In an article that appeared in Arab News on May 30, 2018, Prince Abdulaziz bin Mohammed bin Ayyaf was the first to draw public attention to the possibility that Riyadh is defined by a “Salmani” style. The prince persuasively maintained that King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud was not only head of the administration of the capital but also upheld its social and cultural values.
King Salman undoubtedly achieved this by incrementally replacing popular development models with one that had more collective validity. The first step was commissioning Constantinos Doxiadis to Master Plan Riyadh in 1968. Without it, all future projects, such as the rehabilitation of Wadi Ḥanifah, Salam Park, Wadi Sulay, the Green Riyadh project or the King Salman Park would not have been possible. These have made Riyadh a paradigm of ecological development throughout the world.
This pattern of wayfinding toward a city that reflects socio-religious, cultural authenticity then evolved through several distinct stages. The first of these resulted from the Doxiadis plan, when the Saudi Council of Ministers formed an agency to both create and maintain the image and identity of the environment through the High Commission for the Development of Arriyadh and its executive branch, the Arriyadh Development Authority. This coincided with the establishment of the Royal Commission for Riyadh City. Subsequent stages have each had a signature project that encapsulates the values of their time, beginning with the Diplomatic Quarter, which has now become emblematic of the king’s resolve to withstand the pressure of Western influence and values and implement an alternative, far more culturally sensitive model. It is fitting that the King Salman Charter for Architecture and Urbanism was unveiled at the Tuwaiq Palace, at its heart, since it symbolizes the seamless blending of tradition and technology that has come to identify the Salmaniyah style.
The next stage was introduced by the revitalization of Qasr Al-Hukm in the center of the old city of Riyadh followed by the King Abdulaziz Historical Center in 1999 in recognition of the centenary of the foundation of the Kingdom. Turaif in Diriyah, heralding the final stage, was capped by its inscription onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2010. Soon afterward, then Prince Salman was appointed second deputy prime minister and minister of defense and then crown prince in June 2012. He became king on Jan. 23, 2015, bringing his direct involvement in the development of his beloved city, which he had governed for more than half a century, to a close.
King Salman’s unparalleled contribution, guided by the history and socio-cultural heritage of his nation, is a living thing and is flexible enough to allow for creative interpretation within an overarching search for the common good.
In retrospect, there have been several common denominators in each of these signature projects, which we can clearly identify as an intentionally unified methodology and mission. The first is that the king managed to steer the course of new development, reinforcing a sense of identity based on pride in a collective heritage. A second congruity is the synergistic enhancement of the entire ecological network to create added value for the public. A third characteristic is an aesthetic continuity across time, making Riyadh the only world city with a uniform visual identity.
The final principle, which became evident to me while writing “The Vision of a King: The Salmaniyah Era of the History of Riyadh,” is the importance of a mosque in all the signature projects in each phase of development. The Juma’a Mosque in Al-Kindi Plaza in the Hayy Assafarat, the Imam Turki bin Abdullah Grand Mosque in the Qasr Al-Hukm, the King Abdulaziz Mosque in the historical center and the Imam Mohammed ibn Abd Al-Wahhab Mosque and Imam Abdul Aziz bin Mohammed bin Saud Mosque in Turaif not only formally define and identify civic spaces but also activate the communities they serve. Contrast this with the disappearance of spirituality in the West as the main reason behind the erasure of a vibrant public realm there, accompanied by a sense of placelessness, anonymity and despair.
Since King Salman stepped down, the vision he implemented as governor of Riyadh continues to be fully realized by his son Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who is supervising the Committee of Grand Projects as part of his Vision 2030 master plan. This is evident in recent projects such as the Addoho neighborhood in the old quarter as part of the Heritage Trail of Riyadh, among many others.
The word “style” in reference to the sequential, physical manifestations of a set of principles that evolved during King Salman’s tenure as governor of Riyadh is problematic, however, because of socio-economic changes that have taken place recently, making “style” equate with commodification. We are now in an age of forgetting, in which the generating force behind a style is replaced by the repetition of superficial appearance, rather than an expression of substantial values. Dr. Zahir Othman, now secretary-general of the King Salman Center for Local Governance, who was involved in the growth of Riyadh as director-general for planning and programs at what was then the Arriyadh Development Authority, has suggested using the word “approach” instead in referring to the Salmaniyah era, which seems fitting. By whatever name, King Salman’s unparalleled contribution, guided by the history and socio-cultural heritage of his nation, is a living thing and is flexible enough to allow for creative interpretation within an overarching search for the common good.
• James Steele is an architect, educator, writer and researcher based near Philadelphia, US.