildings

What stands out to you the most now that you’ve finished it?

It’s fully leased, so commercially it has been very successful. The common open space of grass and water is used as a public space for the neighborhood, which was always the plan. It’s both a retail destination and gathering space. It contributes a very important sense of place to the community. There are no large anchor tenants or any ‘big box’ stores. All of the spaces are small and accommodate new retail and restaurant establishments. This results in  granular development and serves a range of shoppers. 

Another reason for the project’s success is the creative collaboration with our knowledgable client. As a well-traveled, knowledgable Saudi Arabian who grew up in Riyadh, his knowledge of what would work in the city was essential.

What were your references of inspiration?

The open space anchored the design and was inspired by small parks with shared spaces for people, landscaping, and water. The water is a reference to a desert oasis and is based on the precious, calm, and refreshing nature of water in the desert. The legacy of this is the Andalusian-style gardens that are respites from the hot and dry climates.

The surrounding buildings are aimed inward and also outward at the city. Pedestrian-scale gaps between some of the buildings afford numerous ways to enter that are related to passageways in old cities. This established a range of facades, shapes, and varying degrees of porosity. The white geometric forms with large overhangs are related to past and present Mediterranean buildings.

Can you share a favorite detail or two?

The body of water’s islands are the focus and common denominator. Also, the numerous white columns, especially the angled ones.

What provided a welcome distraction on the job?

My favorite movie of all time is Lawrence of Arabia, so now being able to design buildings in the Kingdom connects me to the film and what I found attractive about it. This movie exhibits a noted range of cinematography: from large scale events to small details. This also inspired the design process.

Can you tell us about your next project on the horizon?

We have a modernist high-density mixed-use commercial development called Nahdah under construction for the same client in Riyadh. It’s inspired by the historic medinas in Middle Eastern and North African cities. 

At the same time, we’re finishing the design of two larger projects. The first, called The Strand, is the size of three football fields and based on Middle Eastern souks. The second is the size of five football fields and contains five shaded, waterside piazzas with eleven buildings and a parking structure. We’re also designing several custom homes for private clients in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Napa, New York City, and the Hamptons. 

Cass Calder Smith Architecture and Interiors is a member of The List , the destination for all things Surface -approved. Want to join The List ? Contact our team to find out how to apply.



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