A canvas so vast and so beautiful, the ancient city of AlUla is, by its very nature, a place of extraordinary beauty. Positioned on the ancient Incense Route between Southern Arabia and Egypt, this expansive region spans 200,000 years of human history and features a lush valley, towering sandstone mountains, and heritage sites.
Its most renowned landmark is Hegra, recognised as Saudi Arabia’s inaugural UNESCO World Heritage Site. Ongoing research indicates that this ancient city may have served as the southernmost outpost of the Roman Empire following their conquest of the Nabataeans in 106 CE.
Hegra, the largest preserved site of the Nabataean civilization south of Petra, was established at the end of the 1st millennium BC. Photo: © Royal Commission for AlUla.
Once an important stopping point for traders of frankincense, myrrh, and other precious commodities, today it is the epicenter of an exciting cultural movement.
Saudi Arabia opened its doors to tourism only five short years ago and Design Space AlUla, located in the AlJadidah Arts District, is the first permanent contemporary gallery space here, dedicated to showcasing the many incredible design initiatives across the region.
Design by Giò Forma Studio, Design Space AlUla is a contemporary building made of steel, glass, and polished concrete.
Designed by the award-winning Milan-based Giò Forma Studio, the breathtaking structure, homage to the traditional breezeblock used widely across buildings in the surrounding area, will open its doors during the AlUla Arts Festival, in February. The welcoming central plaza and courtyard is enhanced by the intricate lattice facade of exposed geometric brickwork, allowing for increased natural light and ventilation throughout the building.
The gallery’s first exhibition, which is set to run from 15th February to 1st June 2024, is called Mawrid: Celebrating Inspired Design, and will showcase the process behind ten recent designs inspired by the city of AlUla.
Sara Ghani, the gallery’s curator, comments, “Design Space AlUla commits to celebrating AlUla’s natural history, its cultural heritage, and vernacular materials – inspiring sustainable futures that are rooted in place.”
View of Madrasat Adeera, AlUla first arts and design centre, commissioned to UK-based Hopkins Arc. © Royal Commission for AlUla/ Nick Jackson.
The grand opening heralds the start of a continuous exhibition series that will span many design projects, including the renovation of Madrasat Addeera, AlUla’s first arts and design centre, by UK-based Hopkins Architects; Roth Architecture’s Azulik Eco Resort, which draws eco-inspiration from the stories of wind and erosion; SAL Architects’ renovation of the historic Ammar Bin Yasser Mosque, and AlUla’s Cultural Oasis District Masterplan, guided by Prior + Partners, in collaboration with Allies and Morrison.
Other exhibitors will showcase the work of finalists from the second edition of AlUla Design Award; they include Imane Mellah, Teeb, Sara Kanoo, Gunjan Gupta and Shaddah Studio, as well as representation from the first edition of the AlUla Design Residency. The residency is a five-month programme in AlUla that aims to bring together designers and experts on-site to work across multiple disciplines. Their work was showcased at Paris Fashion Week last year.
Left, detail of a Nabatean tomb. Right, preliminary sketches of Sarah Kanoo’s Mashbak clasp. Photos: © Sarah Kanoo.
The exhibition also explores the visual identity for Design Space AlUla created by the Clara Sancho Studio and design agency 29Letters from Madrid. The logo draws on a wide range of regional inspiration, from ancient inscriptions at Jabal Ikmah to the distinctive breezeblocks in AlJadidah.
Ghani explains the purpose of such a wide initiative, “Our ambition is to fuel the design economy, provide resources to designers to explore and experiment, and be a place for visitors to research, explore, and connect with the processes behind AlUla’s design journey.”
The gallery’s launch programme takes place between the 15th – 17th February and will include keynote presentations, masterclasses, workshops, panel discussions and design tours.
AlUla is fast becoming a bucket list favorite. Last year 230,000 tourists were expected, and it’s projected that two million people a year will be visiting by 2035.
For more information please visit: experiencealula.com
Words: Lisa Marks
Opening image: Design Space AlUla, Al Jadidah Art District. Photo: © Nicholas Jackson Photography.