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The King’s Walls: Redesigning historic palaces into ultra-luxury hotels

Boutique Group’s Sarah AlBayouk on leading the designing vision for the first renovated historical palaces in Saudi Arabia, the cultural preservation of their histories, and the set ultra-luxury standard

The King’s Walls: Redesigning historic palaces into ultra-luxury hotels

Once upon a time, Saudi kings used to live here. They hosted their esteemed guests, held grand banquets, and looked over expanses of progressing cityscapes. They listened to the murmuring council of the natural surroundings and admired the competing hues of Arabia’s sunsets.

But today, these palaces with their imposing walls, royal suites, and rich histories are given a new purpose as they undergo unprecedented massive and luxurious renovations that prepare them for a contemporary and advanced standard of experiential hospitality, to once more welcome, accommodate, and entertain beyond want.

Established by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) to oversee this wide-ranging endeavour from development to operation, Boutique Group also has the national will and mission to preserve the authentic culture inherent in these grand structures. With the announcement of HRH Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi Crown Prince and Prime Minister, at the start of 2022, it was made known that Boutique Group will begin the first phase of its regenerative task with three historic palaces.

The Al Hamra Palace in Jeddah, a prominent hospitality palace in the Hijazi-style, is set to include 47 luxury palace suites, 44 luxury villas, and one royal suite. The Tuwaiq Palace in Riyadh, an iconic landmark that watches over Wadi Hanifa, will also be redesigned to offer 56 luxury villas and 40 luxury palace suites; and another palace in Riyadh, the Red Palace, one of the oldest perspectives into the kingdom’s past, will soon house 26 deluxe rooms, 44 luxury suites and one royal suite.

Each palace stands proudly as distinct and unique; an architectural assertion that will definitely challenge Sarah AlBayouk, the Architecture Design Director at Boutique Group, to developing an approach that brings them back to a prime condition but preserves their legacies and tell their stories.

The King’s Walls: Redesigning historic palaces into ultra-luxury hotels

Meeting at the Tuwaiq Palace                        

Driving past the rough and rocky walls at the gate, we were struck by the unexpected greenery rolling about the interior landscape. We had entered Tuwaiq Palace’s introverted courtyard, and the meandering effect of the masonry and lush gardens continued along the walkway towards the reception hall. Another thing that stood out for us was the winding design of many of the palace’s paths, coiling inside the plateau’s topography.

Given the scale and cultural status of these projects, it is clear that Sarah AlBayouk’s job holds a multifaceted responsibility. She bases her work on historic finding, operational requirements, and palace positioning within Boutique Group’s portfolio. Being the Architecture Design Director, her role is to establish, steer, and lead the design direction for each of the company’s palaces from initiation to handover to the delivery team for execution.

AlBayouk said, “The main mandate that we have here is to preserve the palaces, and to revive them from their historical use to the current use, which is hospitality, while at the same time conserve the heritage and the architectural style that they originally stood for.”

A typical day for our director differs depending on the stage of the project she is presently guiding. “At the initiation phase, I’m engaged in studying the palaces in terms of their history, researching their past events in coordination with our heritage team, reviewing the old drawings, and visiting the palaces and going into each and every single room; and all of this is an attempt to understand the history and the heritage, collect all the information because this is the base of the design direction.”

Sarah AlBayouk is also involved in selecting the pool of designers for the projects, a decision she makes based on the unique requirements of each palace. AlBayouk explained, “For example, Al Hamra is an eclectic Islamic architectural style, so it was very important to pick a designer who understands that language, and is capable of enhancing that palace in the same language, and who has a deep understanding of Hijazi architecture.”

The concept of regeneration has always fascinated Sarah as it does not only cover reconstruction and function, but also looks at the cultural and communal contexts, whereby regeneration means reinstating the urban development for a modern and current need. “Boutique specifically has a very strong heritage component, so here regeneration looks back at the roots or the cultural character of the palaces. And what’s very unique and exceptional about Boutique is that these are historical palaces, but we’re opening them for the public.”

According to AlBayouk, people will be able to walk the same corridors where the kings used to walk, and stay in the same rooms where they used to stay. They will be able to live within the historical narrative of these palaces.

Furthermore, it is through this ‘Live Museum’ concept that Boutique Group aligns itself with Vision 2030, by blending architecture with history, culture, and true Saudi Arabian hospitality, making for an unparalleled experience not just in the Middle East, but across the globe.

The King’s Walls: Redesigning historic palaces into ultra-luxury hotels

The Ultra-luxury Course

Recently, Saudi Arabia witnessed several successes in its regenerative efforts, as evidenced in the booming tourism figures in AlUla and Diriyah. The kingdom’s commitment to preserving its cultural heritage and natural beauty has attracted a growing number of visitors from around the world. However, the question of ultra-luxury can still be a matter of restricted interpretation against authenticity.

AlBayouk observed that Boutique’s palaces have been designed and built to be ultra-luxury for their time, but in some of the palaces, there have been a hierarchy of exquisite or luxury features, where not all spaces had equal accentuations of details.

She offered, “To me, luxury means the highest quality and standard; and ultra-luxury is all in the details of the guest experience, what they see and feel when navigating the different spaces. What we’re doing is reinterpreting this in our current standards and what ultra-luxury means for us today.”

The ultra-luxury details spoken of here are a result of the uniqueness of the properties and their histories. Moreover, and as a tribute to the former residents of these palaces, the design team would explore the preferences of the king, or his family members. “The Red Palace, for example, was built for King Saud, and he was known for his love of roses and flowers, so you’ll find the whole landscape design inspired by that,” AlBayouk pointed out.

In a similar vein, this ethical interest can take on an investigative nature, as the team searches for past employees in an effort to collect and validate the curious stories and events of the palaces. One of their discoveries was a closet in Al Hamra Palace that contained old flags from a conference held in the 70s during King Faisal’s time. AlBayouk explained that some of those countries don’t exist anymore.

Another trivia about Al Hamra that Boutique will try to revive, is that King Faisal had a Hijazi female chef as the main cook for the palace. “There is actually a book published by the chef of King Saud at the time, about what kind of food was served; so it will be part of what is going to be experienced and served in the palace as well.”

The King’s Walls: Redesigning historic palaces into ultra-luxury hotels

Golden Age of Hospitality

Over 10 years ago, Sarah had completed her studies at the University of Manchester and returned to Riyadh to find an architectural landscape where female architects were still a rarity. Her first job involved working in a team of over 200 architects and engineers, all of whom were men.

Recalling those days, she dismisses the existence of those same disadvantages today, and believes that the opportunities available to women in the field have progressed massively.

“Where we are today is completely different; I think it’s a golden age for women in the field; and Boutique as a Saudi government company, it has a far stronger female presence in comparison to the international companies that I’ve worked and dealt with before.”

Choosing to end our conversation here, we urged Sarah AlBayouk to return back to work and deliver these palaces as quickly as she could. For she had to regenerate an important part of Saudi’s cultural identity – a part which will undoubtedly go down in history for the second time.