A Better Solution: An Inside Look at the Audacious Plan to Build the World's Largest Mirrored Building
The Guardian Glass team remembers driving through the Al Ula valley, a natural wonder dotted by an aquifer-fed oasis, ancient homes built inside limestone outcroppings with elegant carved facades. They were on their way to see something new: the Maraya Concert Hall.
Maraya had a reputation as a splashy new venue within an important tourism development in the Al Ula valley. The initial design had garnered some positive reviews, but the Royal Commission for Al Ula were not satisfied with the look of Maraya (which means “mirrors” in Arabic), and wanted a more attractive, enduring and sustainable design. Nabil El Ahmar, who is the mega projects and strategic partnership manager at Guardian Glass for Africa and Middle East, was looking forward to examining the facility and making a pitch.
When the team arrived, they were surprised by what they saw: The concert hall’s exterior was cloaked in giant sheets of reflective metal that displayed a bent and wrinkled rendition of the nearby towering walls of wind-carved sandstone. “We were shocked to find it wasn’t even a mirror,” Nabil says. He recalls his first thought: “Surely we have a better solution.”
Nabil reached out to the commission and joined the competition. A meeting was soon arranged for Guardian team members at the commission’s desert camp near the Maraya, where they proposed using sputter coated reflective glass, from Guardian’s portfolio. It offered superior image quality, better reflective properties and no distortion. While it could get close to realizing the design intent of a highly reflective and real mirror, it still did not accomplish it fully. They then considered Guardian’s reflective architectural glass, but that too was not the best solution. Bids from Guardian’s competitors were variations of highly reflective silver glass with reflective coatings, says Nabil, which were still not right. “The designer wanted a real mirror,” he says, and Guardian became the only firm willing to risk building one. The Guardian Glass team accepted the challenge to create a mirror glass suitable for exterior use, and the commission awarded them the project.
Winning the contract was the easy part. “From this point, the real work started,” Nabil says. Encasing a 500-seat concert hall in the middle of a vast desert with giant mirrors was a mammoth technical and logistical puzzle in its own right. But the team had another hurdle to overcome: The calendar was hanging over their heads. Concert season started in December, just three months away, and the performers were booked and the tickets already sold. “Not delivering the mirrors on time would have been catastrophic for everyone,” he says. They set to work.
Developers have traditionally shied away from using real mirrors for building exteriors for a number of reasons. One is durability. Ultraviolet and infrared light can erode the mirror coating, creating the risk of unexpectedly falling glass panels. There’s also the aesthetic risk that the sun and the humidity will cause the panels to oxidize, distorting and discoloring their images. “It had to stand against some of the harshest elements on the planet, and one of the most outstanding and certainly the most complex features of copper metals is its corrosion resistance,” says Nabil. To address that, Nabil and the team developed a new copper mirror with a protective coating for exterior use.
Converting the mirror glass for exterior use required Nabil and the GulfGuard production team to adjust its manufacturing process. Under normal circumstances, mirror glass is produced in standard raw sheets using annealed glass, and then sent to a processor for cutting. However, because of the extreme heat used to temper, or strengthen, the glass for Maraya’s exterior, it couldn’t be cut after being coated without breaking it. So Guardian first sent the raw annealed glass to the processor, and the processor sent the raw glass, cut to size and heat treated, back to Guardian’s facility in Jubail, where the GulfGuard team then applied the wet coating that would make the mirror suited for exterior use.
Given the circumstances, Nabil took on additional responsibilities, running daily progress meetings, visiting the factory to oversee processing and tracking delivery trucks to make sure they reached destinations on time. “We had little time and we aren’t adapted to be general contractors,” he says. “But for this job we had to act as the glass general contractor.”
The hard work paid off. Nabil recalls a mix of satisfaction and relief washing over him the first time he saw Maraya’s finished mirrored exterior. “First converting the client to our product, then doing all the work and finally delivering it on time — it was overwhelming,” he says.
“When you persevere and push forward as a principled entrepreneur you can make it happen,” says Jad Abi Ali, marketing communications manager for Africa and the Middle East.
The building is an architectural marvel. The mirrors allow Maraya to so completely blend into its surroundings that it appears as if it isn’t there — until one changes their perspective and sees the sand flowing away and the nearby hills rising or sinking. “With the sand and mountains, making a more visible building would be an intrusion to the environment,” Nabil says.
The building, with its 9,740-square-meter exterior, was a popular-choice winner at the 2020 Architizer A+Awards in the Architecture and Glass category and set a Guinness world record for largest mirrored building. For the region, it adds to the allure of the nearby Al-Hijr archaeological site, the first location in Saudi Arabia certified by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization as a World Heritage Site.
“It took audacity to build with mirrors and not take the easy way out,” Nabil says. By aiming to match the Royal Commission’s ambitions, the team “helped them realize their vision and intent for the project,” he says.
For Nabil, the recognition is gratifying, especially because of how quickly and completely the team pitched in to make the project successful. More important, however, is what the achievement says about Guardian.
“To be a global company, you have to act like a global company,” Nabil says. “I wanted to emphasize that this is Guardian and we can do what others can’t do.”