© onSITE

Invisible Dwelling // onSITE

AlUla, Saudi Arabia

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Text description provided by the architects.

60 square meters is a small object but 15 square meters, 4 times, is an experience : a journey.The Journey begins at the entry to a tertiary wadi. In practical terms a head house provides shaded parking, fresh dates and other front-of-house services as well as back-of-house infrastructure. But in transcendental terms a head house creates a threshold : a preparation : a transformation.

© onSITE

© onSITE

Here, you leave all the trappings of contemporary life (cars, computers, cell phones, electric appliances, luggage, money, time pieces, etc). you shower, you change into an uniquely coutured kaftan and you ascend a wadi-wide monumental stair. This is not the entry to a building but rather the entry to a life experience.

© onSITE

© onSITE

The majesty of the landscape invites you to wander, to explore : the way that travelers through this place have for thousands of years. History reminds you that this is a place of shared cultural heritage. There is something universal here. As you explore you discover both sanctuary and prospect.

© onSITE

© onSITE

To know this place you cannot simply visit it, you must live it.In the words of Ibn Battuta “He who enters is lost; he who leaves is born.”The project resists the urge to build on the highest, the most beautiful, the most visible or the most interesting parts of the landscape and instead seeks to preserves the pristine natural beauty of those places.The site is not specific in its location but rather specific in its quality.

© onSITE

© onSITE

The tertiary wadis are higher and thus limited in the severity of flood danger but also, as local camel farmers demonstrate, their single or double entry points facilitate isolation and preservation. Built elements are nestled within the high ground in the inlets which feed the wadi. Here, they are above the floodway and back from rock fall.

© onSITE

© onSITE

These pockets are secluded places of extreme tranquility, sheltered from the wind, and silenced by the surrounding cliff walls. Here, 5 single room, single aperture instruments take place. Each born of the materials of the place. Each a rough, weathered geolith – armored from the harsh desert – shielding a carefully oriented and tuned, immersive sensual experience of a primary terrestrial element: earth, water, fire, void and sky.

The spaces are not “programmed” in the conventional contemporary sense, neither are they furnished nor decorated.

© onSITE

© onSITE

Rather they are “programmable”. This is to say that while the fire room is in no way a “kitchen” all the resources for food storage and preparation reside in this space. Formally, the fire room is the tallest of the elements it is an inhabitable chimney. You enter it through a tall, narrow slot, guided by a slice of light washing a wall of meticulously hand textured earthen plaster.

© onSITE

© onSITE

The texture both catches the light of the flickering fire and holds the aroma of charred timber. The crackling kindling is enhanced by the dense mineral surfaces. Here, the intentional suppression of the expected heightens your consciousness of the subtle, of the fundamental : this is luxury.In this arid place, water is among the most precious of commodities.

© onSITE

© onSITE

To survive here literally requires the mastery of hydrology. And so the vestiges cultures who have thrived on this land include brilliant examples of hydraulic infrastructure. Harvesting water in the generic sense is insufficient. The water room is thus calibrated to this equilibrium: The saltwater bath is therapeutic, the steamy hot water shower is sanitary, the cold fresh water quenches thirst, the gray water evacuates waste and the black water nourishes plantings.

Like descending into a well, the entry to the water room is a long shallow stair.

© onSITE

© onSITE

The entry corridor leads you onto a promontory surrounded by a pool in the center of a dome, under a single oculus. You shower in an ether of steam and light. You soak in a suspension of water and salts.Here, the intentional augmentation of the arbitrary enriches your experience of the habitual, of the necessary : this is luxury.The Nabateen were expert stone masons.

© onSITE

© onSITE

Their habitations for eternity : their tombs for the dead, were carved into the live rock. Their temporal habitations : their villages for the living, were erected from rubble masonry. This experience aspires to be both : timeless and light on the land. It’s structural and constructive systems emerge directly from material and constructive cultures of the place while simultaneously writing the next chapter of this shared language : digitally carved complex stone geometries, simply assembled with traditional earth mortar masonry technologies.

The earth room is entered obliquely from a bent corridor.

© onSITE

© onSITE

The space is initially withheld from your view. As you round the corner you remain on-grade with the adjacent land and find yourself oriented toward a naturally placed boulder. You are offered a view but the focal length is short and aperture is low. You are encouraged to approach the floor.

© onSITE

© onSITE

From this vantage you appreciate a textile ground-scape. While hand rendered earthen plaster has created the atmosphere, now felted wool fiber delivers intimacy. You kneel, you sit, you lay.

Here, your visual perceptions are intentionally limited to provoke your tactile perceptions, to draw you close to the earth, to rest your body : this is luxury.

At a time when globalization has drawn many people to urban centers and has diluted experience to ephemeral images – iconic non-experiences which can be captured and shared on social media, which belong to everywhere and nowhere and which fade as quickly as they rise all proport authenticity.

© onSITE

© onSITE

This place is about focus and memory.You enter the void room by climbing a stair. Your vantage is high, your view is long. The room is dead silent. A felted textile envelope, like a Bedouin tent absorbs visual and auditable noise. You observe the landscape but you are removed from the experience of it.

© onSITE

© onSITE

A central stone monolith is a place to sit, a place to write, a place to eat, a place to read.Here, the emptiness is intentional, the abstraction is real, this place is a blank canvas : this is luxury.The sky room is a boundless observatory on the stone ridge. It is accessed first by a stair carved directly into the live rock face following the natural contours, than through a vault-like enclosure and up a spiral stair to a honed stone platform.

By the time you arrive the land is becoming dark and the sky is vibrant. The only tool you need is the telescope that you discover on the axis of the stair. As you situate yourself in the cosmos night turns into dawn.Here time bends and disappears, infinity becomes measurable : this is luxury.A great teacher once said that “architecture is the marriage of art and engineering”.

From their intricately carved monolithic necropolis freed from the live sandstone outcrops to their patiently hand fashioned rubble and clay metropolis born of the earth, few civilizations -ancient or contemporary- have demonstrated this foundational relationship between creativity and ingenuity more fully than the Nabatean. To this end, the collaborative underpinning of our team is a mutual reverence for disciplinary expertise.

This is to say that we have assembled a team of architects, material scientists, landscape designers, exhibition designers, an earth plaster sculptor and a textile artist, all of whom offer specific disciplinary expertise but all with shared professional experiences, shared values and a shared investment in conceiving and realizing a coherent collaborative work of architecture: a work of engineering to which the art is indissociable and a work of art to which the engineering is indissociable.

The ambition of our team is that cultural project is equally as important as the architectural project.

This is to say that the collaborative making of the architecture is as important as the physical manifestation. As with all of our projects, a series of exhibitions, publications and training workshops will ensure that the material and human resources developed for the project transition into sustainable contributions to local culture and economy.

With the long history of domestication of sheep, goats, and camels in the Arabian Peninsula, these animals’ fibers have been used in producing various textiles and materials for clothing and shelter in the region.

An abundant natural resource, animal fibers are highly suitable for the climate in both hot and cold temperatures. Many elements of the traditional Bedouin home such as the exterior and interior walls, floors, roofs, and various furniture (mattresses, cushions, and rugs) are some form of a textile, woven using a simple floor loom.

This Bedouin loom has remained a primitive tool, which can produce very intricate weavings. The essence of this loom is preserved while exploring the evolution of this simple technology to create complex textiles which can become three-dimensional and spatial. The textile becomes ‘inhabitable space’. Sheep’s wool is an abundant and versatile fiber.

It can be used in various forms, from loose fiber for stuffing mattresses and blankets, to spun yarn for weaving into various textiles for garments, interiors, and exteriors. Wool can also be ‘molded’ through felting, which transforms the loose fibers into textiles and objects. Felting is synonymous with ancient Nabatean building processes where mountains are carved to create spaces within, producing loose rubble, which is then assembled into built structures for living.

The loose wool is sheared off the sheep’s body and then reassembled into two and three-dimensional forms – ‘inhabitable works of Art’. To be invisible means to be immersed the history of a place, to be in harmony with the spirit of a place. To be invisible means to resist the global and the virtual in favor of the local and the real, to be built from local materials rather than from imported products, to be simultaneously high-tech and low-tech, to be experiential rather than iconic, to improve rather than to degrade with age, and to enrich rather than to exploit culture.

To be invisible means to be monumentally modest: an architecture confident enough in the power of its experience to fade quietly into its setting. This is luxury..

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