Bahrain's striking Al Dana Amphitheatre exists very much as part of the surrounding environment.
Located in the desert in Sakhir, in the island's Southern Governorate where the Formula One Grand Prix is held, the 10,000-seater venue is set against the backdrop of Jebel Al Dukhan, which translates to Mountain of Smoke and is the country’s highest point.
Seamless and dynamic, Al Dana Amphitheatre feels like a natural part of the site and was deliberately created as such.
“I had a crystal clear idea of what I wanted to do even before I got the brief,” Marwan Lockman, founder and director of S/L Architects, tells The National.
“It immediately came to me. Even from my very first sketch, the design didn't change very much at all.”
After that first sketch, it took Lockman and his team six years of detailed design and 18 months of building to complete the concert hall which, since opening in 2021, has welcomed some of the region's – and world's – most famous acts.
These include Emirati singers Ahlam and Hussain Al Jassmi, musician Eric Clapton, comedian Russell Peters, Dutch DJ Tiesto, comedian Michael McIntyre, Grammy award-winning artist Bruno Mars and bands such as Kings of Leon and Imagine Dragons.
“We've been wanting a place like this in Bahrain for 40 years. We've been begging for somewhere to play music,” says Lockman, who is also a musician.
Lockman, who is of Chinese and Egyptian heritage, was born in Bahrain. He says his knowledge of the country's topography, coupled with his own experience as a performer, gave him crucial insight into how the design of the structure should work.
“I've been to shows all over the world as an avid music lover, so when the opportunity came to be able to take all that knowledge that I had and put it into this, it felt natural,” he says.
Lockman’s vision included how the structure would be built downwards into the limestone ground. This was to make the concert hall part of the landscape, make use of the materials of the desert and respect the natural surroundings.
It was also important for Lockman to reduce its carbon footprint during the building process. He did this, again, by considering the landscape and materials available in the area.
The rock used in the entrance as well as the lining of the walls of the amphitheatre are all limestone that was quarried from a hole dug to build the structure. The corporate boxes are recycled shipping containers and the material that clads the first third of the amphitheatre is recycled sheet piling.
Lockman refrained from using tiles in the public bathrooms to reduce waste and instead used concrete with an epoxy finish, which creates a tough, durable surface while appearing cohesive with the rest of the interior’s design.
The washbasins are also made from rock quarried out of the landscape and the urinals were designed by Lockman out of recycled sheet piling.
“The attention to all these elements is not about being frugal. It's intelligent building. Intelligence with simplicity,” he says.
“Simplicity in architecture is probably the hardest thing to do. The restraint is the difficult part and being able to pull it off well for a public building for 10,000 people that come in and out of it, is not easy. That's why it took six years to fine-tune.”
Al Dana Amphitheatre is also part of a larger conversation about the direction of architecture in the region, particularly in the Gulf.
The oil boom in the 1970s started the trend of building structures with no link to the environment, economy or culture, and changed the direction of the architectural language and landscape in the region.
It's only recently that the region has, collectively, begun to reclaim design ideas from the environment and immediate culture, he says.
“My big passion is trying to rediscover and revaluate what we consider local material,” he adds.
“How do we respect the environment, the culture, the climate in a way that's appropriate, that can make the buildings timeless.”
Al Dana Amphitheatre was completed in March of 2019 but its opening was postponed for two years owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“No one saw it for almost two years, no one even knew it existed,” Lockman laughs.
“So here it is the greatest achievement of my life, and I couldn’t even speak about it for two years. I was losing my mind.”
However, when it did open its doors for its first concert in November 2021, for Bahraini-Saudi singer Rashed Al Majed, Lockman was there. He has since attended almost every show.
“At that first show, I was sitting there in the audience and I wasn’t seeing what was going on stage,” he says. “I was looking back at the 9,000 people behind me, smiling and enjoying it.
"That was the first time when I thought: 'Wow, finally – this is special'.”