In the mid-1970s, Gordon Wildermuth was a young partner at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, working in Saudi Arabia to build the Hajj Terminal at the King Abdul Aziz International Airport. Today, when he describes that “incredibly stressful time,” the conversation soon turns to the communications infrastructure that existed then. “At the time, a telephone in Jeddah was worth about $15,000. There was no fax at first, though we eventually got one later that was about the size of your mother’s kitchen range in the 1950s. There was no e-mail, of course. When you placed a call, you had no idea when it would go through. You might place a call at 5 o’clock in the afternoon there, and it would come through at 3 o’clock in the morning in the States.”
It was Wildermuth’s job to orchestrate 600 people working in three separate offices (New York, Chicago, Jeddah) on this project of immense size and labyrinthine complexity: an airport terminal that would only be used once a year, during the six-week hajj pilgrimage, but that would be the busiest in the world during that time. The project came to SOM through a stroke of geographic luck: SOM’s Washington, D.C., office was close to the Airways Engineering Corporation, which had been retained by the Saudi government to design a terminal for the hajj. That project was started in the 1960s, with Edward Durell Stone as a consultant, but had been put on hold for several years following the 1967 Six Day War. By 1974, Stone had died, and Airways contacted SOM to collaborate on the revived project, which included a large master plan for commercial and military hangars, housing for staff, a hospital, a mosque, administrative buildings, and other infrastructural concerns.
Among those buildings, the Hajj Terminal stands out on this large desert plot of land, about 45 miles from Mecca. Wildermuth and his team were able to spend a significant amount of time in Saudi Arabia, observing the mass movement of people during the six-week hajj. There are approximately 1.5 billion Muslims in the world today, and every one who is able to is required to make the pilgrimage at least once in his or her lifetime. With the advent of jet travel, pilgrims — or hajjis — had vastly increased in number: from around 50,000 arriving by air in the 1960s to 500,000 in 1975 (in recent years, the number of registered foreign pilgrims arriving for the hajj has averaged more than 1.5 million).
After the 1976 approval of Wildermuth’s master plan, design began on the Hajj Terminal in 1977, led by Gordon Bunshaft and structural engineer Fazlur Kahn. Finished in 1981, it received an AIA National Award and the Aga Khan Award in 1983. John Zils, a structural engineer at SOM who worked alongside Kahn, recalls, “The initial thinking was that this was going to be an enclosed building, but it became clear that a traditional, air-conditioned, high-tech building was not the appropriate solution.” The process led them to explore an open-air structure, with roofs made of long-span Teflon-coated fiberglass, a material that had been used before, but never at this scale. The 210 white tents allow diffuse light into the terminal while reflecting heat away from the building, and their shape — conical with an oculus at the top — created a significant chimney effect that keeps temperatures down without heavy energy use. When the desert reaches 130 degrees Fahrenheit, the tent stays at around 80.
The organization of the terminal interior also reflected SOM’s long engagement with the project. Hajjis traveling to Mecca often trade and exchange goods on the way, so a market, or souk, was planned into the building. The architects also provided ample space for hajjis to perform ablutions and change into ritual garments for their trip, as well as to accommodate the long waiting times that sometimes occur when processing so many passengers: About 100 acres are covered underneath the tents, enough to house at least 80,000 people.
At the same time, this cultural and environmental sensitivity was bolstered by a peculiarly American brand of confidence. “We had a great team,” recalls Wildermuth. “As managing partner, I was fortunate enough to work with a group of people with whom I felt I could go anywhere in the world and solve any problem.” The 25 Year Award is a testament to this boldness, which, combined with a long engagement with the Saudis, produced a meaningful, cross-cultural exchange.