Lina Ghotmeh and Asif Khan to Design Museums at AlUla

Lina Ghotmeh and Asif Khan will be the architects for two upcoming museums, by The Royal Commission for AlUla (RCU), part of the constellation of cultural assets planned. Ghotmeh will design the contemporary art museum and Khan will design the Museum of the Incense Road. Both museums are situated in AlUla, a destination in northwest Arabia with 7,000 years of continuous human history.

The majestic AlUla.

AlUla seems almost like a mysterious space in the northern deserts of Saudi Arabia that is revealing itself layer by layer, using art and installations to immerse visitors in a creative journey from the desert expanse to the lush cultural oasis it is turning to be.

Cultural assets planned in the AlUla region are two museums; the contemporary art museum which will offer a core collection of works by artists from regions adjoining the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Eastern Mediterranean in dialogue with their contemporaries from across the world and the Museum of the Incense Road, the world’s first museum dedicated to this epic and millennia-old network of major land and sea trading routes, celebrating AlUla’s cultural legacy as a place of exchange at the confluence of civilizations. These are the first of the 15 cultural assets developed as part of AlUla’s Journey Through Time Masterplan.

Two architects for the design of these two museums were chosen through an international competition. The jury comprised of key stakeholders and specialists in architecture, landscape, and museology, supported by a technical panel, and was chaired by Dr. Khaled Azzam, the architect of AlUla’s Journey Through Time Masterplan.

“Through a series of garden pavilions, the museum presents a constant interplay between art and nature, capturing the essence of this unique place,” says French-Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh, adding about the space, “What is really impressive is the rich and beautiful horizon that the desert offers and the multiplicity of views it is able to bring. It’s very inspiring for me.”

Award-winning Ghotmeh, who designed the 2023 Serpentine Pavilion, creates work that sits at the intersection of art, architecture, and design. Her practice is developed through a process of thorough historical research, emerging in complete symbiosis with nature as exquisite interventions that enliven memories and the senses.

Asif Khan, who was awarded an MBE for his services to architecture, currently working on the renewal of the Barbican Centre and the new London Museum, is known for his radical approach to architecture, which merges history with the future, grounding projects in material experimentation and social context.

“AlUla is a spectacular landscape of discovery, where heritage, works of nature and humankind combine to reveal a long and intimate relationship between people and their environment. This Masterplan will guide the reinvigoration of AlUla establishing a new cultural legacy including the implementation of a circular economy expected to create 38,000 new jobs,” says Dr Khaled Azzam – Architect, Journey Through Time Masterplan, Royal Commission for AlUla.

“The architecture of the contemporary art museum in AlUla immerses visitors in a creative journey from the desert expanse to the lush cultural oasis of AlUla, interweaving the natural environment, agriculture, and art to reveal the heart of contemporary culture. Through a series of garden pavilions, the museum presents a constant interplay between art and nature, capturing the essence of this unique place. The galleries offer surprising and anchored perspectives on the many facets of AlUla, from the microclimates of the oasis to the expanse of the desert, evoking a deep sense of attachment to the land and its heritage,” says Lina Ghotmeh, architect, contemporary art museum in AlUla. The naming of this Museum will be done later with feedbacks taken from the local population, according to RCU.

London-based architect/designer Asif Khan says, “I am excited about how the Museum of the Incense Road can be brought into the collective memory of the world, and become a transformative asset for the local community.”

“AlUla resonated with me deeply as did the local community members I met. The design takes the form of a public space, not a museum within walls, situated in AlJadidah village with galleries and spaces for sensory experiences and learning. The mountains are a constant background, whose sand dunes reach down to greet the edges of the museum, while stepped terraces of gardens act as a new interface between the village and the oasis.  I am excited about how the museum of the Incense Road can be brought into the collective memory of the world, and become a transformative asset for the local community,” explains Asif Khan, architect, Museum of the Incense Road.

The collection aims within the contemporary museum aims to evolve in partnership with these artists, including a robust programme of commissioned works. As the primary art museum in AlUla, it contributes to the region’s legacy as a cultural beacon, generating opportunities for artists, designers, creatives, and curators.

An adjoining series of artist-designed gardens will ensure the experience is connected to the landscape in which it sits. Integrated into the distinctive AlUla oasis, set amongst vegetable gardens, palm groves, mountain ranges and an ancient settlement, the museum will explore sensitive environmental design and function as a catalyst for environmental renewal and regeneration of the oasis. It will be structured as an archipelago of pavilion galleries interspersed with a mosaic of artist gardens. Its balance of interior and exterior galleries and gardens will allow visitors to define their own encounters both with art and the natural landscape.

The Museum of the Incense Road will bring to life global histories, through which ideas, goods, and culture were exchanged, it shines a light on north-west Arabia as a cultural epicentre. Living and dynamic narratives will include spotlighting the discoveries of ongoing excavations, highlighting the active nature of AlUla’s archaeological sites, and the cultural importance of the Incense Road. At the forefront of innovative museum practice, it will enable visitors to engage through layered, multidisciplinary interpretation anchored by carefully curated collections.

The museum of the Incense Road is being developed in dialogue with AlUla’s ancient heritage – including Hegra, Saudi Arabia’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site – and its host village, AlJadidah. It will be an extension of the urban fabric that sits towards the oasis edge, looking out on a vista where Dadan and Hegra – once vibrant cities that thrived as a result of the Incense Road – are located.

Guided by subject experts and the local community, the Museum of the Incense Road will continue to be developed through extensive local and international collaboration with specialists across fields including academia and museology.