Al Faisaliah Center (with Norman Foster)

Burj Al-Faisaliyah, برج الفيصلية, 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 a building designed to be Saudi Arabia's first skyscraper, and a landmark for the state's capital, Riyadh, was developed in tandem with Foster's designs over a six-year period – the completed work is considered a seminal work in 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. The first proposals, in the early 1990s, 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 Venetian glass mosaic floor.

“Comprising nearly 2,392 square feet of fully tempered float glass, this is the largest stained glass work ever produced. Each of the wall’s 350 panels measures approximately 67 inches x 114 inches.  The 79 foot wide by 265 foot high artwork has been installed in the five-story atrium-style lobby of the Tower. Here, Clarke first photographs existing images and then manipulates them with the mediums such as watercolour or acrylics. After re-photographing the picture, he scans the image onto the computer, where it is represented as hundreds of thousands of interacting pixels. Clarke then divides the image into sections that will be silk-screened onto glass panels for the next stage of the process. The glass is installed in the tower lobby which also serves as a link between the Al Faisaliah Hotel on the north side and the Al Faisaliah Residence on the south.  Pedestrians have access via three bridges that pass immediately in front of the stained glass wall. The visual interpretation alters considerably, depending on the viewing distance. From afar, each element of the artwork is distinct. As the viewer stands closer to the wall, the image within the translucent circles of colour, begins to fragment. It’s like looking at newspaper print under a magnifying glass but in the most beguiling colours, from the softest pink to the richest violet. The closer the viewer gets, the more the dots disperse into a sensation of millions of drops of coloured light. Step back, and the wall becomes a literal image once again.”

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 2002 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’.

In Riyadh the incorporation of figural images  of  Saudi  Arabian  culture  was  a  sine  qua  non. Clarke reconciled  this  requirement  with  the demands of the architectonic relationship with Foster’s building by clustering the images of oil-fields, flora and fauna at the base (that is, at eye-level) of the tall elevations, like the subsidiary predella panels of altarpieces. The specific image sources were  all  photographic, which, since Clarke  had  proved himself more than capable of drawing camels, leaves or any other subject, was a surprising shift; after thirty years, he may have argued that he had exhausted the possibilities of linear improvisation, or had reached  a  temporary  impasse  in  this  direction. In sharp contrast he conceived a pointillistic dot technique  of  glass-painting, which mirrored  the  light-sensitive  grains  of  photographic  emulsions;extending  this  to  three  layers  of  glass  (the  Riyadh  window-layers  were  painted in yellow,  blue  and black) may have seemed a logical step but was a master-stroke.” – Martin Harrison in Lamina.