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The scintillating mirrored structure that disappears into the desert.

Instead of searching for the actual building, you can follow the crowds of tourists carrying selfie sticks and ring lights to one of Saudi Arabia’s most famous landmarks.

At certain times of the day, Maraya, the world’s largest mirror-covered skyscraper, seems to vanish into the surrounding desert.

Alicia Keys, Andrea Bocelli, Enrique Iglesias, and John Legend have all performed in the 500-seat concert hall, cultural center, and event facility whose name means “mirror” or “reflecting” in Arabic.

However, it also stands on its own as an artistic creation.

Maraya was a joint effort between the Italian design firm Gi Forma Studio and Black Engineering, and it is located in the stunning desert setting of AlUla, only 14 miles from the epic architectural site at Hegra.

“We firmly believe that if a structure cannot vie with the surrounding environment, it ought to complement it,” Florian Boje, the architect of Maraya, explains.

He elaborates, “As we had the excellent pleasure to visit the site and be deeply moved by the natural and cultural landscape, we began our submission of our design by saying, ‘If absolutely necessary, a mirror cube should be constructed here.'”

The final product was unveiled in 2019, after only 76 days of construction and six months of planning.

Exceptional difficulties

It may seem counterintuitive to put vast volumes of glass in the middle of a sweltering desert.

Boje and his colleagues went in search of materials that would improve the scenery without adding to the discomfort of the blazing sun and high temperatures.

A copper-based glass was the first attempt at a fix.

In order to adapt to Saudi Arabia’s hot, sunny atmosphere, Gi Forma Studio collaborated with American firm Guardian Glass to develop a bespoke cladding product called Guardian UltraMirror.

The building is covered in a total of 9,740 panels.

In a statement, Guardian Glass’s director of marketing for Asia and the Middle East, Jasmin Hodzic, credited the company’s success to “ingenuity and perseverance” in developing solutions for Maraya Concert Hall’s specific requirements.

There were obstacles in the form of geography and time, but “we proceeded,” she said.

Since exposure to high temperatures can cause glass to corrode, the Maraya glass had a unique coating developed to protect it against sandstorms, extreme temperature swings, and other desert weather conditions.

When viewed from afar, the building’s curvature makes it look like a shimmering mirage of the landscape; but, up close, guests may see a flawless reflection of themselves.

Desert artwork

Maraya was always going to be in AlUla’s palm-studded Ashar Valley, but the architect chose the precise position in what he terms a “analog” process, by simply carrying giant mirrors out into the stretch of sand and selecting which spot would be ideal.

Boje explains that the most difficult part of the project was working in a “pure and untouched territory of unimaginable landscapes that is also being developed and discovered from a cultural perspective, and is thus still developing its identity and design language.”

What exactly is Boje’s mysterious design language?

In addition to Maraya, there is a tidal wave of art meccas opening up in and around the old town, attracting some of the most illustrious names in the creative industries.

Assouline, a French art book publisher, has released a number of books highlighting Saudi Arabia’s ancient buildings and artifacts. DesertX, an international visual arts festival, has twice set up shop in AlUla, inviting artists from all over the world to create works inspired by the area.

Plus, there’s more. An offshoot of the renowned Centre Pompidou in Paris is in the works, and earlier this year Le Monde announced that “starchitects” Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers had signed a deal to consult on the project, which was then known as Perspective Galleries.

Boje’s time spent on Maraya’s design, however, involved far more than just a structure. He tells that he, too, fell in love with AlUla and decided to set up shop there permanently.

Digging In

Some tourists may be content with merely photographing the dazzling exterior of Maraya, but they would be missing out if they didn’t also go inside.

Maraya also hosts art exhibits in addition to musical concerts, most recently the first ever show dedicated to the iconic American pop artist Andy Warhol, who found his inspiration in mass media.

Maraya Social, the hotel’s rooftop eatery, offers stunning panoramas of the desert and is a key draw for guests.

British chef Jason Atherton, whose London restaurant Pollen Street Social received a Michelin star, runs the show here. The decor and food are a mashup of European and Middle Eastern influences, served mezze style.

Don’t forget to save room for dessert, especially the banana and date pudding, which is as locally sourced as it gets, given that you can reach out and touch the many date farms that surround AlUla.

Due to the country’s alcohol restriction, numerous bars and restaurants (like Maraya Social) have developed inventive handmade mocktail menus to satisfy patrons.

The enormous Banyan Tree resort is the nearest hotel to Maraya.

The hotel was designed with a nod to Bedouin aesthetics, and guests may enjoy private pools, fire pits, and stargazing from the comfort of their own outdoor room.

While some guests may choose to make the two-kilometer trek across the valley on foot, the hotel also offers transportation in the form of automobiles.

However, returning to Maraya is the finest way to see it, whether you arrive on foot or in a car. Every hour of the day is unique, from the streaky pink light of sunset to the glistening blue of daybreak.

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