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Museum of the Built Environment Under Way

Aerial view rendering of the Museum of the Built Environment
The Museum of the Built Environment is part of the King Abdullah Financial District currently under construction in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Sky bridges and an elevated monorail system will connect the buildings above ground level. FXFOWLE Architects

A museum in Saudi Arabia will bridge a valley and combine secure art galleries with open access to an elevated monorail line that will operate through its center.

May 13, 2014—Construction is under way on the Museum of the Built Environment (MOBE), a museum that required its design team to juggle a number of complex site constraints. The building is located in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where it will be subjected to extreme heat, and is part of the $55-million sq ft King Abdullah Financial District, a mixed-use urban community. Upon completion, the community will be interconnected via sky bridges and an elevated monorail system with six stations, one of which will be located within the museum.

The museum was required to nestle into a tight L-shaped site among other planned structures and to span a wadi (valley) of parkland. The museum’s designers, New City-based FXFOWLE Architects, had to create accessible, yet secure, art galleries, elevated skywalks for continuous public circulation into and out of the monorail station, and a huge underground parking structure.

The five-story museum measures approximately 350,000 sq ft above grade, with another 500,000 sq ft below grade, according to Sudhir Jambhekar, FAIA, RIBA, LEED-AP, a design partner of FXFOWLE and the partner in charge of the museum’s design. “The building has a very complex program requirement,” Jambhekar says. “The site is divided into two parcels, divided by this wadi, [with] a grade difference of about 6 or 7 meters.” 

Much of the museum will be formed with exterior concrete block walls that will be clad with two thin layers of opaque glass sandwiching a fritted panel

Much of the museum will be formed with exterior concrete block
walls that will be clad with two thin layers of opaque glass
sandwiching a fritted panel. A glass-and-cable facade system will
be used for the end walls of the galleries. FXFOWLE Architects

The design team resolved the disparate needs of the museum by segmenting its use by levels. Parking is confined to three below-grade levels; the ground-floor levels are linked to a public plaza and the pedestrian park; and the skywalk level is a series of elevated bridges within the district that connect neighboring buildings to one another so that people do not need to go down to the ground floor to walk between buildings. The skywalk level is considered the “+1” level of the museum, while the elevated monorail train is on the “+2” level. Both will connect the museum to neighboring buildings within the district, forming part of a larger system that provides elevated circulation routes throughout the entire district.

Above these circulation levels, there are three levels of art gallery space; the temporary galleries located on the top floor to encourage visitors to circulate through the entire gallery frequently. “When the program was dissected and when we analyzed it, we realized that the gallery spaces needed to be in the top of the building and temporary galleries had to be really on the top floor so that the museum becomes activated,” Jambhekar says.

The building uses both concrete and steel construction. Concrete is a typical building material within the country, but it was used only from the skywalk level down, according to Jambhekar.

“The base of the building contains parking, so a typical concrete flat-slab system was chosen,” said Stephen V. DeSimone, P.E., LEED-AP, M.ASCE, the president and chief executive officer of DeSimone Consulting Engineers, the New York City-based engineering firm that is serving as the structural engineer for the project. DeSimone wrote in response to written questions posed by Civil Engineering online. “That is the only thing typical about the project,” he said.

Night rendering of the museum which displays an elevated monorail track

An elevated monorail track that will extend through the center of
the building will be structurally separate from the museum itself.
Three levels of underground parking will serve the museum and
surrounding buildings. FXFOWLE Architects

Steel framing will be used on the higher floors to create column-free gallery spaces and to meet the structural needs of the site. “The building in plan is sort of like an L shape, so one of the legs of this L crosses over the wadi, which bisects the site,” Jambhekar says. “That part of the structure, which is above the second level, is designed like a bridge with a series of trusses.”

Because the building crosses the valley, “the superstructure is asymmetrically supported and so simple trusses wouldn't resist the twist created by the building’s self weight,” DeSimone explained. “We created a hollow trusses box that resolved the forces and allowed for column-free interior space. The trusses are supported on cast-in-place concrete cores that resist both vertical and lateral loads.

“The wadi was really the genesis for the system,” DeSimone said. “We needed to bridge the wadi, and the box truss enabled us to do that.”

The elevated monorail track that extends through the center of the building is structurally separate from the museum itself, Jambhekar says. “The foundations and aspects of the structure are completely isolated from the general building, so essentially it’s like creating two separate structures,” he says.  

In designing the building the architects decided to offer a 21st-century rendition of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage sites in Saudi Arabia: Madâin Sâleh and At-Turaif. These ancient carved-rock architectural spaces are similar to those found at Petra, Jordon. “Our building form became inspired by the rock,” Jambhekar says. “Of course, it’s all reinterpreted for the modern times, and, of course, it’s reinterpreted to accommodate the way we build buildings today.”

Another exterior rendering of the Museum of the Built Environment

Because of the building’s location on either side of a wadi (valley)
with a 6 to 7 m grade difference, the superstructure is
asymmetrically supported. Retail spaces will line the wadi level.
FXFOWLE Architects

The exterior of the museum is formed from lightweight steel framing with sheathing that has been clad with two layers of 10 mm thick opaque glass, a frit panel sandwiched in between, he notes. Diamond-shaped panels measuring approximately 6 by 3 m are then further divided into four quadrants, Jambhekar explains. “And the midpoint of the triangle is slightly depressed by a few inches, creating this textural quality within the laminated glass—the overall effect, from my point of view, is like chiseled rock.”

The glass panels are held in place by an aluminum subframing system. While the majority of the cladding system is bolted to a steel hollow-frame system, a glass-and-cable facade system will be used for the end walls of the galleries and an atrium space, according to material provided by the architects.  

The facade will wrap the entire roof of the building to reduce the heat gain of the structure and to provide a pleasing view to occupants of the district’s neighboring high-rise buildings, which have views down to the museum, Jambhekar says.

The facade will also act as a rain screen and rain water collection system, according to material provided by the architects.

In addition to the shape of the building, the ancient architecture also inspired the openings in the museum’s facade that will admit light into the museum’s interior. The exterior of the museum will not be lit at night so that the interior lights can shine through these openings in the exterior concrete walls and through the glass. “We thought that during the nighttime, the interior lighting would basically create the effect of these small openings like stars in the sky,” Jambhekar notes. In their shape, the small triangular and circular openings in the concrete block wall will also pay homage to the importance of the moon and stars to Islamic culture, he says.

Interior rendering of the museum that will provide space in which to exhibit symbolic interpretations of art and architecture in the peninsula

The museum will provide space in which to exhibit symbolic
interpretations of art and architecture in the peninsula, with a
special focus on sustainable thinking in the built environment of
the past, present, and future. FXFOWLE Architects

The museum will provide space in which to exhibit “works related to the symbolic interpretation of the historical development of the arts and architecture in the peninsula, and in particular how past and present trends in sustainable thinking are shaping the future of the built environment,” according to material distributed by the architects. The education of visitors is the ultimate goal of the museum, according to the architects.

The museum will also contain street- and wadi-level retail businesses, a destination restaurant with an outdoor terrace, administrative offices, and a VIP lounge, as well as research and archival areas, workshops, and a 150-seat auditorium.

Multiple projects within the district are currently under way. Excavation of the museum site has been recently completed, and the elevated monorail line is currently being built on the site. The museum is expected to be complete in 2017.



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