At first glance, you think it’s an illusion. At times you see it, at times you don’t. The desert often plays tricks with your perception. It’s only once you are closer you realise that it’s an incredible mirrored building right in the heart of the desert–the Maraya Concert Hall in AlUla, the largest mirrored building ever constructed according to the Guiness Book of World Records.
Maraya was the first project to be developed for the Journey Through Time Masterplan aimed at turning AlUla, KSA into a living museum and sharing its cultural legacy with the world. “The first brief from the client was to have a complex able to host concerts and events in an area of enormous archaeological and scenic value; a valley in the region of AlUla surrounded by the presence of ruins from the Nabataean Empire and 200,000 years of heritage,” explains architect Florian Boje, Founder, Gio Forma.
For the architects, the task at hand was to figure out how to build in such a beautiful and meaningful place. “We wondered how to establish a relationship between the construct and the existing in the most respectful way possible.” The biggest challenge for the architects was to create in a pristine territory that is being developed and discovered from a cultural point of view. And how could one compete with the surreal landscape of AlUla.
“In order to do a service to the territory, creating a ‘site-specific landmark’ was key. So came the idea of the mirror (‘Maraya’ means mirror/reflection in Arabic). If a building cannot compete with the landscape, it should enhance it; thus, the building becomes a theatre for what surrounds it,” explains the architect.
Maraya is in constant dialogue with its context, history, and future. For the architects, that aim was to add something to the past, not replace it. In 2019-20, Maraya became a permanent architecture and land art installation, a keystone participant in the cultural process of this area.
Responding to Site-specific Challenges
Constructing with glass in the middle of the desert wasn’t an easy proposition. The architects had to find materials that could withstand the harsh terrain and extreme climatic conditions. The challenge at hand was to find a material that would enhance the landscape without exacerbating the harsh weather. Boje worked with US-based company Guardian Glass to create the perfect material for the cladding.
“There was an extensive study on the selection of the mirror to arrive at a level of reflection and brilliance that would maintain a high level of fidelity to the AlUla colours within the surrounding landscape. A total of 3,000 pre-tempered panels were manufactured locally by Guardian Glass, which adapted its highly durable UltraMirror product to withstand harsh conditions like wind, sandstorms and extreme temperature fluctuations,” explains Boje.
The mirror façade was a challenge due to the coplanarity of the various panels, which need air passages and space since they tend to expand in high temperatures. To maintain the most visual uniformity possible, there was an extensive study on the joints between the tiles and the effect that this varying material was going to have. Subtle curvature on the façade means that, from a distance, the building looks like a shimmering mirage of the surrounding panorama, but as visitors move closer, they see a perfect reflection of themselves.
The Perfect Stage
Inside, one finds materials that evoke naturalness, which blend with the colours and textures of the landscape. For the internal cladding, a custom-made tile was designed that reproduces the spirit and shades of AlUla, just like the custom Poltrona Frau seats and terrace materials. The main technological innovation of the Maraya Concert Hall is the implementation of automation in the giant door behind the stage, which opens to bring the outside in and can become part of the scenic movement during performances.
“Right from the outset, our aim was to establish a seamless connection between the show machinery and its mirrored outer shell. This led us to integrate the natural landscape into the theatre and transform the context into the stage itself. The result was an immense stage, measuring 40m x 15m, featuring a colossal retractable window spanning over 800sq m. This innovative design allowed performances to unfold directly on the desert floor, where large-scale choreographies could take place in a one-of-a-kind indoor-outdoor setting, blending landscape and entertainment. Moreover, we always prioritised sustainability, construction efficiency, and circularity in our planning. Consequently, we made the deliberate choice to forgo the construction of a basement,” elucidates Boje.
Significance and Impact
The AlUla Valley has been a crossroads of culture and heritage for centuries. Now, with the addition of experiences such as the Maraya Concert Hall, AlUla is emerging as a global cultural centre, combining ancient culture with modern art. The ultimate respectful architecture project and iconic landmark that honours earth’s precious natural landscapes and rouses a reflection upon our role and responsibility, not only as designers, but as mankind.
Maraya has sparked conversation as the media have talked about it and still do; it won awards, thus bringing remarkable global visibility and tourism to the growing county of AlUla. It lives and breathes on the global cultural map next to some of the most iconic and well-known architecture and has become a symbol of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s legacy and 2030 vision.
Client: Royal Commission for AlUla, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Project Affiliates / Consultants: Black Engineering Dwc-Llc; MMG KSA; GAP Progetti
Total Site Area: 20000 sqm
Ground Floor Area: 10000 sqm
Total Floor Area: 22000 sqm
Date: August 2019 – December 2019