Don’t look for the building itself if you want to find one of Saudi Arabia’s most well-known tourist attractions; instead, look for people holding selfie sticks and ring lights.
The largest building covered in mirrors in the world, Maraya appears to disappear into the desert at certain times of the day.
The building, whose Arabic name means “mirror” or “reflecting,” is a 500-seat concert hall, community center, and event space that has hosted performances by John Legend, Alicia Keys, Andrea Bocelli, and Enrique Iglesias.
However, it is also an original piece of art.
Maraya was the result of a joint effort between Black Engineering and the Italian design firm Gi Forma Studio. It was situated in AlUla against the dramatic landscape of the desert, just 14 miles from the epic architectural site at Hegra.
Maraya’s architect, Florian Boje, tells CNN about his initial pitch, “We truly believe that if a building cannot compete with the landscape, it should enhance it.”
He goes on to say: We had the opportunity to visit the site, and we were deeply moved by the natural and cultural landscape. As a result, the first thing we wrote in our design was, “Nothing visible should be built here, so if we really have to, it should be a silent mirror cube.”
In 2019, the finished product was unveiled, taking just 76 days to build and six months to develop.
It might appear as though putting a lot of glass in the middle of a sweltering desert would lead to vision loss.
Boje and his team set out to find materials that would improve the landscape’s view without making the hot, sunny weather worse.
A novel form of copper-based glass was the first option.
Guardian UltraMirror is a custom cladding product that was made to take Saudi Arabia’s warm, sunny climate into consideration. Gi Forma Studio collaborated with Guardian Glass, a company based in the United States.
The building is clad in 9,740 panels all together.
The inside of the Maraya show corridor.
The Maraya concert hall’s interior.
Robert Harding/Alamy “Ingenuity and perseverance paid off well for Guardian Glass as we had to develop solutions for the unique needs of Maraya Concert Hall,” Jasmin Hodzic, the company’s Asia and Middle East marketing director, said in a statement.
She continued, “The difficulties posed by the terrain and time frame were in front of us, but we proceeded.”
Extraordinary intensity can make glass oxidize, so the group fostered an exceptional covering for the Maraya glass that would have the option to oppose dust storms, immense temperature changes and other everyday weather conditions difficulties that can occur in the desert.
“From a distance, the building appears to be a shimmering mirage of the surrounding panorama due to the subtle curvature of the façade; however, as visitors get closer, they see a perfect reflection of themselves.”
Art in the desert
Even though Maraya was always going to be in AlUla’s palm-lined Ashar Valley, the exact location was chosen by taking large mirrors out into the sand and deciding where would be best, which the architect calls “analog.”
According to Boje, “the greatest challenge was creating in a pure and untouched territory of unimaginable landscapes that is also being developed and discovered from a cultural point of view, and as a result, is still developing its identity and design language.”
Therefore, Boje asks, “What is that design language?”
In addition to Maraya, a veritable flurry of art hot spots featuring some of the most prestigious names in the cultural world are sprouting up in and around the historic district.
Saudi architecture and archaeology were featured in a series of books published by the French publisher of art books Assouline. DesertX, a visual art exhibit, has twice set up shop in AlUla, bringing artists from all over the world to create works that are specific to the location.
This isn’t all. According to a report published in Le Monde earlier this year, “starchitects” Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano had agreed to consult on the construction of an AlUla outpost of Paris’ famed Centre Pompidou under the tentative name Perspective Galleries.
However, Boje’s experience designing Maraya involved much more than just a structure. He tells CNN that he fell in love with AlUla as well, so much so that his company now has a permanent office there.
Some visitors might be content to simply take pictures of Maraya from all angles, but they would be remiss if they didn’t also go inside the building.
Maraya hosts art shows in addition to musical performances. Most recently, Saudi Arabia hosted the first-ever exhibition of the legendary American artist Andy Warhol, who was inspired by advertising and pop culture.
Maraya Social, the rooftop restaurant with unobstructed views of the desert, is another major draw.
Show to English culinary specialist Jason Atherton, who won a Michelin star for his London café Dust Road Social, the stylish is Europe-meets-Center East, all planned mezze style for sharing.
Don’t miss the delicious desserts, especially the banana-and-date pudding, which is about as local a dish as you can get given how close you can get to AlUla’s many date farms from the building.
Since alcohol is not allowed in Saudi Arabia, many restaurants and places to party, like Maraya Social, have taken care to make fun and creative craft mocktail menus.
The sprawling Banyan Tree resort is the hotel to Maraya that is the closest.
The hotel’s suites, which are influenced by Bedouin culture and are housed in swooping modern tents, feature outdoor fire pits, private swimming pools, and areas where guests can watch the stars.
While the hotel provides cars to transport guests between the two locations, some guests choose to walk the two kilometers across the valley.
However, the best way to see Maraya is to visit multiple times, regardless of how you get there—by foot or by car. Every moment of the day offers a unique experience, from streaky pink sunset light to sparkling dawn.