Al Faisaliyah Center (with Norman Foster)

Al Faisaliah Tower, Al Olaya, Riyadh


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.” – Brian in the BBC documentary Brian Clarke: Colouring Light, 2011.

This project, for Saudi Arabia's first skyscraper, developed in tandem with Foster's designs for the building over a six year period – the first proposals included a monumental wall of leaded stained glass, comprised of painterly, vertical bands of colour and amorphic forms (characteristic of Clarke's stained glass and easel painting in the early 90s) with a related mosaic floor.

"In 1999 Brian Clarke was commissioned by the architect Norman Foster to design a vast (22,000 sq.ft.) wall of glass for the Al Faisaliah Complex. 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." – Martin Harrison in his essay ‘Transillumination’, published in the catalogue of the same name.

"This Saudi-backed, local/global project both dramatises the concept of global homogenisation, and tests its limits. The unprecedented scale of Clarke’s window, at 2,044 m2 the largest stained glass work in the world [between 2000 and 2017], complements the height of the tower in expressing the technical and economic scope of a multinational corporate client. In the lower section, Clarke included camels, dunes, birds and fish, introducing the figurative components in response to changing tastes in local Saudi society. The example of the Al Faisaliah Tower demonstrates an artist in dialogue with his client culture, [...] shows us that the local or the ethnically distinct are not timeless, ready-made and permanent, but changing and constantly produced." – Carol Jacobi in her essay ‘Weissnichtwo: Brian Clarke and the Global Sublime’.