Al-Faisaliah Center

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

In 2000, Brian Clarke’s project for Saudi Arabia’s first skyscraper, the Al-Faisaliah Center, was unveiled. Now a landmark for the state’s capital, Riyadh, this complex was developed in tandem with Norman Foster’s designs over a six-year period. The completed work is considered a seminal step for the history of stained glass, with Clarke developing an entirely new technique and solutions in response to the high-tech architecture and materials of the building.

Clarke’s Al-Faisaliah Center is the largest stained glass work ever produced, spanning almost 2,392 square feet of fully tempered float glass, with each of the wall’s 350 panels measuring approximately 67 inches by 114 inches. The 265-foot-high artwork is installed in the five-storey lobby of the tower.

Martin Harrison in his 2002 essay ‘Transillumination’, published in the eponymous catalogue, writes:

'Their client, in the context of Saudi Arabia's relaxation of the proscription against images, required the window to contain representations of striding camels. In order to fulfil the brief without compromising the integrity of the building, Clarke clustered the subject-matter, which he expanded to include desalination plants and oil refineries along with Saudi fauna and flora, as predellae at the base of the soaring glass wall. His solution would require both a reconciliation of abstraction and figuration and a re-working of the technical fundamentals of the craft; this deconstruction resulted in what is effectively a new language for the medium. Since its inception more than a thousand years ago, stained glass has been constructed from three basic materials: glass, lead and enamel paint. Beginning with the Riyadh design, Clarke jettisoned a principal component - the lead - both as the binding between separate pieces of coloured glass and a delineator of outline forms. In the figurative passages of the Complex wall, the subjects [are] confined to the base of the composition and conceived to be legible from eye-level, only resolving into clear focus at distance; they function, therefore, albeit on a much larger scale, like the predellas of religious painted triptychs or the subsidiary base panels of medieval stained glass.’

In the BBC documentary Brian Clarke: Colouring Light - An Artist Apart (2011), the artist stated:

‘We wanted to create a wall that would evoke a sense of place and culture – the genius loci. It’s conceived on an extraordinary scale – a kind of transparent desert mirage, with multiple references to desert flora and fauna: the desert rose; rippling sand dunes – which appear to oscillate as you pass – and of course a camel. It has a luminous quality, and bathes the space in a wonderful coloured light.’