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The Hajj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport

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Photo Credit ©Owens-Corning Fiberglas/S. A. Amin/Skidmore, Owings & Merrill LLP/Prof. em. Herbert Schmidt

This award, recognizing architectural design of enduring significance, is conferred on a project that has stood the test of time for 25 to 35 years as an embodiment of architectural excellence. Projects must demonstrate excellence in function – in the distinguished execution of its original program and in the creative aspects of its statement by today’s standards.

The Hajj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, designed by the Chicago and New York offices of SOM, will receive the 2010 AIA Twenty-Five Year award. Because the millions of Hajj pilgrims on their way to the Islamic holy site of Mecca travel through this tented, open-air terminal each year, it was designed and serves as a gathering place of religious fellowship, an improvised campsite for pilgrims waiting to begin their journey, and a point of departure and gateway to Islam’s most revered places.

Gateway to a holy place

Perhaps no other airport terminal in the world is as defined by cultural and religious traditions as the Hajj Terminal. Its form, site relationship, and circulation patterns are drawn entirely from the need to accommodate massive groups (over 2.5 million people completed the Hajj journey in 2009) from all over the world in a short timeframe. SOM joined this stringent functional requirement with vital cultural and vernacular references. The tent structure that makes up the terminal’s roof strongly resembles vernacular Bedouin shelters and Hajj pilgrim tents that spring up around Mecca during the Hajj season. The terminal is composed of two symmetrical, rectangular sections separated by a landscaped mall. Each terminal section contains 105 tensile fabric tent structures supported by steel pylons and cables. These tents filter out heat and allow in light, creating an open air gathering place for the multi-ethnic contemporary Islamic diaspora to come together and then go forth into places of supreme religious and cultural ritual.

“A marvel of function and design, the structure responds with sensitivity to place, culture, and the environment,” wrote AIA Chicago executive vice president Zurich Esposito in a nomination letter.

The ritual journey of Muslims to Mecca is one of Islam’s five pillars of faith. Pilgrims from around the world travel to Mecca and perform a series of religious rituals, including praying at the Al-Haram Mosque. Over a six week span, millions of Muslims undertake this journey. When SOM signed onto the project, the increasing number of Hajj pilgrims had overwhelmed the original Jeddah airport 43 miles west of Mecca, and the firm’s Chicago office was commissioned to design a dedicated Hajj terminal there that would only be used during these religious ceremonies. Completed in 1981, the terminal covers 120 acres and 2.8 million square feet.

Structure, culture, tradition, ritual

First and foremost, the Hajj Terminal is a fusion of vernacular architecture with contemporary structural innovation and integration as only Modernist giant SOM could do. Its architects and engineers (which included Gordon Bunshaft, FAIA, Gordon Wildermuth, FAIA, and Fazlur Khan) created a Teflon-coated fiberglass conical roof of tensile fabric held up by 147-foot-tall steel pylons and cables. The building uses the strength of the fiberglass to help support itself, making the tensile roof as much of a structural element as its taut steel cables; a unified structural system that uses all its components as gravity-defying elements. At the time of its completion, it was the world’s largest cable-stayed fabric roof structure.

The semi-translucent roof system reflects most of the desert sun’s heat, but allows light to pass through, keeping temperatures near 80 degrees Fahrenheit, while outside the tent temperatures can be as high as 120 degrees. The terminal is designed to use natural breezes to ventilate and cool the space, and up-lighting makes it glow like a lantern in the night sky. For the pilgrims that use it, the experience is meant to honor their journey and sacrifice with a warm and inviting space that gathers the international Muslim community together in a way that recognizes their cultural and religious traditions. A 1983 AIA awards jury described the terminal as having a “soft monumentality” that draws and holds people to it “like an oasis.”

Hajj pilgrims begin their journey to Mecca at the outside perimeter of each section of terminal tents as they exit their airplanes. Along this perimeter, they go through the typical airport circulation patterns—baggage claims, customs and immigration, security screening, etc. From there, visitors proceed to the much larger interior sections of the terminal, where, because of the huge number of arrivals in such a short period of time and the need to organize large groups of people, pilgrims might wait for 24 to 36 hours before they board a bus to Mecca. (SOM designed the terminal to handle 80,000 people in 36 hours.) To accommodate pilgrims during this long wait, SOM filled the terminal with vast expanses of lightly and flexibly programmed space. There are benches for resting and napping, places for open fire pits for preparing food, cafeterias, information desks, banks, and shops. Finally, visitors to Mecca board buses on the opposite side of the terminal.

Past Honors and Awards

The Hajj Terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport also was the recipient of a 1983 AIA National Honor Award, the 1983 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, and a 1981 Progressive Architecture award. SOM has won four previous Twenty-five Year Awards for the Lever House in New York, the Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel in Colorado Springs, John Hancock Center in Chicago, and the Weyerhaeuser Headquarters in Federal Way, Wash. Past Twenty-five Year Award winners include Rockefeller Center in New York, Taliesin West in Paradise Valley, Ariz., the Vanna Venturi House in Philadelphia, the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, and the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

Past Recipients of the Twenty-five Year Award


Richard L. Maimon, AIA (Chair)

Richard Dattner &
Jeanne Gang, FAIA
Studio/Gang Architects

Sam Grawe
Dwell /At Home in the
Modern World Magazines
San Francisco

Jeffrey Lee, FAIA
Pearce Brinkley Cease & Lee P.A.

Justine N. Lewis
AIAS Representative

Miguel A. Rivera Agosto,AIA
Miró Rivera Architects

Mark Simon, FAIA
Centerbrook Architects & Planners
Centerbrook, Connecticut

H. Ruth Todd, AIA
Page & Turnbull Architects
San Francisco

William R. Turner, Jr., Assoc.AIA
Shears Adkins Architects
Morrison, Colorado


This is a modernist structure that captures the spirit of MiddleEastern nomadic architecture – nomadic being pertinent at no less of a place than an airport.

The architects created a highly sustainable project well ahead of the green movement; they learned from the way people have inhabited the desert since early civilization—screening the sun, allowing natural light and ventilation. They did so much with so little – few materials, a regular rhythm of structural bays, a simple fabric structure that works as shelter, as environmental control and as a tie to tradition.

The great roof still works as originally designed as a plaza for the pilgrimage. The building is highly regarded for what it offers spatially, spiritually, symbolically, culturally- it has acquired landmark status as an airport and in the region.

This project exemplifies the power of a clear idea. With a very simple bay repeated quite beautifully, they set the standard for many airports since. The repeated bays establish a grand, public scale that accommodates smaller scale buildings within.

The terminal presents a sense of place, ecology, economy of means, and culture - not imposing on but learning from the local culture and environment.


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