KAPSARC, Saudi Arabia

Pic: HG Esch Photography

Early last year, Zaha Hadid Architects unveiled the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Centre (KAPSARC), a sprawling, multi-building, 500,000sqm micro city in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

In keeping with the architecture firm’s signature aesthetic, the complex is remarkable in its form; an irregular, angular, beehive-like structure that stretches across the Saudi desert. Its interlocking, cellular structure includes an office building, conference centre, library, IT centre and place of worship, as well as shaded outdoor spaces, courtyards and gardens, woven together by an open-air central plaza.

Lighting for the expansive complex came from New York’s Office for Visual Interaction (OVI), long-time collaborators with Zaha Hadid Architects (ZHA), having worked with the firm on projects dating back over the past 20 years.

“We have a long history of working with ZHA, and the collaboration is always very creative and interactive,” said OVI. “ZHA values our early lighting design input to incorporate into its designs. For this reason we were involved very early in the competition stage.”

Because of the architecture studio’s unique designs, creating a lighting scheme is not always a straightforward process, with the firm preferring not to issue a specific design brief, instead “setting out points and program parameters”, as OVI explained.

“It is the work of the design team to translate a ‘technical wish list’ of square metres and light levels into something amazing. Knowing the parametric designs of ZHA, a brief is not a fixed catalogue of requirements for them.

“As you look at their work, you will see there is not a ‘one solution fits all’ for any project. The same is true for the lighting design, which becomes a fourth dimension and gives architecture emotion and presence at night.”

With KAPSARC, OVI developed the lighting scheme for both the exterior spaces, and the vast interior. Outside, rather than overall floodlighting, which would not comply with the project’s sustainable design intent and LEED Platinum certification targets, a strategic lighting vocabulary was developed that harnessed the use of internal glow, balanced series of lighting layers and the precise use of contrast and silhouette to articulate the dynamic architectural forms.

As illuminating all sides of the façade would have flattened out the shape’s beauty, OVI instead opted to sculpt the volumes at night to enhance the sharp, angular geometry; Hoffmeister’s Hi-Vertical in-grade linear luminaires are positioned strategically to anchor specific façades, while Erco floodlights are placed out of sightlines within the skylight apertures to emphasise entrance volumes, keeping in mind distant viewing angles and the cohesiveness of the overall design of the complex. In respect of the sculptural effect sought after by the architects, the lighting design ensured no penetrations of the folded façade in any way.

Each building profile of the architectural dune-like forms has a different height and contour; there are no right angles or identical sections, resulting in highly atypical façades. As such, OVI carried out detailed 3D lighting calculations for each condition to determine specific lighting locations.

The lighting design plays a critical role in establishing the project’s night time identity, as OVI explained: “From a birds-eye view, lighting emanates from the centre, radiating out into the landscape. The heart of the complex is the Place of Icon, which glows magically at night. To complement this, it was important to articulate and enhance the angular geometry of the façades to accentuate their faceted form, which could be appreciated from a pedestrian view.”

The various buildings are connected by 10,000sqm of canopies that unify the campus while providing shading by day. Vertical illumination of the interior façades, uplit canopy ‘hoods’ and downlighting create a harmony of light, adding to its landmark status at night.

The buildings and canopies are oriented to work naturally with the sun’s path, providing both light and shade strategically at different times of day. Surrounding buildings shade the central canopies and interior space beneath, while at night, the internal lighting activates the apertures, creating an illuminated centrepiece that anchors the project and provides its visual character.

In the complex’s central courtyards, Hoffmeister’s Hi-Vertical in-grade linear luminaires illuminate the façades, while Erco luminaires highlight columns and provide general illumination, alongside iO Lighting’s linear LED strips, which accentuate the stretched textile canopies. This is complemented by stake-mounted, adjustable lighting in the courtyard planters, provided by iGuzzini’s Woody fixtures.

A lighting masterplan of energy efficient and sustainable solutions throughout the complex, as well as smart design and cooling strategies as an integral part of the design logic, enabled the project to meet LEED Platinum specifications, making it the first of its kind to do so in Saudi Arabia.

This unique, integrated design is energy efficient and balances the quality and brightness of artificial lighting in relation to usage and natural daylight, achieving an uncompromising architectural aesthetic with ambitions environmental credentials.

“We always approach our work in a way that optimises design objectives while meeting all technical and energy requirements,” said OVI. “Achieving this was challenging as technologies were changing from conventional sources to LED at the time, and the client needed to be reassured the ‘new’ technology would be reliable and just as effective as what they were accustomed to.

“It was a lot of extra effort during the design process, but as a result this project was awarded the first LEED Platinum rated building in the region.”

Throughout all interior spaces, the modular design generates consistent organisational logic and spatial strategies that drive all employed lighting elements: full height atria are filled with daylight from central skylights, while at night a skylight perimeter detail of precisely tuned floodlights provide the primary layer of illumination.

Selected vertical surfaces are washed to translate the prismatic notion of the hexagonal character to a comprehensive interior night time identity. Dark finishes of solid architectural railings along general circulation paths, embedded with iO Lighting linear LED handrail luminaires, create a strong visual contrast throughout the light finished spaces for intuitive wayfinding. 

To further infuse the interior experience with the directionality of the architectural system, recessed linear light bands follow the angular contours throughout the interior spaces. On upper levels this linearity visually dissolves into segmented layouts to accommodate the shaped ceiling profiles.

The installation of these linear bands helped in unifying the many different interlocking structures, each with their own specific uses. And for OVI, it was key that the lighting helped to link these different structures. “It was important for the complex to be unified, however, each building has a very different function. For this reason a lighting design language and logic was developed for the project and tailored to each different building.

“For example, reinforcing the cellular geometry was key for the interior lighting. In some buildings with open spaces this meant continuous linear bands that wrap throughout the building, for others we used segmented linear bands to work with smaller scaled spaces, or staggered patterns instead of straight, or pendant vs recessed based on angled ceilings. There are a lot of subtle variations that can happen within a single concept.”

The linear unification of the interiors can be seen in the offices and seminar rooms, which each feature a custom ceiling system of recessed miniature LED bands that incorporate accent lighting, speakers, AV, fire points and many other services in one clean solution, along with Zumtobel’s Supersystem to accent feature walls. 

In offices with raked ceilings, OVI turned to RSL’s pendant-mounted continuous linear luminaires to provide illumination through an ‘all-in-one’ integrated appearance.

As a spiritual centre, the Musalla is a symbolic embodiment of light, and the illumination is a transformative element generating emotion and an experiential journey for worshippers. The interior is characterised by a large, organic structural web. Delicate screen panels fill the openings of each frame, and a serene glow of white light emanates from behind the screens, by use of Philips Color Kinetics’ ColorBlast Powercore fixtures, setting the contemplative tone in the worship hall.

Downlights are precisely aligned with the screen detailing, piercing through to provide sparkle and the required illumination at floor level, with no visible hotspots or shadowing. In addition, based on different times of day, the colour of the lights shifts from white to a soft, golden hue.

While the Musalla was designed without any natural daylight, other areas used the abundance of natural light as an inspiration for the architectural lighting design, in the way that it sculpts the facets and forms of the architectural volumes.

“In this part of the world, natural light also means heat, so it was also important to find creative ways of shielding it,” said OVI. “The Place of Icon in the central part of the building complex is a wonderful example – the surrounding buildings are slightly higher, which helps shade (and cool) the centre. In addition, the scoop-shaped openings are oriented for wind flow and to bring light in and keep light out during different times of day.”

Although the task of working on such an unusual design could have caused some difficulties for OVI, the practice said that, owing to its years of working with ZHA, it is used to working on projects that are out of the ordinary.

“We are accustomed to breaking convention and working with unusual shapes and structures,” OVI explained. “Every project has constraints, but that’s what makes it challenging and ultimately results in a unique, one of a kind solution.

“One of the reasons why we enjoy our collaborations with ZHA is the truly open design dialogue. During our work sessions, architecture and lighting design really develop in parallel and always result in unique solutions that are fully integrated and tailored to the architecture.

“It is always a fascinating journey to work with them to discover a unique architecture and lighting story that emerges.”

In the case of KAPSARC, the collaborative approach resulted in a remarkable architectural achievement, where OVI’s lighting design serves to support and accentuate all of the buildings and their faceted forms and volumes, while elevating the cultural dimension of the project, reflected in the geometric motifs, materials and mesh elements.

OVI said: “This project is a good example of having a very strong fundamental idea that was carried through all design stages. Accordingly, we established a clear lighting design language that responded directly to this design.”