For Riyadh, the Kingdom Centre could not be a more fitting landmark.
Although it reaches the heights of modern engineering and architecture, the multi-functional tower is firmly rooted in Islamic tradition.
Its structure is simple yet elegant: a monolith covered in glass with a parabolic opening as its crown. No other flourishes adorn the imposing structure, located in the Al-Olaya district in the heart of this bustling city of 5.7 million. At 300 metres in height, it dominates the city skyline, resembling a threading needle inserted into the sands of Riyadh.
«The tower’s symmetry respects the traditions of Islamic art, which is known for its range of geometric forms,» reads the website of AECOM, a U.S. engineering firm, which contributed to its construction between 1998 and 2001.
The Kingdom Centre’s own website says it represents Saudi Arabia’s ambitions to transform itself from an oil producer to a hub for trade, finance and tourism. It is precisely those ambitions that His Royal Highness Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal Bin Abdulaziz Al Saud wanted to capture in a landmark building. In his travels abroad, he had seen how such structures could define the character of a city.
«The prince wanted to build an icon like the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York,» Sabah Sammakiah, the project's general manager, told the U.S. news agency Associated Press in 1998. «(He wanted) something that tells you the minute you see it that this is Riyadh.» Prince Alwaleed said as much in an interview with The Wall Street Journal: «I owe it to my country to have a landmark».
At a cost of about €400 million, the Kingdom Centre was built by a joint venture between Impregilo, one of Salini Impregilo’s predecessors, and Saudi El Seif Engineering Contracting.
Built with reinforced concrete, the structure’s central tower is 30-storeys high, while the parabolic opening on top of it consists of a 120-metre tubular steel structure. Atop this opening is a cross bridge with an observation gallery offering a panoramic view of the city. When it opened in 2002, the Kingdom Centre was the tallest building in Riyadh, triple the height of the city's tallest structure at the time: the 100-meter NCCI insurance office building.
Its signature feature, the parabolic opening, saw the tower join the ranks of similar buildings elsewhere in the world such as the Shanghai World Financial Center. Standing at the same height as the Eiffel Tower at 300 metres, the Kingdom Centre soon became the recipient of a number of prizes, including the Emporis Skyscraper Award as "best skyscraper in the world for design”.
In observance of Islamic religious and cultural customs, the Kingdom Centre houses a mosque. Located on the 77th floor, it is the highest in the world. In addition to hosting the head offices of Prince Alwaleed’s holding company, Kingdom Holding Co, there is a shopping centre, a luxury hotel, offices and residential apartments, restaurants, a conference centre, as well as a sports centre with a swimming pool and tennis courts. One floor of the shopping centre is dedicated to women only. Called “The Ladies’ Kingdom”, it allows them to shop without having to wear the veil.