Hajj Terminal, King Abdul Aziz International Airport (KAIA), Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Last updated: 10 October 2017 From the section Fazlur Rahman (F. R.) Khan

Asian & Middle-Eastern boom

As the building boom in the West came to an abrupt halt in 1974, new demands surfaced that thrust designers into unfamiliar settings. Clients in the Middle East and Asia, for example, were anxious and now financially able to construct housing, offices, and other facilities in large scale. SOM took on this design work, and Fazlur Khan responded to needs and situations, as he perceived them.

After the oil crisis of 1973-74 a shift took place in Fazlur Khan's career. It was a watershed for construction everywhere, which the author links to the advent of post-modernism. With the changing nature of SOM's business he found himself travelling more, especially to the Middle East. He had never foresaken his Islamic roots, and now plunged into all those issues of appropriate building in other cultures that skyscraper design ignored. In the process he turned into an architect-planner-manager almost more than an engineer. Two Saudi Arabian projects in particular absorbed his attention: a sensitive university campus at Jeddah, never built, on which he worked with Hassan Fathy and others; and the Hajj Airport Terminal for Makkah, celebrated for its multiplicity of cable-and-fabric roofs. There were many protagonists on the Hajj Terminal. Khan's structural input was probably not decisive, but as a Muslim he fronted and co-ordinated what was perhaps the most intelligent project ever built by an American firm in the oil states.

Andrew Saint of University of Cambridge

Demand of hajj (pilgrimage) increases

Hajj is the yearly pilgrimage Muslims make to the holy city of Makkah, Saudi Arabia. It is one of the most important and sacred event in the life of a Muslim. The ritual is farz (compulsory) for every Muslim who have the means and ability to undertake the journey and needs to be performed at least once in their lifetime. It is one of the five pillars of Islam.

The hajj season takes place within a period of about six weeks, resulting in unusually heavy air traffic during this rather short time span. With the number of Muslims attending hajj growing, rapid urban growth and economic development in the Islamic world, and the increasing reliance on air transportation, the old airport could not cater to this demand and became obsolete. So the Saudi government began planning for a new airport in the early 1960s. The King Abdul Aziz International Airport (KAIA) - named after King Abdul Aziz Al Saud (popularly known as Ibn Saud), the first monarch of Saudi Arabia - would be located approximately 40 miles (70 km) west of holy city of Makkah and occupy a huge site of about 105 sq km of desert planes to the north-west of the city of Jeddah, a thriving red sea port of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudi Ministry of Defence and Aviation commissioned a new terminal with the objective of providing a 'gateway to Makkah' for the increasing number of hajjis (pilgrims). The Hajj Terminal would be one of the three domestic terminals in KAIA and had to accommodate the drastic number of hajjis, estimated at about half a million in 1975 and projected to double (or 950,000 to be precise) by 1985. The new terminal would only be used during Dhu al-Hijjah (the month of pilgrimage) and had to be developed in a way to provide symbolic power pertinent to the hajj. It had to capture the spirit of hajj whilst facilitating the special needs of the pilgrims.

No conventional building can cope with such a demand. It had to be unique.

The area symbolises the "gateway to Makkah" therefore a peaceful environment is required to make as tranquil as possible this transition to the realm of spirituality. Practical requirements must be met to provide shelter from the intense heat and to accommodate the many diverse needs of this large group.

Most pilgrims are travelling for the first time to accomplish this most significant journey. The incidence of cultural shock is manifold. Most are elderly with specific needs. The sudden passage from highly varied individual behaviours to a collective spiritual experience is symbolised by the ritual donning of white garments on a cleansed body for the first step onto sacred ground.

Aga Khan Development Network website


The proposed Hajj Terminal had to cater for an estimated 50,000 pilgrims for a period of up to 18 hours during arrival and 80,000 pilgrims for periods of up to 36 hours during departure. The time lag is due to the administrative formalities that have to be undertaken as well as waiting for the arrival of buses.

The terminal should be designed to shelter the pilgrims from the uncomfortable intense dry heat of the desert and the high humidity produced by the sea breezes. The design will also need to be sensitive to the yearly sand storms which engulfs the whole of Middle East. The terminal should provide traditional nomadic hospitality for the traveller in need of shade, water, food and sanitation. Scattered throughout the terminal should be areas and facilities to accommodate for sleeping, rest, food services and preparation. Washing, toilet and banking facilities will also need to be provided. Many pilgrims could remain there for several days before the buses pick them up for their final destination thus the terminal had to be functional, aesthetically pleasing and highly comfortable. Also, in keeping with the unique requirements of the hajj, the Saudi government wanted the terminal to have more of a city or village feel than a regular air terminal.

One of the essential factors in the concept of the support area is that it does not impose the conventional "airport discipline", which would be both alien and uncomfortable to most pilgrims. Most have saved all their lives to make the journey, and this is probably the first and last time they will be traveling by air. The informal and flexible design of the support area, therefore, conforms with the spirit of hajj. The thousands of pilgrims arriving at the terminal during this period often have to wait, sometimes for up to 30 hours, for certain formalities to be completed. Large rest areas have therefore been provided with benches that allow pilgrims ample room ro lie down comfortably. At the same time the enormous floor space allows them to roll out rugs and offer prayers without obstructing anyone.

Aga Khan Development Network website

Design: modern technologies applied to traditional forms

The Saudi Ministry of Defence and Aviation chose SOM to develop the Hajj Terminal. Fazlur Khan, riding on an all-time career high after the record-breaking success of the Sears Tower, was tasked with designing the Terminal along with architect Gordon Bunshaft from SOM's New York branch.

He was always the internationalist. He knew what was going on in the world. He was cultured - and sensitive to cultural differences. He knew that the creation of livable space meant one thing in Singapore, for example, and another thing in Saudi Arabia.

Those who heard him speak, listened to one who was a master at converting technical matters into concepts that all could understand. His slides had that marvelous quality of human scale, even though the physical object was monumental.

Travel with him was an educational experience in itself. He had a way of falling into conversation with people, asking perceptive questions (but which did not pry). Then he would share the thoughts with the rest of the group.

Lynn S. Beedle, Director at Council of Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat

As the lead designer, Fazlur Khan took inspiration from Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy, an advocate of indigenous or local building techniques and forms. Fazlur Khan soon realised that other than massive mud-brick structures, some of the most successful shelters erected in hot climates have been tents. And this type of structure has been perfected by the nomadic tribes residing in the deserts of Arabia, and has in fact become a global symbol of the region.

Internationally famous Hassan Fathy of Egypt has been the most prominent and persistent voice in this movement for some 40 years. Resurrecting the time-honored traditions of domes, vaulted arches, court- yards, mud brick construction - and an approach to modern urbanism that emphasizes the Islamic principles of oneness and unity - Fathy has influenced many other Arab architects. One, also a Muslim, is Fazlur Khan of the American architectural and design firm of Skidmore Owings and Merrill, he not only accepted Fathy’s philosophy, but applied it to the construction of buildings that are well- suited to the Middle East, but also highly dependent on Western technology.

Richard Hobson and John Lawton, Writers

For the immense roof of the Hajj Terminal of the new airport in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia - intended to shelter 80,000 pilgrims at a time, waiting for up to 36 hours - he [Fazlur Khan] searched for a coherent scheme that was both efficient and honored the spirit of the Hajj pilgrimage.

Dr. Fazlur R. Khan website

However, Fazlur Khan was also aware that whilst not losing the spirit and aura of a tent in the desert, the terminal had to accommodate the various functions of a modern air terminal, such as immigration, baggage claim, food facilities, support services, etc. Therefore the traditional concept of a Bedouin tent had to be blended with sophisticated technology, so he replaced the simple canvas, animal hides, and rope of traditional tent with fibreglass fabric, steel pylons, and cables.

The idea of the tent structure was the third solution proposed by the architects. First a concrete structure was proposed to cover the Hajj waiting area. This was developed to a lightweight steel structure. Then the idea of the tent forced itself as the most appealing and practical solution.

In 1976, I made the Hajj myself, so I have direct familiarity with this Islamic rite. In designing the terminal to receive incoming pilgrims, we wanted to create an environment similar to that at the plain of Arafat.

Western technology creates a great temptation to take it without transformation which makes structures quickly irrelevant. By transformation I mean adapting Western technology to the sociological and climatic conditions of the people who will use or live in the buildings created from it. It doesn’t make sense, for example, to build all these glass boxes in the desert for a people who, over hundreds of years, have developed their own traditional forms.

Fazlur Rahman Khan on the importance of knowledge of Islamic tradition when designing modern structures

Covering 40.5 hectares (or 450'000 m²) - that's an area larger than the combined areas of the international airports of New York, Chicago, and Paris - the Hajj Terminal consists of two separate but identical tent-roof halves (or pavilions) 320 x 686 metres and separated by a landscaped mall. Each half of the terminal is divided into 5 equal modules. Each module in turn is made up of 21 large, lightweight tent units arranged on 3 x 7 and covers 10.5 acres (4 hectares). Each unit is 45 x 45 metres dimension and the double-curved skin is made of heavyweight Teflon-coated fibreglass fabric, manufactured by Owens-Corning. However, unlike most tents it lowest edge does not touch the ground but is raised approximately 20 metres (or 6-stories) above ground by steel cables from concrete griders (or pylons), the fabric rising to 33 metres. The fabric surface is supported by 32 steel radical cables, which span from the upper tension ring to a lower tie-down or catenary. The 21 tent units of each module were raised simultaneously into place by means of electronically synchronised equipment. Stability and structural integrity is achieved by special arrangement of 440 perimeter pylons, each 45 metres high and weighing 68 tons.

The elegant open structure allows the air to circulate, while the translucent fibreglass fabric roof maintains a tolerable temperature inside the terminal for the tens of thousands of pilgrims that may find themselves there at the same terminal.

Thus, the two large terminal units each comprise a total of 105 tents. The tents are hooked to steel rings hung from suspension cables which are draped from single pylons in the interior of the module, from ladder-like double pylons at the module edges and from four-pylon towers at the corners. The enclosed and air conditioned arrival buildings are located under the tents along the outside edge of the terminal units parallel to the aircraft aprons.

The whiteness of the [roof's] fabric reflects 75% solar radiation and, together with the design of the terminal structure, which allows for air circulation, it helps keep temperatures down. Thus when temperatures outside reach a scorching 130 degrees fahrenheit, those within the shaded area of the terminal that is not air-conditioned can be kept in the mid-80 degree range. At the same time the thin, translucent quality of the fabric allows it to transmit some 7% of sunlight into the structure, eliminating the need for artificial day-time lighting. In addition the acoustical problems under the tents, caused by the presence of large numbers of pilgrims, are diminished by both the height of the roof and the material. The fabric is able to withstand temperatures up to 1,500 degrees fahrenheit, and will not change colour as a result of the sun's ultraviolet rays. Its strength gives it a life expectancy of 30-50 years.

Aga Khan Development Network website

Viewed from above, the pattern gives the terminal the image of a gigantic traditional tent encampment of nomadic tribes in the desert. And though the light, airy structure may provide the visitor with a spatial and environmental experience similar to that of traditional tent structures, the design and construction are far from traditional. It is timeless and unique.

The tent structure of the Hajj Terminal is an important contribution to the development of an architecture relevant to the Islamic world. As a concept and in its execution it is a work of exceptional originality. Because of its size the terminal's support area is ideally suited for large public events. Outside the hajj season, therefore, it is used for such purposes as the city of Jeddah's reception for King Fahd, held there after he became king.

Aga Khan Development Network website

A formidable technical achievement. The roof reflects heat and lets the air circulate keeping an even temperature of 80°F while the thermometer outside soars to 130°F. The use of a vast tent sitting in the desert was a practical answer of great visual strength. A solution sensitive to Islam's past and yet tuned to the demand of the future.

The Hajj Terminal project reflects the search for consistency with historical context and for innovation. It works by association. The designer has been inspired by the Bedouin tent. In this way the project catches the imagination of the people, leading them back to their roots.

Planum - The Journal of Urbanism

The tent-like tensile structures advanced the theory and technology of fabric as a structural material and led the way to its use for other types of terminals and large spaces.

Yasmin Sabina Khan

Construction work on KAIA started in 1974 and was completed in 1980. Finally, the airport was officially inaugurated in April 1981 and opened for service the following month on 31 May 1981.

Winner of the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture

The tent roof structure of the Hajj Terminal is the world's largest fabric structure enclosing the world's largest covered space. As a modern version of the traditional desert dwelling it's the most poetic translation of the nomadic heritage of the region. Fazlur Khan considered it "a very Saudi place". The form of a tent is synonymous with the traditions of Arabia, with its sandy deserts and hot-dry climate. However, in order to transform this traditional form into a modern functional space (i.e an air terminal) state-of-the-art technologies became indispensable.

This tent does not copy tents of the past - it is a form for the future, and here it caters for today's needs - air travel.

Fazlur Rahman Khan on the uniqueness of the Hajj Terminal

In 1983, a year after Fazlur Khan's death, the Hajj Terminal won the prestigious Aga Khan Award for Architecture for the best Islamic design. The Award is given every three years since 1977 to projects that set new standards of excellence in architecture, planning practices, historic preservation and landscape architecture.

For the brilliant and imaginative design of the roofing system, which met the awesome challenge of covering this vast space with incomparable elegance and beauty. The Hajj Terminal structure has pushed known building technology beyond its established limits while demonstrating that such a massive structure can still be light and airy, a twentieth-century echo of the traditional tent structures that have worked so well in desert climates.

The size of the structure and the uniqueness of the hajj phenomenon itself that prompted its erection place it beyond the pale of direct replicability, but the design will undoubtedly serve as a source of inspiration to designers throughout the Muslim world for generations to come.

Master Jury of Aga Khan Award

Today more than 1 million pilgrims make their way to Makkah each year during the six-week hajj season. Travellers who arrive by air, as most people do, are struck by the sight of the 210 huge tents. Every one of these travellers pass through the Hajj Terminal designed by Fazlur Khan, a Bangladeshi. Thirty years after its construction, the airport continues to awe and comfort terminal users and has become a part of their life-changing mission.

The Hajj Terminal structure has pushed known building technology beyond its established limits while demonstrating that such a massive structure can still be light and airy, a 20th century echo of the traditional tent structure that have worked so well in desert climates.

A critic's view of the Hajj Terminal

The Hajj Terminal is an example of how a symbol of place may be adapted to a new context of application within the same culture. In spite of its technology, its literal symbolism is clear and convincing.

Nadia M. Alhasani, author of "Tradition vs Modernity: The Quest for a Cultural Identity"

The tent structure of the Hajj terminal is an important contribution to the development of an architecture relevant to the Arab world. As a concept and in its execution, it is a work of exceptional originality.

Planum - The Journal of Urbanism

In addition to the Hajj Terminal in Jeddah, Fazlur Khan designed the Makkah Campus of King Abdul Aziz University in Makkah along with Hassan Fathy and others. However, the design was never built.

I remember very well how it was very satisfying for everybody to know that a highly reputable firm like SOM will plan and design our very sensitive project of the new campus at Makkah. And SOM's proposal to have Dr. Khan to lead the project team was regarded by everybody here as an exclusive privilege for, besides being an outstanding professional, as a Muslim he could better appreciate and understand the nature and the sensitivity attached to the project. The master plan of the campus which was completed recently received his personal touch and everybody here regards it as an achievement.

For his worldwide reputation in the profession, his study and perception of the Islamic Architecture and Arab Urbanisation, several Universities in the Kingdom have been availing of his knowledge through specially arranged lectures or international conferences. His outstanding work in the profession sought him reputation and recognition. Now at this occasion of his memorial you have heard more about his ability, talent and achievements.

I personally through occasional contacts with him had developed personal regard and profound respect for him for his straight forwardness and positive approach.

His Excellency Dr. Abdullah O. Nassief, President of King Abdul Aziz University, Jeddah (6 May 1982)

Other contributions

Besides his two most famous structural creations, Chicago's John Hancock Center and the Sears Tower, Fazlur Khan has designed numerous other buildings which have demonstrated his ability to create forms that are structurally sound, aesthetically attractive, and environmentally safe.

Other great building designed by Fazlur Rahman Khan include:

Not all of their [i.e. Bruce Graham and Fazlur Khan] designs were tall buildings; for the Central Facilities Building at Baxter International's suburban campus near Chicago, for example, they developed a cable stayed roof system. Khan was pleased with the result of the design effort, which created a large dining hall, unencumbered by columns and enclosed by glazed perimeter walls. The spirit of the space, he wrote, is that of "celebration and relaxation".

Yasmin Sabina Khan

My father was involved in transforming Picasso's maquette into a 50 foot high sculpture for Chicago. I included Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's design for the Chicago Picasso in Engineering Architecture: The Vision of Fazlur R. Khan.

Yasmin Sabina Khan