Case Study: Danish Embassy, Riyadh

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When Henning Larsen Architects undertook the designs for the Embassy of Denmark in Riyadh in 1986, the architecture firm had already been introduced to Middle Eastern culture, having previously completed Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs had requested that the built embassy not only reflect Danish heritage, but also Saudi Arabian architecture. The embassy, too, was to host not only the various workspaces of a consular service, but also housing quarters for its staff.

‘You don’t usually want to live in the same place that you work,’ explains Troels Troelsen, an architect and senior partner at Henning Larsen Architects. ‘In order to soften that a bit, we created a small village with a central garden and courtyard, which was friendlier and didn’t have such a strong working environment.’

As such, the Danish Embassy consists of two housing blocks, the ambassador’s residence and a chancery. ‘The project was inspired by our ideas from working on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We were looking into the Arab way of living, with the souks and the courtyards,’ says Troelsen.

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While the Embassy of Denmark in Saudi Arabia might appear Danish in its styling, the architectural elements throughout the project, including the spatial layouts and timber screens, were influenced by Saudi Arabia’s design culture.

Upon entering the premises, visitors are welcomed by a small, hexagonal fountain surrounded by soft greenery and large desert palms. Those visiting the chancery are led through a small oasis-like entrance into a main room, which exhibits a double-height ceiling and hexagonal geometries. The ambassador’s residence opens up to a private atrium, and is separated from public areas on the embassy grounds.

The chancery consists of a cement frame covered by plaster, a material chosen for its durability and strength against desert climates. Its mustard yellow paint was inspired by the public buildings of Denmark, yet is reminiscent of the sandy hues of Riyadh’s arid environment.

‘We thought of using limestone, but at the time that we were building it, the Arab design-build industry was not so developed,’ Troelsen explains. ‘We hoped to find local limestone but it just wasn’t possible, so we used a coloured plaster. Everything was imported from abroad,’ he adds. ‘Still, I think you could understand the embassy as having Arab spaces with Danish architecture.’

Throughout the embassy, one can admire the latticework of strategically placed wooden partitions. Inspired by traditional Middle Eastern architecture, the timber screens provide the building with an economic and environmental advantage by shielding the bright summer sun and offering privacy to the various rooms inside.

According to Troelsen, Henning Larsen enjoyed the feeling given by greenery and gardens, and had chosen to incorporate nature into the property’s layout. From the entrance to its residential sections, plants inherent to the land can be found populating the embassy grounds. Mostly palms, these plants not only reflect the natural and familiar landscape of the surrounding environment, but also provide shade to the complex’s various walkways.

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Troelsen explains that the project had been previously commissioned to another architecture firm, which had opted for a super modern approach favouring a lot of glass panelling; the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs decided to seek out Henning Larsen instead.

‘The approach of the architect before us was to create a glass building with shiny surfaces. It was quite stylish, I guess, but we didn’t do things like that,’ says Troelsen. ‘We went more towards trying to understand the architecture of the local area and how the climate would impact and affect the building. The project was not so much inspired by formal elements, but by the spaces and gardens of an Arab city. I think it’s important that we had a basic understanding of Arab culture.’

If given a second chance to work on the project, Troelsen says that he would use the opportunity to explore local materials, given that the industry competition and architectural approach in the region is now different to what the firm experienced during the 1980s.

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‘I think we had a good understanding of Arab architecture but, nowadays, it seems that many Arab countries prefer two opposites,’ says Troelsen. ‘Either they want to make new buildings look like old Arab cities, or have them look very new and modern. There’s nothing really in-between. Sometimes, I think we managed to make the two opposite styles meet with the Danish Embassy of Saudi Arabia.’

Today, the embassy has undergone a number of changes due to maintenance issues and the new demands of those who use it. Rather than the bright, sunny yellow it once sported, the building’s façade now appears closer to a dusty brown. And, because nordic countries are now seeking to create common facilities for travel visas, Henning Larsen Architects were recently drafted in to add extra facilities to the structure.

While the new additions may have been added at Troelsen’s dismay, he recognises that the changes were necessary. ‘The last time I visited the embassy, it had aged about 25 years and I could see that we would not be able to do the same thing today. on the other hand, there was a nice feeling of authenticity,’ he says. ‘You felt it was quite authentic, and it was a good experience to see a building not only brand new, but also when it is worn a bit and has been used for some years.’

This article was first published in Brownbook’s Design Directory 2015. Photo credit: Henning Larsen Architects.

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