The Middle East is a well known magnet for the construction industry, so it’s no surprise to find an Australian project management company providing its services to a client in that area of the world.
What’s different about Urban Art Projects (UAP), however, is that the consultancy specialises in art installation, and the project is for Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), an amphibious campus covering 36 million square metres of land and water on the shores of the Red Sea.
KAUST ART is the art program for the university. UAP’s role is to manage the artwork commissioning process, from artist selection to installation, to bring to fruition the chosen artists’ creative vision. The ultimate objective of KAUST ART is to establish an international discourse on contemporary art, science, technology and the environment, to make KAUST a cultural destination as well as an academic icon.
While the firm has specialised in largescale projects, at more than AUD $23 million KAUST ART represented a huge leap for them. This rapid growth was made more distinct by the fact that it was UAP’s first project outside of their two jurisdictions, Australia and the USA, says chief executive Ben Tait.
“This perhaps wouldn’t have been as big a move if it had occurred in Australia or the United States, where we better understand the cues in business dealings. Operating in a foreign market at that volume has definitely been interesting.”
The biggest challenge was forming an understanding of the project sponsor and their mode of operation. “Locally and in other western countries, you innately understand the communication beneath the surface because it’s culturally ingrained. Dealing in Saudi, it’s easy to underestimate the cultural divide even if, as we did, you enter with eyes wide open,” he says.
“There have been plenty of late nights required on elements of KAUST to meet the client’s critical milestones, consequently followed by months of patiently waiting as feedback worked its way through the various levels of the client’s internal ranks, which inevitably results in a compressed delivery period and the ‘fast track’ scenario so common in the Middle East.”
In the end, UAP saw benefits to dealing with the pattern of fast and slow, realising that success with something as iconic as KAUST would probably cement their standing in the region. Innovation became the key to aligning with their client’s style of working.
“As an organisation we are attuned to seeking creative solutions to complicated problems, so you could say we are well suited to the Saudi mode,” Tait remarks.
He cites the development of the KAUST emblem, the 60-metre high ‘Beacon’, as an example of their method. Designed by UAP principals Daniel and Matthew Tobin, ‘Beacon’ comprises a complex network of mutated hexagonal elements made of precast, high strength concrete. Apart from needing to find an engineer to bring the piece to life, Tait says they also had to find a way of working around KAUST’s time constraints.
“Modelling such a complicated form is an intensive process and requires constant geometry review, both from a creative and structural aspect. Typically you take it in baby steps, firming up the design from a macro level and diving down into ‘deep modelling’ once you are quite sure the structure will work. If the ‘deep model’ shows that the structure is unworkable then it’s back to the drawing board,” he explains.
“Such an approach was not achievable within the timeframe, so UAP drove a design process that investigated multiple options simultaneously, allowing the client to fast track works on site at the earliest possible stage and while detailed design was being finalised.”
Fast start art
Another aspect of the project UAP had to fast track was their direct relationship with the client. Initially interacting with their KAUST counterparts through international architecture firm HOK, master planners for the university campus, UAP were removed from their client at first. “When HOK’s involvement in the project subsided and we were directly engaged to develop the art program and ‘Beacon’, we needed to quickly develop the relationships which were vital to ensuring items moved through the client’s internal ranks as quickly and effectively as possible,” recounts Tait.
Artistically, the cultural aspects of the project were no different to what they would ordinarily undertake; to have regional context, works require research on the local landscape and culture. However, on an organisational level, the firm needed to come to grips with the difference between their normal operations and Middle Eastern business culture.