Creating landmark structures is not easy. From the great pyramids of Egypt to the world’s tallest building the Burj Khalifa, the region has pushed the boundaries of possibility when it comes to construction. In the process, the Middle East has created structures that visitors flock to see and this is a trend that governments hope to continue as they invest in projects of cultural significance in order to develop their tourism sector.

Key fact on cultural projects

There are more than $100bn projects with a cultural emphasis planned or under way in the region

At present, there are more than $100bn-worth of projects with a cultural emphasis planned or under way in the Middle East and North Africa region, according the regional projects tracker MEED Projects. These range from the $1bn Louvre Abu Dhabi on Saadiyat Island to new national museums in Egypt and Qatar, and heritage sites in Saudi Arabia.

Design challenges

Executing such developments throws up challenges for project teams, who are often tasked with creating world-class facilities that also incorporate traditional design techniques. “The Middle East cultural identity is anchored in tradition, yet is also about where the region projects itself in the future. It is a mixture of old and new,” says Rym Baouendi, a senior sustainability consultant at the UK’s Buro Happold. The consultant is working on a number of cultural projects in the region, including several mosques and museums such as the Louvre, the Grand Egyptian Museum, and Saudi Arabia’s Addiriyah Heritage City integrated development plan. “The challenge for designers is to find the right middle ground and make it work by learning from the past, but incorporating modern thinking.”

Mixing old and new is key to several of the projects currently planned or under way, particularly those intended to promote the region’s history. Saudi Arabia is working on a range of heritage projects, including the development of Addiriyah Heritage City, 30km north west of Riyadh, and the King Abdulaziz Centre for Knowledge and Culture in Dammam. At Addiriyah, client Arriyadh Development Authority is rehabilitating a series of mud-brick villages on the outskirts of the capital. It plans to preserve the villages and add attractions such as an Islamic museum, a souk and arts centre. A $300m contract was awarded in June to a local consortium of International Centre for Contracting Company with Saudi Freyssinet to build half the development. The $160m contract for preparatory works was awarded to the local Al-Yamama Company for Trading & Contracting in 2006. A final contract award is scheduled for 2011.

In the kingdom’s eastern province, state oil giant Saudi Aramco awarded in May the $533m King Abdulaziz Centre for Knowledge and Culture to the local Saudi Oger. Aramco retendered the scheme to take advantage of lower construction costs and increasing competition in the industry. Its original tender was issued in March 2009 and after granting bidders a one month extension to respond, it decided to retender the project in January 2010. By February, seven bids had been entered, three more than for the original contract. Norway’s Snohetta is the lead architect.

The project is located at the site of Saudi Arabia’s first commercial oil well. It involves the construction of five interconnected buildings, including exhibition halls, a museum, mosque, library, cinema, auditorium and a theatre to accommodate 1,000 visitors.

Saudi Aramco is not the only client getting better value for money in the current economic climate. Abu Dhabi’s Tourism Development and Investment Company (TDIC) said in April that costs for some of its projects had fallen by as much as 30 per cent. State-owned TDIC is responsible for realising Abu Dhabi’s plan to become the cultural capital of the GCC and is behind many of the region’s most ambitious projects. Its largest schemes involve constructing new buildings for world famous museums such as the Louvre and the Guggenheim at the Cultural District on Saadiyat Island.

The Louvre Abu Dhabi, in particular, demonstrates the challenges associated with building elaborate designs. French architect Jean Nouvel has created a network of buildings that sit under an enormous dome. “The key feature at the Louvre [Abu Dhabi] is the dome, which creates shade and lets in light. Extensive computer modelling has been undertaken and a physical prototype model built to validate the design assumptions,” says Baouendi.

Buro Happold is structural engineer on the project, which is being managed by US consultant Aecom.

Latest technology

For complex unique designs such as the Louvre, computer simulation analysis is the only accurate way to predict how the structure will behave.

“In part people reach their final designs by testing over and over. In the old desert cities the planners knew the optimum arrangements, but it took a long time to get there. We can play with modern modelling, apply innovative thinking and supplement designs with technology to find optimum arrangements to present to clients. It is quite powerful,” says Baouendi.

Competition to build the Louvre could be fierce – 12 firms have been prequalified to bid for the main construction contract, which closes in August. It was originally due to be tendered as a design and build contract, but TDIC changed its approach in December. Contracts for earthworks and foundations have already been awarded to Germany’s Bauer International. The contractor has excavated 503,000 cubic metres of earth and driven 5,638 piles in preparation for construction of the main structure.

Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi design impressed Doha so much that Qatar’s Museum Authority asked him to prepare the designs for a new national museum to replace the original, which opened in 1975. Much of the museum will be rebuilt, but the existing palace owned by the ruling Al-Thani family is set to be incorporated into the new complex, again mixing traditional structures with a new design. Eight firms are understood to have prequalified for the project and contractors are expecting the tender documents to be issued before the end of September.

Cairo museum

Another national museum that is about to reach the construction phase is the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo. A prequalification deadline for the main construction contract has been set for the 16 July. “The museum will house 75,000 artefacts, many of which have never been displayed,” says Raouf Ghali, president for international operations at the US project management firm Hill International. Hill is project manager on the $480m project. “This museum will be more than just a day visit. It is one of the world’s most high-profile projects, both architecturally and in terms of end use,” he says.

Ireland’s Heneghan Peng Architects won the design competition for the museum in 2003. More than 1,500 designers submitted proposals. The winning design incorporates a series of layers, which the visitor will move through before ascending up a grand staircase to the main exhibition level. From here the pyramids are visible and the concrete ceiling of the galleries will appear to float above.

The nature of the design means local contractors will team up with international firms to bid for the scheme. “An issue for us to consider is the need to couple international contractors with local firms to get the right mix of expertise for the highest possible quality with a competitive edge. This is a trend, which is happening more and more,” says Ghali.

Hill International is also wrestling with challenges related to the design of the museum such using the right material for the 40 metre high, 600m long Sierpenski Translucent Stone Wall. “One wall is to be fluorescent and give off an alabaster effect. We want a natural stone, but which will allow lighting through so we can’t use marble or granite. It is freestanding so it cannot be too fragile,” he says.

Unlike some projects in the UAE, Egypt has not turned to bond markets for finance. In 2007, it announced that the Japanese Bank for International Cooperation would be lending $300m to the scheme, the government $147m and the rest would come from other international organisations.

Religious tourism

Beyond museums, the region also has a raft of real estate and religious projects under way. Saudi Arabia is investing $30bn in construction projects in Mecca to cater to religious tourists. About 3.3 million visitors entered the kingdom during Hajj in 2009.

The Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities expects this to grow to 3.8 million in 2010. Projects such as the $1.3bn Jabal Omar development involving 38 towers and 40 hotels near the Grand Mosque are intended to provide accommodation for visitors.

On the real estate side, Baouendi says Gulf nationals are increasingly looking to cultural traditions in selecting where they live and developers are listening. “The Ain al-Fayda development, for example, has reinvented the farij, which is a system of six to eight houses occupied by family members in the same space,” she says. The project is being built by Abu Dhabi’s Al-Qudra Real Estate. Other developers such as Dubai Properties are working on similar schemes. “It is an open environment that emphasises the social aspects of life which is all about family. Individual villas with large perimeter fences don’t always suit that, people naturally like to interact.”

Whatever the end product, developers and governments need firms that have experience in delivering complex structures with high quality finish to create attractions that will ensure visitor numbers rise. In the current competitive environment clients are getting the best firms at the best price.