By Matthew Brace
When the Dutch architect Michiel Hofman received a brief from a client in Saudi Arabia to build a villa of the utmost luxury, the message, he says, was crystal clear.
“They told me: ‘Don’t give us a Mercedes, give us a Maserati.’”
These words were enough for Hofman to embark on the most detailed research project of his career – for the design of Villa Riyyah.
The villa is to be part of an exclusive neighbourhood situated in Ajmakan, west of Riyadh’s city centre. Plans for the enclave include a collection of luxurious villas nestling in an area that is being landscaped to create a green oasis suburb on the banks of an old wadi. Building is scheduled for next year.
“We had never done anything as culturally complex as this before. We had to work out how to make the villa look and feel highly luxurious but function as a working household as well, all within the strict cultural and religious guidelines of the country.
“We researched old Islamic architecture – traditional patterns, ways of building, methods of cooling and the direction of air movement through the house.”
Hofman and his team at the Amsterdam-based firm Hofman Dujardin Architects had to be sensitive to who would be using which parts of the villa and then design it in the most efficient way.
Where would the owners enter and where would the staff enter? What entrances and internal and external spaces would be for women and which for men? Where would the pool be located for privacy and where would the majlis sit?
The resulting design is a graceful three-floor family villa, blinding white with tranquil water features and exquisite shaded patterns created by intricately perforated concrete walls and roof.
The formal living area, formal dining area and the majlis are on the ground floor.
In the majlis – which has four-metre high ceilings – perforated concrete walls project speckled light and shade and create a calming effect, somewhat reminiscent of the inside of a mosque. The view from it is of fountains in the garden.
The upper two floors contain the private family living and dining areas, reached by two staircases leading from a gallery on the first floor.
Each bedroom has its own private terrace, which offers views of the surrounding area, and all are arranged around a large central space – the villa’s hollow core, housing only the central stairwell. Through it streams natural light, making the space perfect, Hofman and the team suggest, for hanging an art collection.
All of the bathrooms are fitted with top-of-the-range products and materials: the walls are covered with Italian glass mosaic by Bisazza, the taps are stainless steel models by the Danish company Vola and the baths and sinks are by Boffi.
“Both family spaces have outdoor terraces,” says Hofman, “and the top floor has a pool, a Jacuzzi and a fountain. The central theme of these family terraces is the experience of viewing water and the greenery of the wadi and the neighbourhood, and enjoying being out in the open air.”
The roof terraces are covered by a lattice-like structure of perforated concrete that provides dappled shade. The designers describe it as a “horizontal mashrabiya” (traditional Arabian carved screen).
The team also studied the urban landscape of old Islamic towns and cities to observe how the early architects favoured large internal spaces and narrow alleyways to maximise airflow between buildings to avoid areas of “dead air”.
They used similar techniques to create breezes in the outdoor areas of Villa Riyyah.
In another mark of respect to Arabia and Islam, the designers orientated the patterns on the floors towards Mecca for prayer.
Villa Riyyah is a striking example of how western architectural expertise is increasingly being used in the Gulf region to drive forward a new design language rooted in Arabian and Islamic culture.
“Our client wanted something very respectful to Islamic design and this was good because we expressly wanted to get away from the old American-style architecture that used to be in favour in the Gulf,” says Hofman.
“We did not want to produce another pastel-coloured western-style building, but instead something that reflected the strong local traditions.
“There is a large increase of sophistication in the Gulf region. I notice that companies are more and more looking for designs where there is a synergy between innovation and authentic cultural values.
“It seems that the period where the American style was the standard and where local traditions were ignored is slowly changing.”