Cutting-edge culture

Embracing technology to enrich minds

  • Ithra was created as a cultural platform to showcase human potential; a gift from Saudi Aramco to the Kingdom
  • Technology is woven into its fabric, from its building design to its exhibits and programs
  • Ithra Connect keeps the doors open to everyone – virtually – during COVID-19

Daniel Kany |

The King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (Ithra) is the first – and currently only – building in the world to feature a steel pipe skin. It is covered with more than 360 km of individually bent steel tubes, each one individually barcoded so that it fits its exact place and nowhere else.

Exterior of Ithra – individually bent steel tubes
The façade of Ithra features more than 360km of individually bent steel tubes, each one individually barcoded and unique.
A traditional mashrabiya in Arabic street – an oriel window that allows air flow inside the building
The mashrabiya, a characteristic of Islamic architecture, is a type of oriel window that encourages the flow of air and shade from the sun.

This feature isn't just about aesthetic style, or being a great screen for the cutting-edge 3D image mapping that lights it up at night. It's a mashrabiya, a centuries-old traditional feature of regional architecture that serves to cool interior spaces and encourage the flow of air.

Ithra's steel pipe skin does all this and more. It deflects solar heat gain, increases air flow, and plays a role in the collection of gray water, which is, in turn, used as part of the Center's high-tech and highly efficient use of water known as xeriscaping.

Interior of Ithra - gallery
Ithra’s sleek, cool interior is as modern as its exterior

Sleek and sustainable

These cutting-edge technologies are combined with ancient material methods, such as rammed-earth walls, where dampened soil, mixed with gravel or clay, is compressed to form blocks, making it a model of sustainability. Walls and ceilings in the library are made up of overlapping pentagonal cladding, formed from microperforated, galvanized steel, and is not only visually striking but the tiles also dampen acoustic reverberation. The year it opened, Ithra was awarded Gold LEED certification, the international standard for green building practices. It was also named one of TIME Magazine's 2018 “100 Greatest Places in the World to Visit.”

The library at Ithra
Recognized for its sustainable architecture, which infuses old methods with modern materials, Ithra was named one of TIME Magazine’s 2018 “100 Greatest Places in the World to Visit.”

Ithra was originally conceived in 2006 as a world-class library to mark Saudi Aramco's 75th anniversary, a gift to the Saudi people to help transform the culture of the Kingdom into an information economy. By the time the Norwegian firm Snøhetta's competition-winning design opened to the public in 2018, it had blossomed into an engine for human potential: a multipurpose cultural center featuring art and history museums, a performing arts theater, a cinema, an innovation lab, the first children's museum in the nation, and, of course, a library.

Ithra lit up at night – images projected on to exterior
Ithra can serve as a backdrop for 3D images that are projected onto its surface – an impressive landmark visible for miles across all directions.

A beacon of enlightenment

With innovation woven into its very fabric, it was clear that technology would play a role throughout Ithra. Hi-tech sound, projection, and lighting; digital information panels; and interactive displays are aspects of each of the Center's elements. The Idea Lab is an innovation center with a materials library, 3D printers, design exhibitions, and an amphitheater for presentations by innovators, entrepreneurs, and inventors. The museum exhibition Being Saudi features not only digital content about design, poetry, music, and costumes, but presents a unique experience for the visitors. Abdullah Alrashid, head of programming, describes it as “a truly interactive museum exhibition where visitors can literally picture themselves in traditional Saudi costumes, select poems and music, and then email themselves this content as a digital souvenir.”

That the nation is among the top social media consumers in the world – ahead of countries such as the United States, Korea, and Japan – also offers a clear path for reaching out to the people of the Kingdom. Ithra's mobile app, for example, offers a contextually relevant experience, dissolving distance so that users can stay connected from anywhere. The app includes location-aware push notifications, enabled by Fourth Industrial Revolution technology such as Internet of Things, and implemented via Bluetooth “beacons” placed throughout the building. These beacons, or intricate sensors, broadcast tiny radio signals to a mobile phone, to personalize the Ithra experience, sensing the user's position in relation to exhibits or galleries.

Ithra connecting the world

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered cultural institutions around the world, and made it a time of digital visits. With its communications expertise and technical prowess, Ithra has been able to continue creating and delivering online programing in service of its five-pillar mission: Art, Culture, Knowledge, Creativity, and Community. The stepped-up online initiative is called Ithra Connect.

Whereas many cultural institutions and museums have focused on virtual exhibitions of their standard programming, these represent merely one aspect of Ithra Connect. There is a virtual tour of the Center, daily broadcasts, a storytelling podcast, a COVID-19 Journal – an interactive journal open to the public – the interactive talk show COVID-19 Culture Discussions, society meetups, and much more.

“The situation the world faces presents global institutions with a challenge – to adapt and evolve to remain connected to the public,” notes Rania Biltagi, head of communications and partnerships. “We have a wide range of audiences, and our mission doesn't stop just because the doors aren't open. Quite the opposite. The solution was to utilize the talent of our people, the content and technology at our disposal, and our digital strengths in order to bring everything Ithra has to offer fully online.”

Light installation at Ithra
Ithra has a five-pillar mission – Art, Culture, Knowledge, Creativity, and Community

A cutting-edge cultural center for all

Sunset view of Ithra from above
Ithra is a monument to knowledge, culture, creativity, and innovation – a beacon of enlightenment and a gift to the people of the Kingdom and beyond.

As a cultural center, Ithra celebrates tradition and innovation, individual achievement and collaboration, its iconic building reflecting both a national and international outlook with a strong vision of the future.

It's this dedication to creativity and knowledge, with a digital vision that boosts education, that keeps the Center responsive to its communities. Ithra was predicated on the idea that human potential is the best path to the future, and if character comes out in crises, then Ithra has clearly proven to be an uncannily apt gift from Saudi Aramco to the people of the Kingdom. As Alrashid explains: “Ithra has always aspired to engage hearts and enrich minds globally. The embrace of technology to enhance experience has always been part of our DNA. We are an extraordinary culture center, not only because of our architecture, but also the blend of programs we offer, and we provide that distinctive combination digitally.”

“The embrace of technology to enhance experience has always been part of our DNA”

Abdullah Alrashid, head of programming, Ithra