Urban settlements are growing rapidly, expanding in the territory with a population density in general rather low: a form of urban sprawl antithetical to the historical concept of the city in general and the Arab one in particular. Riyāḍ, the modern capital and largest city of the kingdom (with a population of about 5 million residents), is located on the northern edge of the Rub ‘al Khali – the so-called Empty quarter – one of the largest sandy desert areas in the world (650,000 km 2) and richer in oil fields.
According to Insidewatch, the urban structure, mainly horizontal, is characterized by a road grid of imposing dimensions, whose arteries, equipped with underpasses and viaducts, are mainly 12 lanes. With the exception of a few historic areas, the city is almost impractical for pedestrians: mobility is entirely delegated to private cars, while public transport, with the exception of taxis, is insufficient if not non-existent, but the construction of a new, ambitious metropolitan railway system started in 2014. The competitions for the three central stations of Olaya, Qasr Al Hokm and King Abdullah financial district were won respectively by the firms Gerber Architekten, Snøhetta (v.) and Zaha Hadid Architects. The first line will be 174 km long, all the stations will operate thanks to renewable energy sources:
In the center of the city two towers stand out. The first, Al Faisaliyah, built by Foster + Partners (v.) With BuroHappold in 2000, with its 267 m is considered the first to be built in the Saudi kingdom. The second is the Kingdom Tower, by Ellerbe Becket (an American studio with offices in Dubai and Doha, among others) and Omrania & Associates with Arup which, with its 300 m high and 99 floors, rises above of the homonymous Kingdom Center, one of the most famous shopping malls of the Saudi capital. Not a few new buildings by celebrated architects: Zaha Hadid is responsible, for example, for a large pavilion that is part of the Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University, a campus entirely dedicated to women (the largest women only universityof the world) whose buildings – largely designed by the US studio Perkins + Will and completed in 2011 – are connected by a driverless elevated metro line, i.e. completely automated, which guarantees the privacy of passengers with special crystals that darken in the most close to the outer boundaries of the campus.
The major museum institution is the National Museum of Saudi Arabia, designed by Moriyama & Teshima and built in 1999, a year before UNESCO assigned Riyāḍ the role of cultural capital of the Arab world. Also noteworthy is the Tuwaiq Palace, the cultural, ceremonial and recreational center of the diplomatic district: built by Frei Otto, BuroHappold and Omrania, in 1998 it won the coveted Aga Khan award for architecture.
Very different is Jeddah, the former capital and today, with over 4.5 million residents (including the metropolitan area), the second city of the kingdom. The metropolis has developed mainly towards the north, occupying the precious strip of land that stretches parallel to the Red Sea. Among the many buildings designed by internationally known studios are the King Abdulaziz international airport and the headquarters of the National commercial bank, a triangular tower located close to the historic center, both the work of the American studio SOM, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, and strongly inspired to the Arab tradition: the first due to the presence of white tents reminiscent of those used by the Bedouins in the desert; the second for the complete closure to the outside with the exception of large rectangular openings from which, according to a local construction technique, the offices indirectly take light. Among the most spectacular projects under construction is the new, dizzying Burj al Mamlakah or Kingdom Tower, commissioned by Prince Al-Waleed bin Talal. The tower was designed by Chicago firm Saudi Arabia + GG, Adam Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture (Smith, who was part of SOM, is the same designer as Burj Khalifa, the Dubai tower, which currently holds the world record tall) with a number of consultants including Environmental systems design and Thornton Tomasetti. Around the new, extraordinary building will be the Kingdom waterfront district, an extensive urban area that can be traveled on foot. The tower is destined to become the tallest in the world.
Particularly interesting is the historical center of Jeddah, called Al-Balad, which means the city: an ensemble of considerable historical-artistic value, densely populated by African and Asian immigrants. Unique in terms of size (the largest in the kingdom) and anthropological (it has been continuously inhabited for the entire course of its history), the most interesting architectural examples date back to the 18th and 19th centuries. and were built largely using blocks of coral origin. In 2014 Al-Balad became part of the UNESCO World heritage list.
The contrast between a thousand-year history and the tension towards the new is also very sensitive in Mecca. Forbidden to non-Muslims for a radius of 5 km from the Kaaba, the holy city, which houses the most revered mosque in Islam, also boasts one of the tallest towers in the world, the Makkah clock royal tower or Abraj Al-Bait towers or King Abdulaziz endowment tower, built by the Saudi Binladin Group, a major Saudi construction company (the name of one of the family members, Osama, is linked to the terrorist attack of 11 September 2001). More than a real tower, the complex that overlooks the mosque is a very high – it exceeds 600 m – set of several Arabian-style towers, which houses, in addition to a colossal clock, hotels, apartments and buildings with different functions. The continuous expansions of the mosque have also caused the destruction of a large part of the historical urban fabric that surrounded it; something similar happened recently in Medina.