RIYADH: In a packed ballroom inside Riyadh’s Al-Faisaliah Center, Italian architect Alfonso Femia presented a lecture on the importance of sustainability in present-day architecture.
It was the architect’s first trip to the Kingdom. In the presence of numerous Saudi stakeholders in the field of architecture, he highlighted the crucial role that sustainable architecture and design practices play not only in the structures that we live and work in, and their relation and impact on the environment, but also as a way to bring people together to uphold the values of giving and respect for one another.
“As it is today the case in Italy, it is essential to approach sustainability as a cultural strategy and as our core commitment toward future generations,” Femia told Arab News.
“With Vision 2030, Saudi Arabia is at the forefront of this approach by adopting environmentally friendly criteria for its construction projects, as well as by adopting sustainability as an overarching concept for the future. I believe that in architecture, sustainability can no longer be solely interpreted as a technological tool for safeguarding the environment. In its broader sense, sustainability also implies a primary responsibility and, ultimately, the concept of respect and generosity.”
Femia is an architect, designer and urban planner that has worked in Italy and around the world since 1995. He is the founder, CEO, and president of Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia (formerly 5+1AA) with bases in Genoa, Milan, and Paris. Included among the multitude of projects he and his firm have worked on in Italy are the new headquarters of Vimar in Marostica; the Dallara Academy in Parma; the new headquarters of the BNL BNP Paribas Group in Rome and The Corner in Milan. In France, his firm has worked on the docks of Marseille, numerous social housing structures and residences, offices and public buildings. The recipient of numerous accolades, in 2022 the Museo of Novecento in Florence dedicated a solo exhibition to Femia titled “Architecture and Generosity” — a theme he adheres to greatly throughout his work.
A key issue today, he told Arab News, is “to find the balance between ‘technological sustainability,’ climate change and a place of identity.
“Sustainability must be interpreted as the creation of the conditions for a welcoming habitat for future generations,” he said. “With regard to the architectural vision for Saudi Arabia, the focus on both its cultural and natural richness can significantly enhance all the country’s unique and wonderful features.”
Femia said that Saudi Arabia is already developing some of the most innovative projects in the world. “The creation of high-profile tourist destinations and urban communities on a large scale — such as NEOM, Oxagon and Trojena — are but a few of the many incredible projects underway,” he told Arab News. “From my point of view, the issue of cultural identity is crucial in this phase of incredible expansion and development. Environmental sustainability is a necessary starting point, but it is equally fundamental to highlight all the local geographical and historical characteristics.”
The architect said that he was impressed by the Kingdom’s work to enhance and champion its heritage, architecture and traditional communities.
“This is fundamental to ensure the coexistence between the past and the present,” he added, noting the examples of the historic center of Jeddah, Al-Balad, characterized by its unique architecture juxtaposed with Saudi’s new urban model that can be reinterpreted within a contemporary design perspective — an example of models proposed under Vision 2030.
“Inspiring original and local architecture can also be seen in the colors and distinctive design of the At-Turaif UNESCO site in Riyadh, with the smooth and curved walls of its ancient structure made in mud bricks,” he said. “The overall development of the surrounding Diriyah is now under construction in harmony with the old and fascinating At-Turaif historical assets. Ultimately, awareness and understanding of local knowledge must be the basis for all development and expansion projects, and I see that this approach is concretely applied in Saudi Arabia.”
“Tomorrow is the yesterday of the future,” said Femia during his presentation.
The phrase was evocative of the Kingdom’s present moment of great change.
Femia noted his desire to work more closely with the Kingdom.
“Atelier(s) Alfonso Femia pursues an intense research activity in parallel to the professional projects that are developed in each atelier,” he told Arab News. “We work, amongst others, on environmental issues, on climate change in the Mediterranean and on school architecture. Environmental and urban development issues involve all stakeholders, decision-makers and end users.
“That is why we work with different professionals, such as architects, journalists, writers, engineers and public administrators, as this helps us to understand the trends and points of connection between architectural design, and other contexts and issues.
Femia said that the Mediterranean area and its role as an extraordinary point of reference for all of Europe, the Middle East and Africa is one of the topics he and his team are exploring.
“In 2022 I launched an international event — La Biennale dello Stretto — focusing on the Mediterranean,” he added. “I would be honored to welcome participants from Saudi Arabia to the second edition that will be held in 2024.”