published in l'Arca International n. 158
Sharaan Hotel, Al-Ula Desert, Arabie Saoudite, project: Jean Nouvel
Light-years seemed to have passed since that evening when, in the company of Alain Sarfati, Patrice Goulet and Helmut Swiczinsky from Coop Himmelb(l)au, I got the chance to meet Jean Nouvel at the official opening of the IMA. The Institute for the Arab World’s masterly handling of light, the elegance of the internal courtyard, its careful attention to its location and interaction with the River Seine, and the laser beam projecting from the very top of Notre Dame, were truly innovative back at that time.
The new project stands out for its references to Baroque set design (salvation is only possible inside the church), the theatrical use of light, a very modern rendering of the history of this land and its inhab- itants (the Nabateans), and a focus on architecture and how to reuse it. And the project also has something else to offer. It expresses itself in a seductive voice during these tragic times of great upheaval (even tougher than those wild and uncertain times Goulet referred in his book Temps Sauvage et Incertain from 1989) about a possible new way of inhabiting the Earth.
And it does so in a project interwoven with poetry. Indeed, its guidelines are set around a desire to blend in with the extraordinary natural setting of Al-Ula, a location of out- standing natural beauty due to its wild flora and fauna. With great sensitivity and delicacy, a resort has been created here that certainly is not designed for the middle classes and is inspired by the incredible beauty of the desert and its incomparable atmosphere. In order to get a proper grasp of the images used to present the project, it is worth providing some brief information about Al-Ula.
It is situ- ated about 1100 km from Riyadh in the north-west of Saudi Arabia. The area covers 22,561 m2 and includes numerous oases and valleys complete with sandstone mountains and ancient sites dating back to the days of the Nabateans. Hegra is the most famous and familiar archaeological location. A UNESCO site, the first in Saudi Arabia, it is the home of over 100 well preserved tombs decorated with elegantly patterned surfaces etched in sandstone. Current research studying the walls of this urban settlement suggest it was once an outpost of the Roman Empire after they defeated the Nabateans in battle.
Nouvel focuses on the importance of preserving such a unique landscape, stating that: “We are certainly in one of the cradles of humanity. We are in the desert... and deserts are always mysterious, eternal. Al-Ula is an open-air museum. What struck me most – archaeological considerations aside – is how the wind has shaped the rocks. As you walk around, you are overwhelmed. I have never before seen anything quite so precise.
And for me, these unusual rock forma- tions and landscapes are natural works of art. Building here is a real responsibility. The uniqueness of Sharaan is that it is an unspoiled landscape. As you climb up on high, you get a very different view of the sky and the lines of the horizon. This is what inspired my project and what it is really about.
My philosophy of design is to always work with what is already there on the site. If you are a contextualist like me, this is always how you begin. The richness of ‘everything already there’ does, indeed, come from the rock formations, inertia and underground water”. Need we add anything else? by Mario Pisani