Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh: ‘AlUla is very inspiring for me’

Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh: ‘AlUla is very inspiring for me’
Award-winning Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh has designed buildings and spaces across the world. (Courtesy Royal Commission for AlUla, photo by Luke Walker)
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Updated 06 July 2023

Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh: ‘AlUla is very inspiring for me’

Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh: ‘AlUla is very inspiring for me’
  • The acclaimed Lebanese architect is currently designing a contemporary art museum for the Kingdom’s ancient oasis city 

DUBAI: Award-winning Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh has designed buildings and spaces across the world, from the UK to Finland and Lebanon to Japan. But the location of her latest project is a first for her, in the austere beauty of AlUla.  

At the end of last year, her firm, Lina Ghotmeh — Architecture, was invited to bid to design and build a contemporary art museum in the ancient oasis city in the northwest of Saudi Arabia. In May, it was announced that LGA had been awarded the contract.  

Lina Ghotmeh visiting AlUla. (Supplied)

“I got really attached to AlUla,” Ghotmeh told Arab News. “It’s such a wonderful place and I’m very happy to be able to develop this museum. I feel like it will play a great role in the region and in AlUla.”  

When Ghotmeh visited AlUla, she was captivated by its golden light, giant ancient tombs, and the varied textures of its landscape.  

“Going there the first time was quite overwhelming,” she recalled. “You’re in a place where time is suspended. What is really impressive is the rich and beautiful horizon that the desert offers and the multiplicity of views it is able to bring. It’s very inspiring for me.” 

 The Serpentine Pavilion in London, designed by Lina Ghotmeh. (Supplied)

Ghotmeh conducted workshops to gain a better understanding of the place, its people, and their customs. She noticed how attached they were to the Arabic language and to nature.  

“What surprised me was the maturity of the people living there, especially the kids,” she said. “I visited elementary schools and spoke to children and looked at how they related to their environment. Being close to nature is very much needed in today’s society. So, that touched me very much.” 

Although the museum is still in its conception phase, Ghotmeh offered some insight into what the venue will look like. It will be tucked into a valley in AlUla’s ‘Cultural Oasis’ area, a junction of the Old City and the mountainous desert. She said she will also use light as a material.    

“I’m imagining a series of pavilions that somehow reflect how the city was in the past, drawing on a smaller scale of construction, and intertwined with nature, so nature becomes part of the experience of the museum,” she explained. “I want it to solicit memories of what an old city would look like, but, at the same time, project us into the future. This is something very valuable for me; that architecture somehow belongs to its place, but is totally original.” 

To ensure a new project fits into its environment, she says, requires “listening to the place and understanding its climate and resources and trying to build a project that is really for the community itself. That’s very important. I think of design in an acupunctural way; not just seeking to make an expressive statement.” 

Ghotmeh’s desire to build, she suggests, is partly a result of her upbringing in Beirut in the 1980s, when the Lebanese Civil War was raging.  

“I remember the war because we sometimes had to go to the basement during bombing. Being on the seventh floor and suddenly going underground is very much present in my memories,” she said.  

At such times, she sparked her imagination by, for instance, playing with light — a crucial factor in her work today. “You start to find creative ways to occupy yourself and to make joy out of a crazy situation,” she said.  

The violent destruction she witnessed as a child pushed her into the optimistic act of building things. She actually studied archaeology at the American University of Beirut. But, she said, archaeology is about “digging up the past” and she wanted to look to the future. She currently has a number of projects (including a sophisticated hotel in the verdant countryside and a public art collection) planned in her homeland as an “act of reconciliation.”   

Ghotmeh believes that “beauty is a necessity,” and aims to implement that belief in her work. She hopes to see “more specificity to the places where we construct, and (deeper) relations with the people who inhabit these places. There needs to be integration with the people.”   

Ghotmeh’s architectural practice was once described as “humanist” — acting as a meeting place for people. “I take that with joy,” she said. “When we talk about humanism, there’s a sense of respect. I try, through my architecture, to develop places that bring people together and put them at ease.”