Read the incredible story of Mauricio Amado’s journey to developing a masterpiece. The Saudi Arabia Ministry of Justice Architectural Designs which was birthed amid a pandemic reveals an incredible path to success against all odds.
This year is 34 years since I finished my bachelor of Architecture. As any new graduate, I was full of dreams and energy and I set onto a road that would take me beyond my wildest dreams. I wanted to be part of the architects that have transformed the environment through design. So with a heart full of dreams and the naïveté of the age, I began an incredible journey that took me from being an intern working for a residential contractor in Liberty Lake, Washington, to Manager of Design in Riyadh Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in the Middle East. Two words – 34 years…
This road was not a straight line, it had many stops and many curves along the way, North America, Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Middle East.
Life is a journey and a process, while in it, we are born, we grow, we mature, we peak, we decline, and finally we reach a conclusion. A Design’s Journey follows a similar path.
There is a start, a growth phase, maturity, and a conclusion. During this journey, we experience influences and interactions from the environment and from people around us as well as internal gestational modifiers that produce a result. A man or a building.
But what makes this design different? Why write? Why now?
Well, one evening during December of 2020 and after 9 months into the design, while discussing some of the challenges of the project a dear friend said: “Once this journey finishes; why don’t you write about it?” That phrase stayed in my mind and today March of 2021 I thought to write and share with you, my thoughts in retrospect of this beautiful but difficult journey, a year-long journey that tested my mind, my abilities, and my humanity.
2020 began with the threat of a pandemic and by the middle of March, we were in full lockdown with limited resources and only online communication doing our best to move the work of the office forward. Anyone who lived through this knows what it means to lose days and time and the effort it takes to keep some routines going to create a balance within the chaos. The design team was not at full force, some members were stranded in their home countries without the ability to return, other members had limited hours, and for all, the biggest challenge was the struggle with oneself and providing for our families.
As head of design, I had to do everything I could to keep the machine moving. I became a friend, an advisor, or simply someone that would listen if you wanted to talk.
Life as an ex-pat can be very rewarding but it can also be lonely some times, consider that for many of us, our families are not here and we only see them once or twice a year and that has to be enough to bring joy and strength for the road ahead.
The government was doing everything possible to contain the situation and Zuhair Fayez Partnership, the company that I work for, was following suit.
In April the COVID-19 Pandemic had completely engulfed the world, and it is then, that during the middle of all of this we received an invitation to participate in a Design Competition for the Ministry of Justice to develop a Court Complex that will house the judicial power of the kingdom; we would provide the courts and administrative areas for three cities; Riyadh, Jeddah, and Makkah. I was so excited!
So during one of our weekly online meetings with the design team I gave them the news. We used the first few weeks as an exchange of ideas to understand the programmatic requirements and also to maintain the unity of the team. For some of us, these meetings were our lifeline so we mixed them with casual and familiar conversations. While thinking of the design, an initial analysis would indicate that that project was 5 courts, 5 buildings, all interconnected.
However, on a deeper study, I saw patterns; patterns that allowed for grouping, flexibility, and expandability. These patterns emerged as an idea; it was clear to me that we needed an administrative area and a judicial area. So without realizing it, we began a journey: A journey of becoming.
Keeping size and proportion in mind. I turned the program into masses then I grouped the masses into areas and those into sketches. Also, know that as much as I love computers for me there is nothing like the hand-mind connection. In keeping with the program guidelines, a few ideas began to emerge.
Always a central element… a plaza, a distributor, a grand entrance with the intention of making you stop in wonder.
At this point, the company decided to have an internal design competition involving the Cairo office. As more information became available we realized that several major firms from the Middle East were involved in the competition and by the end of September, there were four firms left including two firms from Jordan, a Spanish-Kuwait Firm, and us Zuhair Fayez Partnership from Saudi Arabia.
One of our proposals was what I called “The classic option”. An option based on a circular judicial building with a curved administrative component crowning the access of the complex as well as multiple terraced parking structures creating a transition from human scale to large building scale. The conceptual result would combine local and classic elements with a central grand plaza that would work as a distributor.
The second proposal what I called “The Iconic option” was a completely organic design but still following the two mass concepts. A judicial block and an administration block with rear and subterranean parking. A completely closed environment responding to external modifiers.
The internal competition was presented to upper management and Dr. Zuhair; three options in total. It was determined that the Classic option (was given this name for identification only) had the potential to succeed and that it had to be developed. We received comments and instructions for the classic option to continue.
At the same time, the Cairo office was preparing another design. It was the intention of the company to present both options to the client. Initially, the classic option was a detached slender semi circular administration building with a connected circular judicial hall building creating a grand plaza to the center and parking was still consider underground.
Personnel began returning to the office on June 1, 2020. However, it was only the essential staff. We still had some team members out of the kingdom and several others in their homes. We were having submittals every two weeks and there were many things to design and solve.
Remember that as head of the design department there are logistical, personnel, and everyday issues that still had to be addressed such as vacations, overtime, staffing, and deadlines. Not to mention other projects. These are some of the many issues that occupy my day. Although this project was only one of the many projects I had to oversee, I was personally involved in this competition probably because it was born during the most difficult time of the pandemic in Saudi Arabia and it had changed and grown within the company.
The design was becoming; it was getting ready to be presented to the Ministry of Justice jury panel but not before one more internal presentation.
Every day, I was sketching diagrammatic functional plans and we made hybrid compositions. Between my scanned sketches and today’s tools, we used computers to complete the idea in a few weeks.
Suddenly we had 2 days to address the comments and incorporate them into the main idea. An idea that would continue until the conclusion of the competition. Everyone put their best effort forward and we pressed on. Due to COVID-19, the meetings with the reviewing committee and the deadlines had been extended time and time again.
After a few sketches, the direction to follow for the internal presentation was ready. The major pieces of the design were there. Zoning, views, massing, proportions; the design intent was ready to be presented within Zuhair Fayez. We received a few more comments and continued to present the design to the Ministry of Justice and its advisory committee.
It is important to note that one of the deliverables was a physical model that had to be finished by the deadline and to which we asked for an extension of time that was eventually granted.
We submitted two designs and after the submission, the Ministry of Justice asked us to only present one option and withdraw the second one. So after an internal discussion, it was decided that the more original approach could have the desired result so the two mass options; the Judicial Building and Administration building idea moved forward.
After this submission, the Minister requested a meeting in person to present the design. Since I do not speak Arabic a designer from the company was assigned to present the design. The weekend prior to the meeting it was decided by the ministry to have the meeting online and I proceeded to explain the design to this designer. During the review of the project, I noticed his intention to re-design the project and followed to express my concerns to management.
However, the meeting proceeded as scheduled. The outcome … this person almost derailed the project out of the competition. He was simply not explaining the project properly and his answer to everything was, I will fix it. (the meeting was recorded)
Immediately after the meeting I went to the CEO of the company and expressed my frustration for the lack of professionalism of this person. He immediately took action and solved the problem. I week later I was presenting the design to the ministry of justice and the project was alive again.
By now the deadline had moved from August to July, then October, and finally November. So we proceeded to finalize the documentation necessary to fulfill the requirements of the competition. So for the entire month of October, we pressed on to finish the documentation that was going to be issued on November 5, 2020.
One of the first changes requested by the committee was to change the administration building from a curve to a rectangle. Hesitantly we did it but in keeping with the design intent and main view of the design.
These images show the main access and an aerial view of the complex. They are only a small but significant part of a package resembling more a completely coordinated Schematic.
Design set including an animation, interior, and exterior views, engineering input reflected in the documents and a comprehensive basis of design, and a physical model. A few weeks after the submission we were given feedback on the result of the competitions.
We were not informed that we lost. However, we were told that the design was not ready yet and that we had unsolved issues.
With disappointment in my mind, I went home and ponder on what I could have done differently. Nothing came to mind, and I thought, tomorrow I will have a clearer vision. A few weeks passed and we were contacted once again. There was going to be an exhibition for the public of the competition participants. All of a sudden we had to finish the model and a presentation board had to be prepared. We were still in the running … I thought and smiled …
The last two days before the exhibition, the model was ready. However, it was delivered without notifying me and I had to rush to the place where the exhibition would take place to make sure that the model was properly finished… it wasn’t! and the cover was too small!
I contacted management and the model maker immediately and went to the model maker’s office, took 3 model makers and brought them to the exhibition hall, and waited for them to finish. Once they did I left and went home, it was close to midnight the day before opening day. When the exhibition day came we thought: we have done our best!
Everyone in the Design Department was happy and satisfied. We believed we had a winner but at the same time, I was realistic in that there were no weak teams and we all had done our best. I thought: “perfect timing for Christmas break”, or so I thought …
A few weeks later we were unofficially notified that we were a runner-up but that we had to make some modifications to the design! We had another meeting. I was under the impression that the competition was ours and that this meeting was going to be a nice enjoyable meeting during which we would discuss small modifications and the road ahead.
It wasn’t so, it was a difficult meeting. Fortunately, I was prepared, I brought with me a couple of architects from the design team and the necessary project information. Over the next 4 or 5 hours, without being specific, we were told all the things that should change without providing any specifics. As the morning grew older I had asked almost the entire design team to come to the meeting and bring additional information.
We left the meeting after lunch with an interrogation in our minds. What just happened? If we lost… why all the comments? If the competition was over what was all this about? I could not understand. I kept thinking: “the design is what has gotten us so far, we cannot change it; we cannot lose the design integrity”. From that point on I kept reminding myself what had gotten us so far was the design and continued to address comments without losing design integrity. Not a very simple task since we had to change everything; the podium of the tower became a rectangle, the tower was split into 2 different buildings, the circular judicial hall became a square, the main distribution plaza was disappearing.
How can I keep the design integrity?
For the next 2 months and with weekly deadlines we kept struggling with the integrity of the design. Then, I realized; the design is becoming! It had become a joyful and painful journey where I had to reset the creative effort time and time again and never lose focus!
On February 2, 2021, we received an official communication congratulating us as the winners of the Ministry of Justice competition (I was doing summersaults in my mind). Today we are in the process of finalizing and developing some of the sites for the competition.
I want to conclude just by mentioning that any success is never a one-person effort, and without the support and trust of Dr. Zuhair Fayez and Eng. Abdulaziz Alssaf none of this would have been possible. I also want to mention the great effort put forth from the incredible engineering team we have; Mechanical, Electrical, Plumbing, Cost Estimating, Specifications, and Master Planning to mention a few. And finally, the incredible architectural design team that I am proud of being part of; men and women, Architects and Engineers from Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the Philippines.
A great team!
To all thank you!
Mauricio Amado, AIA RIBA NCARB MBA