King Abdulaziz University sports hall

Year:1981

Duration:3 years

Cost:£5m (£18m today)

Country: Saudi Arabia

What did this project achieve?

Build a sports hall using as few materials as possible

King Abdulaziz University sports hall is a multi-use hall at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It hosts sporting events and graduation ceremonies, and can fit 5,000 spectators.

A main requirement of the project was to use as little material as possible. University chiefs turned to German architect Otto Frei to design the structure. Frei was a pioneer of lightweight construction, specialising in lightweight tensile and membrane structures.

A tensile structure is a construction that relies on tension. There’s no compression or bending of the elements. Most tensile structures are supported by masts (as in the O2 Centre, formerly the Millennium Dome) or beams.

Tensile membranes are often used as a roof, as they can span large distances economically and attractively. Otto used cable net technology for the scheme, a method he had developed with architect Rolph Gutbrod.

The King Abdulaziz University sports hall cable net structure is supported by eight 30m-high steel tube masts with an exterior made from a heavyweight polyester fabric.

Partly inspired by the design of traditional Bedouin tents, the outer fabric of the scheme is a yellow-beige colour to blend in with its surroundings. From a distance, some observers have said the structure could resemble a sand dune.

The project was designed to be as sustainable as possible. Materials used were translucent to allow natural light into the hall – helping to save energy.

Difference the project has made

The project created a relatively inexpensive sports hall for King Abdulaziz University.

The structure has become a selling point for the university – attracting students and income and helping to keep the institution financially viable.

How the work was done

Engineers used eight 30m high steel tube masts to support the 120m by 90m cable net holding up the outer skin of the sports hall. A light-coloured polyester fabric coated with PVC was used for this outside layer.

The project team used a lighter tent fabric for the inside skin of the scheme. This was hung a short distance below the cable net.

The space between the inner and outer layers worked as a natural ventilation system – similar to the way traditional Bedouin tents are kept cool.

Engineers constructed the cable net by laying the cables out on the ground in a pre-arranged pattern. Special fixings for the internal and external skins were placed at 4m intervals.

The project team used 10,000m of cable to make the net, with engineers fitting a clamp at each intersection of the cables to secure the net together.

Laying out the cables and fitting the 57,000 clamps needed for the structure took eight weeks to complete.

Workers lifted the steel tube masts into place and secured them temporarily with guy ropes fixed to the ground. Hauling the cable net up the masts took two days.

"​‌

We must think more, research more, develop, invent and dare …

Frei Otto

Designer of the King Abdulaziz University sports hall

Fascinating facts

As well as other projects in the Middle East, Frei Otto’s work included the roof of the 1972 Munich Olympic arena.

Otto collaborated with the Japanese architect Shigeru Ban on the Japanese pavilion at the Expo 2000 World Fair held in Hanover, Germany. The roof of the structure was made entirely from paper.

In an early attempt to memorialise the 9/11 attacks in 2002, Otto proposed two ‘footprints’ of the World Trade Centre buildings covered with water and surrounded by trees. The scheme would also have included a continuously updated board announcing the number of people killed in wars from the date of the attacks.

People who made it happen

  • Designers: Frei Otto, Rolph Gutbrod, Ove Arup and partners
  • Structural engineers: BuroHappold

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