Islamic Arts Biennale Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

19th June 2024

An airport isn’t typically somewhere you would expect to find an art gallery, but nestled within the illustrious Western Hajj Terminal at King Abdulaziz International Airport – a stunning architectural creation by SOM in 1981 – lies the Islamic Arts Biennale. Steeped in the cultural tapestry of Saudi Arabia’s heritage, the site, opened in 2023, looks to combine history and modernity to tell a captivating tale of past, present, and future.

Designed by Italian studio Gioforma Architects, with lighting design from GLARE, the project has been recognised throughout the design world, picking up a number of awards, including the Structures High category at this year’s [d]arc awards.

With such a significant cultural heritage attached to the site, Camila Blanco, Creative Director at GLARE, explains to arc why this was more than your average gallery lighting project.

“The Hajj Terminal at the King Abdulaziz Airport is not an ordinary airport terminal; it is well known because of its tent structures, designed to house the influx of religious pilgrims that stream into KSA as part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Makkah. The terminal was not designed to be a religious space, but is rather a space that evokes the spirit of the Hajj.

“The Islamic Biennale serves as a centre of excellence for fostering cultural dialogues and for presenting and disseminating ideas and practices in the contemporary arts world. The design itself is dynamically inserted into and beyond the vast tent structures through refined continuity, depth, and visual composition. Interconnected multi-level spaces effortlessly flow into one-another, all of which are conceived as intriguing and integral elements of the biennale experience.

“The internal spaces are immersed in a feeling of grounding serenity; the ideal blank spaces in which art can express itself without the limits of the external world. Material versatility, framed views, apertures and doorways foster moments of discovery and surprise as visitors encounter artworks in a narrative that moves beyond the boundaries of architecture. Our approach was to create a language that could pay respect to history, while welcoming the new architecture, creating a seamless integration in time.”

In order to achieve this goal, the lighting designers were provided with a comprehensive design brief by the architect, complete with renders and visuals, which were “instrumental” in getting the project’s envisioned aesthetic and mood, as well as showing how significant a role that lighting can play.

“The architects emphasised a minimalist and understated approach, with a strong emphasis on seamlessly integrating lighting into the architecture,” GLARE says. “They expressed a desire for concealed light sources to accentuate the building’s textures and facilitate a harmonious transition between indoor and outdoor spaces. Collaborating closely, we designed custom solutions to discretely incorporate lighting elements, ensuring they organically complemented the overall architectural vision.

“In addition to the aesthetic considerations, the client provided clear directives regarding the lighting requirements for the exhibition spaces, which were the focal point of the project. So, we had to deliver a versatile and efficient lighting solution, both indoors and outdoors, ensuring adaptability and functionality within these spaces.”

Central to the lighting design concept was the “delicate dance” between honouring tradition and embracing innovation. To do this, GLARE’s lighting design unfolds through three defining elements – Ethereal, Breathable, and Reflective.

GLARE explains further: “Ethereal is an intangible, airy, and subtle sense of the light, as the space would be heavenly lit. This was characterised by seamless lighting details spread to highlight the architecture, such as shadow gaps, coves, and trimless fittings that would subtly unveil the buildings, while drawing the eye with a mesmerising allure. Breathable, as spaces effortlessly blended indoors and out, transcending conventional boundaries; Reflective was the word we used to describe how the modern Mashrabiya alight from within, bestowing a floating grace upon the water plaza.”

To realise a lighting concept that would honour both the tradition and modernity of the space, GLARE strategically used three distinct types of lighting tailored to specific needs; functional lighting serves practical purposes, such as daily activities and exhibition setup, both indoors and outdoors. Architectural lighting was utilised to enhance building features, using techniques like cove lighting and downlighting. “In exhibition spaces, we implemented grazing wall lighting effects and focal point highlighting to accentuate artworks,” GLARE adds.

“Exhibition lighting was meticulously designed to illuminate artworks in galleries with different ceiling configurations, ensuring flexibility to accommodate varying exhibition setups. Indoors, exhibition galleries featured suspended fixtures for high ceilings and recessed tracks for low ceilings. We also enhanced the ambience with decorative chandeliers and other unique pieces, crafting distinctive focal points throughout the space.”

With the venue destined to host both annual and biannual art exhibitions, GLARE conceived of an adaptable indoor lighting system that empowers future exhibition designers with track systems and metal meshes for optimal light placement. Doing so meant that the team had to take a step back and show some humility.

“Lighting serves as a medium of communication between art and observer, providing ideal canvases for artwork to shine without overpowering it. To meet the diverse needs of hosting art exhibitions, we implemented a versatile lighting scheme tailored to adapt to various activities.

“We integrated metal grid ceilings as a prominent feature, serving a dual purpose of concealing structural and mechanical elements while hosting diffused lighting fixtures. This general layer of light ensures optimal illumination for artwork setup, maintenance, and other activities requiring higher lighting levels.

“For exhibition spaces, we used kinetic lighting tracks and bars specifically designed to showcase artworks. Utilising spotlights with exchangeable lenses facilitated effortless adjustment of light distributions to suit different exhibits. Precisely dimmed spotlights met both scenographic and conservation requirements, offering a flexible infrastructure. Additionally, a variety of beam angles provided versatility for accent lighting and floodlighting.

“Wallwashers were then strategically installed in exhibition galleries to achieve a uniform distribution of light across both vertical and horizontal planes. This enhancement significantly enhances the perception of the exhibition space, contributing to its overall ambience and appeal.

“By implementing these layers of light, we ensured the venue not only meets, but exceeds the demands of hosting diverse art exhibitions, transforming it into a dynamic cultural hub capable of showcasing paintings, sculptures, performing arts, and more, with sophistication and flexibility.”

Elsewhere, outdoor lighting was designed to highlight architectural features and create a distinctive night-time ambience. To do this, GLARE employed various layers of light to guide visitors and enhance visibility, while functional lighting was integrated for service areas and parking lots, striking a balance between functionality and aesthetics.

“We incorporated outdoor floor-recessed fixtures, strategically positioned to graze from the bottom to the top of the building, providing a glare-free illumination with a soft, inviting warmth. Furthermore, we utilised poles and bollards to accentuate specific elements of the landscape.”

Concealed façade lighting artfully minimises light pollution, preserving the night sky, while accentuating the architectural grandeur of the building. The adjacent water plaza serves as a “serene companion” to the architecture, creating enchanting reflections across its surface and helping to transform the plaza into a natural gathering haven. GLARE explains how the lighting helps in facilitating this captivating atmosphere: “The water plaza outside was a key consideration from the outset of our design process. The entire design team shared a vision for the plaza to serve as a reflective surface, enhancing the overall aesthetic by beautifully mirroring the building and its lighting.

“Achieving this effect was a point of pride for us, and we take great joy in witnessing the interplay of light and water. We were aware of the distance between the water and the buildings, which meant we wouldn’t achieve the caustic effect on the façades. Despite this, the reflective qualities of the water still contribute significantly to the visual appeal of the space, adding depth and dimension to the overall experience.”

The lighting designers also opted for warmer colour temperatures of lighting; considering the material finishes and the desired atmosphere, these were preferred outdoors to create inviting spaces while complementing the architecture.

One of the primary objectives for GLARE came in seamlessly integrating various surfaces – concrete, glass, and the intricate Arabic Mashrabiya – into a “unified, visually enchanting tapestry”; each element illuminated, each detail meticulously brought to life.

“Our philosophy centred on the idea of interplay, where lighting and architecture intertwine like a mesh or tapestry,” GLARE says. “From the very beginning, the design team envisioned the lighting as an integral part of the architectural concept. Just as the clusters rise from the sand, our lighting effects were designed to harmonise with the architectural elements, enhancing their beauty and creating a sense of cohesion throughout the space. From subtle uplighting effects on the façades, to carefully designed galleries, ensuring that every aspect of the project worked in concert to create a unified visual experience.”

Within this delicate interplay came the balancing act of merging the new, modern architecture with the historic pilgrim tents. To effectively do this, the designers aimed for the building’s illumination to serve as a “subtle backdrop”, rather than imposing its presence on the surrounding environment: “To achieve this, we opted for minimal and understated lighting, with static fixtures, with warm colour temperature, mostly recessed in the ground or custom-made coves, prioritising clarity and providing ample space for the exhibition, which held primary importance within the space.”

A defining factor in this fusion of new and old came in the modern Marshabiya – itself something of a contradiction, GLARE believes that this feature serves as a “connection element between antiquity and modernity.

“The Mashrabiya is easily recognisable to visitors and aids in the seamless transition between the two. In our approach, we leveraged lighting effects to accentuate the beauty of the Mashrabiya, creating captivating shadows and patterns that are projected onto the floor and contribute to the reflection of clusters on the main water plaza.

“Some elements were illuminated perpendicularly to highlight their intricate patterns, while others were gently washed with light to emphasise their overall presence and significance within the space. By employing these techniques, we ensured that the modern Mashrabiya not only serves as a design feature but also as a symbol of cultural continuity and innovation.”

The project was, of course, not without its challenges – scope, longevity, calculations, etc – but for GLARE, time was the biggest enemy. “Undoubtedly, working on a Design & Build project presented numerous challenges, with time constraints being one of the most significant hurdles. We had a mere four months to navigate the entire design process, from conceptualisation to detailing.

“However, the strength of our company lies in the cohesion of our design team. Despite geographical barriers, with team members stationed in both Italy and the UAE, our collective dedication and tireless efforts ensured we met the deadline with excellence. We leveraged our international presence to our advantage, enabling close collaboration with stakeholders and facilitating effective communication throughout the project. This collaborative approach and unwavering commitment were instrumental in overcoming the challenges we encountered, ensuring the successful realisation of our vision for the project.”

To that end, the team at GLARE can look back on the project with a great deal of pride, not least because of the accolades that the project has garnered since its opening last year.

Reflecting on the project’s culmination, GLARE says: “Witnessing the completion of the project and seeing our lighting design come to life evokes a truly magical feeling for us. It is incredibly rewarding to see the space teeming with visitors who are enjoying and appreciating what we’ve created.

“In terms of the lighting design itself, we’re delighted with the outcome. The lighting design serves as a component of the space, seamlessly integrated with the architecture to enhance the overall visitor experience. Outdoors, the lighting fulfils a crucial role in connecting the various clusters, guiding visitors along their journey through the space. As visitors move between the pavilions, they embark on an emotional pathway, each step revealing the beauty of a new building, illuminated by distinct lighting layers. This deliberate interplay between architecture and lighting elevates the ambiance, fostering a sense of wonder and discovery that enriches the visitor experience and leaves a lasting impression.”

Edited with Lens Distortions v5.14.1