Saudi Arabia’s inaugural Diriyah Contemporary Art Biennale in December 2021 marked a new era for contemporary art in the traditional town: It kick-started the redevelopment of the industrial zone on the outskirts of the historic capital city of Riyadh into a cultural centre for the broader creative community. Anchoring the event was Jax 01, a permanent exhibition space in a 7,000-square-metre former warehouse by New York–based firm HWKN.
When reconceptualizing the distribution centre, designers Matthias Hollwich and Dorin Baul of HWKN looked to the “existing structure and local systems and materials to highlight the often-overlooked character of this amazing city.” Borrowing its name and design inspiration from its previous tenant — the household cleaning supplies brand Ajax — the building maintains its factory roots via a new articulated exterior.
Retrofitting often comes with its fair share of challenges, and here, it was determined that any showpiece facade would have to be entirely self-supporting. Seeing an opportunity, the team let climate-control design define the look of the building: Jax 01 is fronted by a series of dramatically oversized Corten steel shutters, an elevated version of the loading docks that characterize other buildings in the area.
These large, heavy mechanisms with perforated panel inserts help to modulate the effects of the desert sun and make any indoor lighting condition achievable at the touch of a button — an especially important consideration when showcasing a variety of art installations, including digital exhibitions. “We did not want to hide the screening system. Instead, we made it the main feature of the facade, allowing it to open and close in a very playful manner,” the design team says. Outward-facing footings reaching into the courtyard reinforce a stately entry ramp and give a dynamic character to the ground plane while also providing the counterbalance necessary for a tectonic facade.
A similar pared-down approach was undertaken with the interiors, where a grand, eight-metre-high hall connects (by way of a staircase and gently sloping ramp) to a more intimate mezzanine at the rear. Painted white, the flange beams and columns are fixed with exposed fasteners, a further nod to the complex’s industrial heritage. Even the functional aspects of the building evoke a shop-floor atmosphere: Freestanding walls, benches and planters outfitted with forklift pockets can easily be lifted, carried across the ramps and rearranged for any event — from a small-scale viewing to a grand public opening — allowing for maximum curatorial flexibility.
Articulated Corten shutters turn a former warehouse in Saudi Arabia into an elegant gallery space.