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The joy of knowledge

In conversation with the architects behind Knowledge Economic City.

ANALYSIS, Business
ANALYSIS, Business

Jeff Roberts talks to the various architectural teams behind Saudi Arabia’s Knowledge Economic City

The US$ 7 billion Medina-based Knowledge Economic City (KEC) project – directed by the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz bin Saud, the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority (SAGIA) and a consortium of Saudi corporations – is considered the most important of Saudi Arabia’s Economic Cities (ECs) because of its proximity to the Holy Mosque. The fourth of six greenfield privately-developed centres of industrial and economic development in Saudi Arabia, KEC was designed to attract knowledge-based intellectuals and entrepreneurs from around the world.

“The reason for locating a knowledge-based development in Medina, which might seem like an odd choice because of the predominance of religion in the city, is that millions of Muslims are eager to live and work within a short distance of the Holy Mosque. They would do anything to get there; all that’s stopping them is living and working visas,” says Dr. Abdullah M.A. Telmesani, vice president of project development for Quad International Real Estate Development and concept designer for KEC.

Since the concept was launched in 2006, KEC has been declared a special economic zone under the regulatory jurisdiction of SAGIA, which will facilitate a collaborative and productive environment for knowledge-based businesses. “Approximately 75% of Saudi professionals in knowledge-based industries go to the UK, Canada and the US. So, KEC is hoping to encourage intelligent professionals to create and run this knowledge-based city,” says Telmesani. “Locating this development in Medina makes it attractive for Muslims in knowledge-based industries to remain in Saudi Arabia.” 

The Masterplan Process

To the surprise of all those involved, the initial conceptual design process was, by industry standards, extremely efficient.

 Telmesani worked with the Dubai branch of LA-based Creative Kingdom for three weeks to move the initial concept from an idea to a schematic design. After three weeks, Creative Kingdom and Telmesani worked with the existing schematics for an additional 14 weeks to complete the conceptual masterplan. “Creative Kingdom helped to create a conceptual masterplan complete with perspectives and animations. Just two-and-a-half months after we’d started working together, we made a presentation to the King of Saudi Arabia with full visual support including models,” recounts Telmesani.  

After attaining approval from King Abdullah Aziz, Quad hired HOK Architects to develop a technical masterplan that included critical infrastructure components. “Some of the original principals were kept but there was a lot of rigor to go beyond the conceptual level of the plan. Traffic impact was added into the mix in terms of creating the appropriate rights-of-way and tying them to the existing infrastructure,” explains Daniel Hajjar, vice president and regional manager of HOK in the GCC.

“We consulted with IBI Group for help with developing infrastructure and another firm to help with sewage and water, just so that, when we approached the various authorities, we had an idea of the demands of the project.”  

Joint masterplanning between major players is often fraught with tension and difficulties but, while the KEC project has had its share of both, Quad and HOK eventually arrived at a masterplan that was congruent with the original concept. “Of course, being the conceptual designer, you get attached to what you have created, so HOK and I had some fun times trying to make sure we could meet somewhere in the middle. Fortunately, we are all still friends after a lot of hot sessions,” laughs Telmesani.

“In terms of development of the project, the original schematic has pretty much been kept, along with the different infrastructure mixes as well. The project has actually gone quite smoothly,” adds Hajjar. “We’re pretty positive about the experience and, obviously, it’s great to see it move forward into reality instead of remaining just a set of pretty pictures and drawings.”

The ease of moving from concept to completed masterplan was a process that Telmesani extols. “Perhaps it was something mystical, but things have gone so well in getting to this point. On a project of this magnitude, things are never 100% effortless but, when it came to technical aspects, it really went very smoothly and very quickly.”  

Land use at KEC

The 4.8 million m² development is built on land originally owned by King Abdullah Aziz before he donated it to his charitable organisation, the King Abdullah Foundation (KAF); it is five kms from Medina’s Holy Mosque, and will incorporate 8 million m² of built space, creating 20,000 new job opportunities. The development will include 30,000 residences, housing an estimated 150,000 residents and accommodating up to 10,000 visitors.

The knowledge-based component of the KEC site, which includes the medical, health, science, multimedia, education and biotechnology services, has been allocated 600,000m². KEC’s Centre for Medical Sciences & Biotechnology will help to develop regional solutions to common illnesses and provide medical resources and rehabilitation for residents and visitors. The biotechnology ventures will conduct medical and environmental research into water conservation and waste management as well as genetic engineering and development of palm-based products.

The Taiba Hi-Tech Park for Knowledge-Based Industries, meanwhile, is slated to incorporate buildings fitted with cutting-edge telecommunications and artistic technology. The park will contain resources for distance learning, electronic government, tourism technology, call centres and improvement of Arabic language. Its main function will be to provide entrepreneurs with a supportive and competitive environment to develop and grow burgeoning businesses.   

The 130,000m² Seerah Land Theme Park, on the other hand, will create a cultural and historical background to the modern Muslim experience. By using state-of-the-art multimedia, laser and digital technology, visitors of all ages can explore the legacy and heritage of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In addition, the theme park will detail the lives of the other prophets, the dynasties of Islamic civilizations and the Muslim contribution to world knowledge.

Combining the old with the new

In the design for Knowledge Economic City, Quad, Creative Kingdom and HOK all strived to retain the look and feel of a traditional souk while crafting a high-tech modern Arabian development. “A lot of the building vocabulary is intended to reflect the Medina-style of architecture. We were looking for something that was traditional with a modern twist. As such, the mixture of tradition and modernity is intended to knit the whole city together,” says Hajjar.

“There used to be a wonderful Old Town in Medina with magnificent traditional Islamic architecture in the residential and commercial structures. However, the pressure of developing the city centre around the Holy Mosque was so tremendous that these traditional relics were totally demolished in order to develop access and accommodation for visitors to the mosque,” says Telmesani. “Preserving tradition while developing this project was very important to me.”  

In order to maximise pedestrian circulation, KEC architecture incorporated several shaded green areas within the built environment which facilitates a walkable, user-friendly city that encourages interaction. “You’ll notice that the buildings are not perpendicular to King Abdul Aziz Road; they’re actually skewed and set back. We tried to create a series of pedestrian pockets, which will form areas for cafes and open green spaces. This is meant to add another level of pedestrian hierarchy to the main road,” says Hajjar.  

Phase One infrastructure also includes a multi-modal transportation system traversing the median of King Abdullah Aziz Road, which will directly connect KEC residents with the Holy Mosque in Medina and the Holy Mosques in Mecca and Jeddah, as well as the other ECs. “Beneath the plaza, there is an intended landing point for the train, with the idea being that people can walk up to the plaza and be immediately connected to either side of the city,” says Hajjar. “We wanted to link the population to the site without creating an urban jungle.”

Facing up to difficulties

The major challenges of the KEC project varied depending on perspective. While HOK struggled with orienting the buildings to keep end-users in continuous view of the Holy Mosque, angling backstreets to maximise airflow and managing future population growth, Quad and SAGIA struggled with well-established political restrictions. 

“Generally, in Saudi Arabia, citizens of GCC countries can own property but restrictions remain in Medina and Mecca. This is not to mention citizens of countries outside the GCC, who are barred from owning land anywhere in Saudi Arabia. But, with the help of SAGIA and the Saudi government, arrangements have been made to simplify visas and, hopefully, to offer 50-plus year leases to allow foreigners a long-term option,” says Telmesani.   

KEC clients are certain that the only things preventing more people from relocating to Medina are a lack of living and working options and they’re convinced that projects like these are changing the face of Saudi Arabia. “I think this is mostly attributed to the leadership of King Abdullah Aziz and his sense of the necessity for change,” says Telmesani. “If the saying, ‘If you build it, they will come’ applies anywhere on earth, it’s here in the city of Medina.”

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