rench architect Jean Nouvel has unveiled the design for Sharaan, an underground hotel carved into a sandstone hill in the Al-Ula desert in Saudi Arabia, around 220 miles north of the city of Medina, that belongs to the Madâin Sâlih UNESCO World Heritage site. Al-Ula once served as a crucial crossroads on a vast trading route for spices, incense, and textiles between the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Dotted by ancient tombs, the remainder of the legacy of 7,000 years of human civilization, stunning natural rock formations, and canyons, Al-Ula territory is over 1 million years old. Recent discoveries point to 200,000 years of human history, with settlements traced back to 5,000 BC. The vast 22,000-square-kilometre region is a lasting reminder of the Kingdom's pre-Islamic history: the Nabataean civilization, which also built the remarkable city of Petra in Jordan, left behind 111 immaculately preserved tombs carved into the sandstone rocks at Hegra.
“Envisioning the future is a never-ending obligation that requires us to be fully alive to places in the present as well as conjuring up the past.”
“Al-Ula is a museum. Every wadi and escarpment, every stretch of sand and rocky outline, every geological and archaeological site deserves the greatest consideration,” said Nouvel. “We must keep all its distinctiveness and conserve its attractiveness, which largely rests on its remote and occasionally archaic character,” he continued. “We have to safeguard a little mystery as well as the promise of discoveries to come.”
Therefore, the ideal location for the starchitect born on 12 August 1945 in Fumel, Lot-et-Garonne, France.
Nouvel has often compared his role as architect to that of the film director. In an interview of 2002, he said, “Everything is theatrical. I have worked for a long time as a scenographer, even on social housing. Scenography is the relationship between objects and matter that we want to display to somebody who is watching.”
He designs his buildings to “create a visual landscape” that fits their context, sometimes by making them contrast with the surrounding area.
His projects transform the landscapes in which they are built, often becoming major urban events in their own right. His unique approach, driven by the specificities of context, program, and site, has proven effective in numerous successes around the world.
For his boldly experimental designs, which defy a general characterization, he was awarded the 2008 Pritzker Architecture Prize.
“Our project should not jeopardize what humanity and time have consecrated; it is celebrating the Nabateans spirit without caricaturing it. This creation genuinely becomes a cultural act,” said Nouvel.
The idea behind Sharaan is to give Al-Ula a degree of modernity, celebrating the area’s legacy, and encourage global tourism, being the resort part of The Royal Commission for Al-Ula’s plan for region relaunch.
“Envisioning the future is a never-ending obligation that requires us to be fully alive to places in the present as well as conjuring up the past,” continued Nouvel. The resort is part of a broader master plan, including an International Summit Centre that will be a global meeting point for world leaders. The expected opening date has been postponed to 2024 because of the pandemic.
The Sharaan design provides an entrance from a circular courtyard that will be carved into the sandstone hillside. From here, a series of rooms will be arranged around a central 80-metre high lift shaft. The accommodation will consist of a total of forty keys made up of fifteen one-bedroom and ten two-bedroom guest suites, plus ten tented guest pavilions and five large resort villas cut into a cliff face ranging from four to ten bedrooms each. In addition, the development will feature forty residential estates.
Each suite will have sandstone walls aimed at creating a direct connection with the former Nabataean city and a balcony that looks out across the surrounding landscape.
Restaurants, an extensive spa, and other guest amenities will complete the project.
Sharaan Resort will be a leading international resort destination with all the features of a highly sophisticated visitor experience and flawless service levels. At the same time, guests will be allowed to experience the peacefulness and seclusion of a natural desert environment and be exposed to its raw, elemental beauty, surrounded by the mystery of thousands of years’ history.