Saudi Arabia’s King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture (KACWC) has been fitted with a façade comprising 360km of steel tubes. 

KACWC has been established in Dhahran by Saudi Aramco to promote the kingdom’s knowledge economy, in line with the country’s Vision 2030 vision.

Aramco says the center has been built “near the Prosperity Well, the kingdom’s first commercial oil well”.

Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman inaugurated the centre, commonly known as Ithra, in December 2016 to mark Saudi Aramco’s 75th anniversary.

Details of the project’s façade have now been revealed by Seele, a German firm specialised in the design and construction of façades and building envelopes made from glass, steel, aluminium, membranes, and other materials.

Seele said the project required its team to not only develop “a solution for the construction” operations, “but also the software for the self-learning machines” that were used for each steel element within the façade.

KACWC’s five buildings were designed by its architect, Snøhetta, to “shine in the sunlight like bright pebbles”. 

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To achieve the vision, Seele created a building envelope as a free-form surface, using thousands of stainless steel tubes bent in three dimensions, to cover a total area of 30,260m2

The tallest of the three-dimensional, free-form shapes rises 90m, and all the tubes are fixed to a supporting structure made from a weatherproof, unitised building envelope clad with sheet metal joined by standing seams. 

The tubes are attached to pins that compensate for the different movements of the building envelope and the tubes. 

Approximately 70,000 stainless steel tubes have been used for the project, which, laid end to end, would total 360km. 

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The reference point for the geometry, design, production, dimensional checks, and erection of each tube was its virtual centre-line. The distance between adjacent, double-curvature tubes is exactly 10mm. 

Each tube had to be marked and bent corresponding to its subsequent position on the structure, and for the sunshades around the windows, some had to be crimped as well.

Visual ‘transitions’ were necessary where the round tube took on the so-called ‘squashed’ look, and Seele said its engineers’ expertise was required to achieve “this geometrically challenging building envelope”. 

A façade using stainless steel tubes across all floors had never been built before, requiring Seele to implement numerous tests for the project, as well as special programming for the bending and measuring of the tubes, on free-form bending machines.

Next page: Testing and installation of the 360km-steel tube façade