King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture (Ithra)

Dhahran, Saudi Arabia

Created to mark the 75th anniversary of the Saudi Aramco oil company, the King Abdulaziz Centre for World Culture (or Ithra) is a cultural first for Saudi Arabia. The Centre offers a range of specialised cultural, educational and youth leadership programmes and activities, to promote a positive impact on human development and culture within the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.


The stunning design for the project is made up of five pebble-shaped buildings that, while separate and different volumes, are gathered together to resemble a rock mass. The complex geometry of the now iconic structures, as well as their location in the harsh environment of the Saudi desert, presented a number of challenges for the project team.

A further key objective was the need to deliver a project that would achieve LEED Gold despite the high external temperatures and sunlight. Our engineers needed to incorporate sustainable construction techniques such as efficient energy use and optimum building performance throughout to ensure that the building met its targets.

The project’s centrepiece ‘tower’ nestles between the four other rock shaped buildings, with floors stretching above and below ground. Image: Snøhetta
Exterior view of the KACWC. Image: Snøhetta

We used bespoke modelling programme Revit, in conjunction with BIM software to provide the optimum solutions.

Oliver Plunkett, Buro Happold


Working to realise the vision of architects Snøhetta, Buro Happold concluded that the use of bespoke modelling programme Revit along with Building Information Management (BIM) software would offer the optimum solution.

In order to create the unique aesthetic for the facade, the architect wanted to use metal to clad the exterior rather than solutions such as ceramic tiles and glass, which were favoured by the client. The use of metal in an environment with such high temperatures created a number of issues with solar gain, meaning we had to give careful consideration as to how to prevent heat built up on the outer skin. The desert location also required the material to be resistant to sand abrasion, which would cause damage to the surface over time.

Sketch by our facade design team showing an expanded view of the outer cladding. Image: Buro Happold

Following extensive analysis using dynamic thermal simulation and CFD software, we developed a cladding system that not only overcomes these challenges, but also helps lower building energy demands. The resulting facade solution comprises two main elements – an insulated weather-tight envelope that is wrapped by a feature shade veil. The thin, reflective stainless steel tubes that make up the feature veil shield the facade from the Saudi sun, and are pre-bent to fit the complex geometry of the five pebble shaped buildings. The tubes flatten near the windows to allow natural lighting into the internal spaces, while a ventilated air cavity purges any heat that builds up on these elements.

The project ensures the responsible and efficient use of water through various initiatives, including water efficient fittings and the installation of water meters to monitor the volume of water used. In addition to this, smart water controllers have been installed to schedule irrigation levels based on the local landscape and general weather conditions, and help to prevent over-watering and excessive run-off.

Steel tubes are manipulated to wrap around the complex forms of the structures. Image: KACWC
Set against the backdrop of the Saudi desert, the Cultural Centre resembles a gleaming rock formation. Image: Saudi Aramco


Bringing together engineering teams from across the globe and leading the way in BIM technologies and well as innovative multidisciplinary design, the new cultural centre is a showpiece for Buro Happold. The project represents the ambitions of a nation, demonstrating the very best in architectural and engineering design while offering an inspirational and bold environment.


American Concrete Institute “Excellence Award”


Big Project Middle East Construction and Sustainability Awards: Winner of Award for Excellence in BIM Implementation

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