Riyadh Architecture in One Hundred Years

An essay on a public lecture presented by Saleh al-Hathloul at Darat al-Funun, Amman on April 21, 2002

Prepared by Majd Musa with Mohammad al-Asad, 2003
Transcription of Arabic lecture provided by Diala Anabtawi

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Support for the publication of this essay has been made possible by a grant from the Prince Claus Fund for Culture and Development. Additional support has been provided by Darat al-Funun - The Khalid Shoman Foundation and the Architectural Section of the Jordan Engineers Association




Table of contents:

1. Introduction

2. Riyadh: A Historical background

3. Riyadh’s Development during the first half of the Twentieth Century

4. Riyadh'S Development during the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

4.1 Riyadh's Development during the 1950s and 1960s

4.2 Riyadh's Development in the Seventies, Eighties, and Nineties

5. Questions and Answers

6. Notes  

7. List of Figures



In this Arabic-language lecture, Saleh al-Hathloul (1) discussed the urban development of the city of Riyadh (2), the capital of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, during the course of the twentieth century. A great number of building and construction projects took place in Riyadh during this period, and thus, notes al-Hathloul, it is almost impossible to present these projects in detail in such a relatively short-time lecture. He divided this period of Saudi Arabia's architectural development into two segments, tackling the issue of Riyadh's development on two levels. In the first segment, which extends from the beginning to the middle of the twentieth century, al-Hathloul concentrated on the city's urban development. In the second period, which extends from the middle to the end of the twentieth century, he deals with the urban developments that took place during the 1950s and 1960s, and concentrated on individual building projects that were built since the 1970s.

 Riyadh: A Historical background

Riyadh's rise as an urban center began in 1824, when Turki bin ‘Abdallah bin Muhammad bin Sa'ud (r. 1824 -1834), the founder of the second Saudi state (1824 - 1891), established his control over the city and made it his capital. Dir'iyah, which is located some 20 kilometers northwest of Riyadh, was the capital of the first Saudi state (1744 - 1818) (3). Before 1824, Riyadh consisted of a number of small villages that spread throughout the area of Wadi Hanifa. Riyadh underwent another period of growth beginning in 1902, when it was restored by King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin ‘Abd al-Rahman Al Faisal Al Sa'ud (r. 1902 - 1953; often called Ibn Sa'ud), the founder of the third Saudi state, which evolved into the present-day Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Thus, Riyadh, notes al-Hathloul, is a twentieth century city. It has grown from an area of one square kilometer and a population of 14,000 people in 1902 to an area of 1,500 square kilometers and a population of 4,300,000 people in 2000 (4).

 Riyadh's Development during the first half of the twentieth century

Al-Hathloul went on to present the old city of Riyadh as it appeared in the early twentieth century (figure 1). The one-square-kilometer city was enclosed by defended city walls (figure 2). The walls were built of mud and bricks, had a height of almost 8 meters, and incorporated towers and defended gates. One of the main structures located inside the walls of Old Riyadh is al-Masmak Fortress (also called al-Masmak Palace; figure 3), which was the first part of the city to be overtaken by King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz in 1902, and which was renovated in recent times (5). Qasr al-Hukm (the Justice Palace; figure 4), the seat of King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, is located in the center of the old city. Al-Masjid al-Jami' (the Congregational Mosque) of Old Riyadh, which often is referred to as Jami' Turki bin ‘Abdallah (the Mosque of Turki bin ‘Abdallah), was located close to the palace, a common arrangement in traditional Islamic cities. Furthermore, the mosque was linked to the palace by means of a bridge. The center of Old Riyadh, notes al-Hathloul, was rebuilt more than once over the course of the past one hundred years, as shall be seen below. Close to the palace and mosque, the Ministry of Finance as well as other governmental buildings were constructed. However, those were torn down during the early years of the second half of the twentieth century. Sahat al-‘Adl (the Justice Square( (figure 5) is a major urban space in the center of the old city of Riyadh, where commercial and communal activities used to take place.

Al-Hathloul mentioned that in the mid 1930s, Riyadh extended for the first time outside the walls of the old city. This was marked by the construction of Qasr al-Murabba' (al-Murabba' (the square) Palace), in which King ‘Abd al-‘Aziz established himself in 1937. The palace was located some 2 kilometers to the north of the old city of Riyadh and extended over an area of 16 hectares. It gained its name "al-Murabba' (the square)" from its square 400 by 400 meter form. Al-Murabba' was a kind of walled palatial complex that included a few palaces for the king and members of his family, a few residential buildings that housed the king's retinue, and some administration buildings (figure 6). The construction of al-Murabba', notes al-Hathloul, encouraged the development of the area known as al-Futah, which is located between al-Murabba' and the old city, along the western side of the street that later connected al-Murabba' with Old Riyadh. The development of al-Futah dates to the 1940s, when a few of the sons of ‘Abd al-‘Aziz decided to build their palaces there.

Al-Hathloul added that the construction of al-Murabba' Palace had a strong impact on the physical development and growth of Riyadh. The city expanded considerably. Also, al-Murabba' itself was sizable, and occupied an area almost one-third that of Riyadh. In addition, its construction resulted in the emergence of al-Futah area. Also, by locating al-Murabba' to the north of the old city, northward expansion was set as the primary direction for the growth of Riyadh. Furthermore, the construction of al-Murabba' outside the city walls demonstrated that living within the walls was no longer a necessity, and that citizens would be safe and secure living outside the walls. Thus, building expansion beyond the city walls was initiated.

Al-Hathloul noted that three new technologies were introduced for the first time in Riyadh with the construction of al-Murabba'. The first is the automobile as means of transportation. Consequently, the streets inside al-Murabba' were widened to allow for vehicular movement. However, the later introduction of the automobile to the old city of Riyadh had negative consequences, as some of the buildings of Riyadh were torn down to allow for the widening of streets. The second technology was electricity, which was made available through the use of generators. The third technology was water closets with sophisticated drainage systems.

An important point concerning the construction of al-Murabba' is that although it incorporated these three new technologies, it retained much of the general features of the traditional urban patterns of the central Arabian region of Najd, which included solid masses, covered streets, and the incorporation of courtyards (6). Also, it was built using local Najdi building techniques and materials. Therefore, clay and sun-dried mud bricks were used for the construction of walls, and Tamarisk tree (7) trunks plastered with mud were used for the roofs. Being of much larger size than any other earlier building in Riyadh, al-Murabba' provided a positive example of how one can adapt and apply a traditional building technology to large-scale projects. It was only around 1950 that the departure from traditional building techniques took place in Riyadh. This was with the construction of a rural palace in al-Nasriyah Farm, located to the west of Old Riyadh. The palace probably was the first building in Riyadh in which reinforced concrete was used. Also, an orthogonal grid planning pattern was introduced in al-Nasriyah in 1953 and in the later-project of al-Malaz, which, in turn, influenced city planning practices in Riyadh, as shall be discussed below. A more direct effect of al-Nasriyah on the development of Riyadh was the expansion of the city some 6.5 kilometers to the west.

Al-Hathloul noted that the two projects of al-Murabba' and al-Nasriyah necessitated that they should be linked to the walled city of Riyadh as well as to each other. Thus, in 1953, the first street that linked al-Murabba' with al-Nasriyah was constructed and paved with stones (not asphalt). Also, in the 1950s, a small airport was constructed in the northern part of Riyadh. Moreover, a railway that linked Riyadh with Dammam in eastern Saudi Arabia was inaugurated in 1951. (Figure 7) shows the locations of the old city of Riyadh (no. 1) and the major projects that brought about the city's expansion beyond its walls, including al-Murabba' (no. 2); al-Nasriyah (no. 3); and al-Malaz (no. 4). Another development that took place during the early 1950s was the rebuilding of al-Masjid al-Jami' and Qasr al-Hukm, discussed above, (figure 8) as part of the redevelopment of the old city center to meet Riyadh's accelerating economic growth.


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