Gateway To Mecca:
The Hajj Terminal at Jeddah Airport
by Yasmin Sabina Khan
Published in Faith & Form, The Interfaith Journal on Religion, Art and Architecture, Vol. 39, No. 1, 2006
As a “Gateway to Mecca” the Hajj Terminal at the International Airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, affirms the importance to religious experience of preparation. The tent-like roof structure defining the terminal space anticipates the tent camp of the Muslim pilgrimage, and inspires an appreciation for its historical environment. While sheltering travelers the airport terminal readies their perception for the spiritual journey of the “greater pilgrimage,” or hajj.
The hajj is a ritual of remembrance, reflection, and purification that the Prophet Muhammad established around 630 C.E. as one of the five pillars of Islamic faith. Setting aside all differences and distinctions pilgrims gather to visit the holy places from Mecca to the plain of Arafat, 12 miles away, honoring their ancestors in an act of communion. Muslims are expected to perform this pilgrimage at least once in their lives if their health and financial situation permit.
Many of the pilgrims arriving in Jeddah remain at the airport for a day or two as they make arrangements for the 45-mile drive to Mecca; some also engage a guide to lead them through the five-day-long ritual of the hajj. For this reason, and because of the large number of air passengers – already 500,000 by 1975, the design program projected an increase to 950,000 travelers – the terminal was designed in the mid-1970s for an immense program area, approximately 4.6 million square feet. The waiting areas offer a variety of resting spaces, some with seating, others with open floor area where travelers may lay out blankets or set up temporary bedding. Shopping stalls, resembling souks, are stocked with prepared foods. Other facilities provide banking and postal services, travel information, and medical care.
In developing its design for the airport terminal dedicated to pilgrims’ use, the design team drew upon its understanding of users’ needs gained through the architectural programming and heightened by the pilgrimage experience of chief structural engineer Fazlur R. Khan. Khan understood the physical demands that pilgrims encounter, the communal aspect of the pilgrimage, and the emotional fullness of the ritual. He retained as well a clear image of the tents erected for the pilgrims. With the design of a tent-like tensile roof structure the team established continuity with a traditional form of shelter in Arabia especially relevant to the hajj.
Yet the design was not arrived at simply through romantic imagery. Instead, the architects and engineers at Skidmore, Owings & Merrill developed this scheme in response to practical considerations. They realized that the use of a conventional steel or reinforced concrete structure for an enclosed and air-conditioned terminal was neither appropriate for the short duration of the annual hajj season nor economical in the hot desert climate of Saudi Arabia. Some pilgrims would even feel uncomfortable in a confined, artificially cooled building. Dissatisfied with more conventional alternatives, the designers turned to a lightweight, tensile structure type with the idea of creating a shaded space having a temperate environment and air circulation for a cooling effect.
The structural engineers set about modeling the tensile structure with stretch fabric to test different shapes and unit sizes. As the roof structure took shape, individual 150-foot-square units assumed a tent-like character, and modules of 21 units each recalled the expansive tent camp erected in the Mina Valley outside Mecca. Owing to its unprecedented scale as well as to its setting, the innovative and influential design of this tensile structure employed a newly developed fabric as a permanent structural element (as opposed to cable-supported in two directions), advanced material fabrication methods, and sophisticated computer analysis.
Thus adopting a vital form infused with meaningful symbolism, the technologically sophisticated terminal enclosure blended progress and tradition in a design that remains fresh and inspiring today, 25 years after its completion.
Pilgrims report a sense of mingled wonder and recognition as they enter the terminal. After deplaning at a second-floor processing area, travelers gain access to the vast open space of the main terminal hall from above. With its seemingly limitless boundaries, in both plan and height, the space draws pilgrims in and beyond itself, releasing their spirits from the confines of air travel and inviting them to shift perspectives.
The spiritual significance of the Hajj Terminal defies its airport setting. The Terminal is not distanced from the pilgrims’ purpose but rather accommodates necessary activities while endowing them with a sense of their sanctity. In making the ordinary sacred, this resting spot en route to Mecca prepares the pilgrim to participate in the ritual with grace. The building becomes a space of transition, enabling the traveler to enter into a frame of mind open to the spiritual essence of this pilgrimage that is, for most, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.