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Dr Sumayah Al-Solaiman, thought leader and shaper of Saudi Arabian design

Words:
Helen Castle

Dr Sumayah Al-Solaiman is the most influential figure in architecture in Saudi Arabia. As chief executive of the Architectural Design Commission, her remit spans design disciplines and their regulation, standards, sector development, cultural engagement and education

Dr Sumayah Al-Solaiman
Dr Sumayah Al-Solaiman Credit: The Ministry of Culture and Architecture and Design Commission

Leadership is an over-used word in management and business, but it is rare to meet anyone who has forged the way in every step of their career and developed far-reaching views. Dr Sumayah Al-Solaiman is one of those people. One of the first generation of Saudi women to study architecture at university in her own country, she followed a high-flying academic career and has become an influential thought leader as head of the Architectural Design Commission (ADC).

Starting out

When Dr Sumayah began to develop an interest in architecture as a high school student in the mid 1990s, women in Saudi Arabia could not study the subject at university. She benefited from having an architect uncle, who talked to her about the built environment and recognised her ability to see the world through an architect’s eyes. She pursued the closest option available: a bachelor’s in interior architecture at what was then King Faisal University (now Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University).

Dr Sumayah was soon top of the class, remaining so throughout her academic career. She enjoyed the way architecture cut across art, science and psychology to meet society’s needs.  She revelled in the critical thinking and problem-solving the ‘puzzle’ required. On graduation she became a teaching assistant and began a master’s in architecture, which had opened to women, cementing her place on an academic track.

Having learned a Western-centric approach to design as an undergraduate, with no cultural context, she started to study her own surroundings at master’s level. She saw a significant gap between the vernacular and widespread adoption of modernism in the region. In the mid-20th century, local building knowledge and traditions had been abandoned, leading to loss of the deep, accumulated knowledge that had allowed local builders to construct buildings with low or no energy in appropriate materials. She was curious to know how it had happened. Different to the imposed forces of colonialism elsewhere in the world, it resulted from a deliberate private and public sector shift towards modernisation.   

In 2004 Dr Sumayah embarked on a PhD at Newcastle University in the UK, undertaking a history of Riyadh. ‘For some people, reasserting Saudi cultural heritage is all about aesthetics; for others it is about mechanisms or the values behind it,’ she says. ‘There is a need to progress, while retaining the essence of who we are.’ The vernacular, historic core of Riyadh is limited to a single square kilometre. It was quickly dwarfed by the scale of modern development in the wider city. This begs the question: ‘How do you maintain pride in your heritage, without it becoming a museum?’

Dr Sumayah has researched the question of how best to use Riyadh’ heritage, as seen in its historic core.
Dr Sumayah has researched the question of how best to use Riyadh’ heritage, as seen in its historic core. Credit: The Ministry of Culture and Architecture and Design Commission

Cultural identity and design research

This deep engagement with culture proved pivotal for her role at the ADC, developing design research initiatives. These lay the foundations for a full understanding of the development of the country’s architecture: its materials, densities, social fabric, climate and topography. That serves as inspiration for future design, but also informs cultural renewal, making contemporary architecture intentional and purposeful.

The ADC is developing an online encyclopaedia of the architecture and design of towns and cities. It should provide insights into why urban spaces were designed in a certain way; for instance, how traditional streetscapes cater for the needs of city life. The plan is for it to be highly visual with files linked to drawings, bringing together images with oral history; a ‘massive castle of documents’. And all metaverse-ready.

Design research might result in an exhibition, book or online content, or a combination of formats. Ultimately, these content programmes will appear in a cultural centre dedicated to the documentation of the design of Saudi Arabia and its wider region, featuring the output of architects who have worked both in the country and abroad.

Emerging leader

Dr Sumayah completed her PhD in 2010. Back in Saudi Arabia, she was identified as a future leader. She was appointed head of the Graphic Design Department and vice dean for quality and accreditation, College of Design, at the University of Damman (now part of Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University).

In 2013 she took up the Ibn Khaldoun post-doctoral fellowship under Nasser Rabat, Aga Khan professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the US. Here she consolidated her leadership and strategic skills while broadening her understanding of the Gulf context and political nuances which informed urban developments in the area.

By 2017 she had been made dean of the College of Design at Imam Abdulrahman bin Faisal University and a member of the Municipal Council of the Damman Metropolitan Area. She was one of just two women on the 30-member council. Although a leadership position in a male-dominated society requires significant determination and drive, Dr Sumayah recognises that this also gives her an edge.

These appointments coincided with an important moment in Saudi Arabia as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman undertook reforms to modernise and diversify the economy and society, to shift the country away from its reliance on oil. Dr Sumayah became an influential public voice through a regular newspaper column. She wrote think pieces that related to society and culture, reflecting on ‘where we might want to go’. Her articles included a series entitled Diary of a Saudi female driver, which responded to the lifting of the driving ban of women in June 2018.

Dr Sumayah’s wide-ranging interests often led to criticism that she needed to focus. She regards her career as a tree, branching out as opportunities emerge. In 2018, she co-curated the first National Pavilion of Saudia Arabia at the Venice Biennale, focusing on the issues of rapid urbanisation fuelled by oil.

  • Storytelling and materials are an important part of the Osaka Pavilion commissioned by ADC from Foster + Partners.
    Storytelling and materials are an important part of the Osaka Pavilion commissioned by ADC from Foster + Partners. Credit: Foster + Partners
  • Design of the Saudi Arabia pavilion at Expo 2025 Osaka by Foster+ Partners
    Design of the Saudi Arabia pavilion at Expo 2025 Osaka by Foster+ Partners Credit: Foster + Partners
  • Design of the Saudi Arabia pavilion at Expo 2025 Osaka by Foster+ Partners
    Design of the Saudi Arabia pavilion at Expo 2025 Osaka by Foster+ Partners Credit: Foster + Partners
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When the role of CEO to the ADC came up, she knew she wanted the unique opportunity it offered to shape and influence Saudi Arabia’s architecture sector and design culture. Since her postgraduate studies she had been grappling with how to develop an architecture that was both true to the country’s heritage, and progressive. Mindful of the importance of the CEO role to her country’s architectural development, she told the recruiters at her interview: ‘Select the right person, even if it’s not me.’

Establishing the commission

One of 11 commissions in the Ministry of Culture, the ADC has its work cut out. In a country where engineering has conventionally taken the lead in the design and construction industry, advancing architecture as a discipline and profession required an entire cultural ecosystem to be developed from the ground up. The ADC’s remit straddles education, regulation, standards, sustainability and cultural dissemination. This necessitates a keen focus on outcomes, impact and collaboration.

To start building bridges, Dr Sumayah launched a consultation with more than 80 experts and focus groups. This produced 750 ideas, ultimately reduced to six strategic objectives. They focus on: sector development, GDP contribution (supporting the diversification of Saudia Arabia’s economy), development of talent, global recognition, sustainability and innovation and research.

The ADC plays a vital role as an enabler. By setting up professional associations for architects, landscape architects, and urban and interior designers, it will help the development of standards and continuing professional development. It is also putting forward a proposal for the establishment of an independent registration body.

Dr Sumayah sees her primary role as ‘a thought leader who establishes a common language and direction of travel for value-driven architecture and design’. Showcasing design quality and cultivating a rich architectural culture is at the core of what she does. In December 2021, the ADC launched the King Salman Charter for Architecture and Urbanism, which advocates value-driven architecture and aims to improve the built environment through design excellence. This year it is launching an award scheme recognising excellence for built and unbuilt projects by professionals and university students. The ADC is leading on commissioning the design for the Expo Osaka Design Pavilion, selecting Foster + Partners.

Her aspiration is ‘for a healthy architecture community with varied voices and levels of depth, rooted in research: a robust ecosystem with multiple outlets with high-quality education and good job opportunities. This should improve quality of life, for not only a sustainable and equitable profession, but all those who benefit from their design skills.’ While success for the ADC depends on wider social, economics and political forces, what is certain is that Dr Sumayah is an important voice and role model for an emerging generation of architects and designers.

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