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A Bold Pop-up That Speaks to Saudi Arabia’s Future

Technically, Layali Diriyah in Saudi Arabia is a pop-up, but such a designation doesn’t do it justice.

Situated on the outskirts of the Saudi capital city of Riyadh, Layali Diriyah, which translates to “Diriyah Nights,” is a large and exotic open-air cultural hub for retail, food and beverage, art, architecture and entertainment amid palm trees and shimmering lighting effects. Though it’s a temporary destination, its design and range of experiences suggest possibilities for Vision 2030, the Saudi government’s ambitious roadmap for economic development, diversification and increasing the population and quality of life in the region.

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“We took 45,000 square meters [484,000 square feet] of this farm and transformed it into a guest journey that is very romantic, very organic, and blends into the environment,” said Hibah Albakree, managing director and cofounder of Designlab Experience, which was selected by the Diriyah Gate Development Authority to produce Layali Diriyah.

“Diriyah is the most important spot in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia because it’s the birthplace of the royal family. It’s by a UNESCO heritage site, Al-Turiaf Riyadh, and is one of the most significant sites in Saudi Arabia for tourism and the culture and history of the country,” Albakree told WWD.

Layali Diriyah, as she explained, is funded by the Saudi government in order to learn what activities and events, including shopping and dining, people are most interested in. Designs, attractions and concepts from Layali Diriyah potentially could be adapted into how the government permanently develops the area. It’s the second year in a row for Layali Diriyah, which this year opened Jan. 11 and runs through March 10.

“Unlike other locations, where [the government] wants to modernize to a bit more of the future, when it comes to Diriyah, being the heart and soul of the kingdom, they’re trying to always make sure that the guest journey there is very connected to the history, the culture and the Earth,” said Albakree. “It’s going to be one of the most sustainable locations in the world.”

Layali Diriyah opens every day after sunset, and closes at 2 a.m. during the week and at 3 a.m. on weekends. The weather at night ranges between 48 and 55 degrees Fahrenheit, which is cold for Saudi Arabia. Retailers change every two to three weeks and are mostly local brands and designers with local products. Last year’s Layali Diriyah drew 110,000 guests, or about 2,000 a day on average. The crowds are largely from Qatar, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia and are multigenerational, though the bulk of the audience tends to be in their late teens to early 40s, and single.

“It’s a casual environment. A lot of the brands for food are homegrown and the retail pop-ups are all up-and-coming Saudi brands that have become very trendy with their innovative designs,” said Albakree. “Some of the brands have adapted Saudi cultural patterns on yoga mats, pouches and other items.”

Historical regional architecture and design permeate the setting with engravings of traditional Diriyah doors, a grand entry with connecting arches like trapezoids zigzagging among palm tree tops and inspired by the local Najdi style, and a market for local artisanal vendors with abstract interpretations of the courtyards of traditional Saudi homes.

Among the attractions are a luxury shopping village; an immersive, three-minute film journey on Diriyah architecture and nature; art installations inspired by the region’s terrain and colors, and musicians, poetry readings, bread making, as well as shisha lounges, restaurants, cafés and kiosks for Saudi-style doughnuts, hot milk with ginger and other indigenous foods and snacks.

There’s also a dramatic light installation simulating a bonfire. “In the winter time, people are always in the desert surrounding bonfires bringing them together,” said Albakree. “Layali Diriyah is meant to bring people together.” The entrance fee is $40.

The Dubai and Riyadh-based Designlab Experience transforms spaces through temporary architecture. “We are very good storytellers through the journey we create,” said Albakree. “The way we design always has a connection to the message our client is trying to relay. So whether we do interactive exhibits, private events such as weddings, which in this part of the world are extremely extravagant, they require a lot of temporary architecture to transform the space.”

Among the firm’s large projects launched last year were “Jardin d’Hiver” for a wedding reception where the interior of event venue Nayyara Hall became a botanical garden; “Masar Cityscape,” a multimedia pavilion created at the Cityscape Global real estate event to depict the future of Masar, and Bujairi Terrace in Riyadh, a dining and entertainment destination with light installations and contemporary and traditional Arabic aesthetics. Designlab also creates the setting for the Saudi Cup horse races.

“We know how to quickly and efficiently turn projects around that look permanent, but they’re all actually temporary,” Albakree said. “There aren’t a lot of people that build what we build in the short time we build it. We focus on that. We’ve done so many. There’s always a need many governments have. We don’t want to work with just permanent construction [firms] or those that don’t understand the event industry. So we tend to be hired in these temporary projects and we tend to be hired as consultants as well.

“What’s nice about these temporary projects is that you get to be a bit more playful and more of a risk-taker” without foregoing health and safety requirements, Albakree emphasized.

“Everything has to be environmentally friendly. We have all the expertise of any permanent architecture firm and we need to figure out how to do things in the most efficient way. We don’t have the luxury of time, or to say, there’s a delay on this project. We have deadlines we cannot miss by one hour because there’s a scheduled opening, a launch, a wedding. So we don’t have time to experiment with the technique. We can only experiment with the look.”

The 17-year-old Designlab has a team of 75 including architects, designers, artists, engineers, strategists, project managers, lighting designers, graphic and interior designers and stylists, as well as those in financial areas. “We deliver a specific style of work. We always focus on delivering such a niche product,” Albakree said.

The Designlab Experience team: Managing partners Hibah Albakree and Mootassem El Baba; architect Jad El Baba; lead architect Marwan Maalouf.
The Designlab Experience team: Managing partners Hibah Albakree and Mootassem El Baba; architect Jad El Baba; lead architect Marwan Maalouf.

“At Layali Diriyah, we’ve selected what the ushers are wearing, what the performers are wearing. We’ve made sure they adhere to the overall branding and look and feel.” To some extent, Designlab has been involved in the merchandising, even the menus. “There’s a lot of Saudi and traditional food, and a few international outlets,” for a wider appeal.

“We also got involved in the retail pop-ups. We want you to discover new brands through Layali Diriyah. We don’t want to create a platform for big international brands.”

Designlab can’t be pigeonholed as either an events company or a typical architectural firm. “We go into places nobody knew much about, create beautiful spaces that bring a lot of joy without the type of investments required for permanent spaces, and then we just withdraw,” said Albakree. “I love it because I know it feeds into something with a bigger vision later.”

A café at Layali Diriyah.
A café at Layali Diriyah.

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