Lina Ghotmeh and Asif Khan to design two new museums in AlUla

International competition selects architects for its museums of contemporary art and the Incense Road

AlUla is set to build two new museums designed by Lina Ghotmeh and Asif Khan. Photo: Royal Commission for AlUla
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The Royal Commission for AlUla has announced Lina Ghotmeh and Asif Khan as the architects for two of its coming museums.

Ghotmeh, who curated this year’s Serpentine Pavilion in London, will design the contemporary art museum. The Lebanese-born architect is known for projects that span the intersection of art, architecture and design – pairing detailed historical research with organic influences, to visceral effect.

She told The National the project was both “meaningful and exciting”. “The AlUla landscape is truly inspiring – it is rich with the agricultural life of the oasis. The landscape is a constant witness of time with millennia-old rocks shaped by nature. Art gains a whole new perspective when intertwined with the surrounding nature and when activated by the local community.”

Meanwhile, Khan, who created the giant gateways to Expo 2020, is the architect for the museum of the Incense Road. Awarded an MBE for his services to architecture, Khan is also working on the new London Museum and the renewal of the Barbican Centre. He is known for his imaginative approach towards blending past and future, while grounding his projects in material experimentation and social context.

The architects were selected as part of an international competition by a jury, which included specialists in architecture, landscape and museology, alongside a technical panel.

Khaled Azzam, jury chairman and architect of AlUla’s Journey Through Time Masterplan, said the museums were the first of 15 cultural assets being developed as part of the plan.

“AlUla is a spectacular landscape of discovery, where heritage, works of nature and humankind combine to reveal a long and intimate relationship between people and their environment,” he said.

“This masterplan will guide the reinvigoration of AlUla, establishing a new cultural legacy including the implementation of a circular economy expected to create 38,000 new jobs.”

Arts AlUla executive director Nora Aldabal told The National: “The community and the environment both play big roles within our development – they're actually core members and stakeholders of this development.”

In March, RCU signed an agreement with France's Centre Pompidou to develop a contemporary art museum in AlUla. The two centres will pursue a reciprocal relationship based on collections, through a special relationship for museum loans, curatorial partnerships, shared museological expertise and audience development. It will also span training, education, curatorial expertise, museum management, events and exhibitions across a variety of arts and culture spaces.

During a panel discussion in Venice on Thursday, Iwona Blazwick, chair of the RCU’s public art expert panel, said the museum of contemporary art would be centred on three main collections.

“At the heart is a collection of art from the region called Three Seas, as in bodies of water – the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the eastern Mediterranean. All the regions adjoining those seas, those points of confluence and cross pollination. We're focusing on artists of the 21st century, who come from those regions or have deep, long-standing connections with them.

“The second collection is called continents. And here we'll be looking at artists from Africa, Asia, Europe, North America, Oceania, South and Central America. And we'll also be opening a desert collection of extraordinary land artworks.

“These are commissions in 65-square-kilometres of the most remarkable desert landscape I've ever seen. It was once under the Red Sea. And it's a space of canyons and golden sandstone cliffs, which have perforations and inscriptions. And the biggest sculptor in the region is the wind.”

The contemporary art museum will span an archipelago of pavilions, punctuated with a mosaic of artist-designed gardens. With a balance of interior and exterior galleries and spaces, the site will encourage visitors to create their own unique experiences of the museum’s art and wider environment.

Blazwick added: “I feel like this is a laboratory for architecture. And actually one thing that I would claim right now is that I think these are going to be the most beautiful museums in the world. Partly because of the context. If you imagine: to the east are vegetable gardens, to the west palm groves, to the north mountains, and to the south, an ancient settlement built of clay and palm fronds, where people lived without electricity until 1980.”

Ghotmeh said: “The architecture of the contemporary art museum in AlUla immerses visitors in a creative journey from the desert expanse to the lush cultural oasis of AlUla, interweaving the natural environment, agriculture and art to reveal the heart of contemporary culture.”

An adjoining series of green spaces will carefully connect with the AlUla oasis’s distinctive landscape, featuring palm groves, vegetable gardens, mountain ranges and the ancient ruins of Hegra.

“Through a series of garden pavilions, the museum presents a constant interplay between art and nature, capturing the essence of this unique place. The galleries offer surprising and anchored perspectives on the many facets of AlUla, from the microclimates of the oasis to the expanse of the desert, evoking a deep sense of attachment to the land and its heritage,” Ghotmeh added.

Meanwhile, the museum of the Incense Road is set to become the world’s first institution dedicated to the ancient network of land and sea trading routes. It celebrates AlUla’s 7,000 years of continued human history, as well as its ancient role as a place of cultural and material exchange, bridging multiple civilisations.

During the talk, Khan said for anyone who loved materials and craft, AlUla really “brings your senses alive”. He added: “And you get the feeling that the wind has sculpted all of the cliff faces in the whole region. It feels like a great work of Antoni Gaudi. I mean it's really something.

“So you could imagine that people have, over the 7,000 years, had this continuous presence of nature in their aesthetic vocabulary. And when we visited as architects, it felt like a very natural thing to add and explore to that language, you feel like there's a chapter in that book waiting to be written.”

Through a multidisciplinary approach, the museum of the Incense Road will aim to shed light on the ways in which ideas and goods were exchanged through AlUla, presenting north-west Arabia as a crucial cultural epicentre. It will spotlight some of the region’s most fascinating discoveries, as well as the continuing excavations taking place, illuminating its role along the storied Incense Road.

The museum of the Incense Road will be developed in conversation with Saudi Arabia’s first Unesco World Heritage Site, Hegra, as well as the village of AlJadidah. It is envisioned as an extension of the urban fabric, which overlooks a vista where the ancient cities of Dadan and Hegra sit. The institution will be developed with an extensive network of local and international specialists across the fields of academia and museology.

Reflecting on the project, Khan said: “AlUla resonated with me deeply as did the local community members I met. The design takes the form of a public space – not a museum within walls – situated in AlJadidah village with galleries and spaces for sensory experiences and learning.

“The mountains are a constant background, whose sand dunes reach down to greet the edges of the museum, while stepped terraces of gardens act as a new interface between the village and the oasis.

I am excited about how the museum of the Incense Road can be brought into the collective memory of the world, and become a transformative asset for the local community,” he added.

Helen McGauran, heritage curatorial expert at RCU told The National: “We are thrilled to be working with Asif Khan to realise the ambition and intention for the museum of the Incense Road in AlUla.

“A museum for the 21st century, it will be a dynamic forum of exhibition, learning and recreation, that celebrates AlUla's legacy at the centre of the Incense Road story. This vital oasis was at the heart of a thriving network of routes that once connected the ancient world, from southern Arabia north to Egypt, Rome, the Levant, Mesopotamia and beyond.

“Here, the hallmarks of different civilisations are still being discovered, and understood, thanks to continued programmes of archaeology and research.”

She said that artefacts from AlUla's own history would be placed alongside those from other places, to “tell those stories of connectivity that we really want to get across.” She explained: “We've got a very active programme of archaeology and ongoing discovery, so the museum will have to be quite flexible and nimble to respond to that. You find one great discovery as an archaeologist and it changes the story.”

Both museums aim to consider how to reduce the environment impact of building cultural spaces, and promote not just AlUla’s cultural heritage, but conservation and community engagement.

McGauran added: “I think in the West we understand a museum as a certain thing and that's something that we're very much trying to question. These shouldn't be museums that could be anywhere else, they have to be of AlUla.”

Updated: May 18, 2023, 11:53 AM