The Hajj Terminal at the King Abdulaziz Airport in Jeddah, is no ordinary airport terminal. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill as part of the master plan for the broader airport and air force base facility, the Hajj Terminal, officially inaugurated in 1981, was purpose-built for the influx of religious pilgrims that stream into Saudi Arabia for just a few weeks each year as part of the annual Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. The Hajj has been a part of Islam since the religion’s founding–it is one of the “five pillars” of Islam–but with the advent of jumbo jets and government subsidized pilgrimage trips from Muslim countries around the world, the number of Hajjis soared from an average of 50,000 in the 1960s to 500,000 in 1975. SOM’s massive Teflon-coated fiberglass tent-like structure would accommodate 950,000 Hajjis by 1985, and today millions of pilgrims pass through the facility each year during the Hajj.
The choice of SOM to design the project was a coincidence of location: Airways Engineering Corporation, hired by the Saudi government to develop the airport, was headquartered close to SOM’s Washington, D.C. office. Gordon Wildermuth led the master plan for the overall airport, and Gordon Bunshaft and engineer Fazlur Khan developed the design of the Hajj Terminal. After Wildermuth and other SOM staff were able to observe the Hajj, the team realized that the facility would need to able to accommodate between 80,000 and 100,000 pilgrims at a time, for up to 36 hours, both on arrival and prior to departure, while documents were processed and onward transportation arranged. To meet this challenge the design team conceived an open-air facility sheltered by a concrete shell structure, but it quickly became apparent that the harsh desert climate required a more innovative solution. Instead of concrete, the team settled on a Teflon-coated fiberglass fabric from Owens Corning. The fabric reflects 76 percent of the solar radiation, maintaining a comfortable 80 degree temperature under the tent structure even when temperatures outside reach 130 degrees; it also allows about 7 percent of the sunlight to pass through, providing ample but comfortable illumination during daylight hours.
In addition to maintaining a comfortable environment, the facility had to meet all the needs of the Hajjis during their long waits. In addition to restaurants and cafeterias, the design included provisions for cooking areas for the pilgrims to prepare their own food, ablution facilities for the cleansing process prior to the five daily prayers, spaces for changing into the ritual Hajj garments, seating that can also accommodate napping, and even market spaces where pilgrims can sell goods they have brought with them to help fund their trips.
The facility is broken into two equal halves on either side of a central roadway for the buses and taxis that transport the pilgrims on to Mecca. Each of the two buildings is composed of five equal modules, with the width of each module based on the space required to park two Boeing 747 jets side-by-side. Along the outer edge of the building, adjacent to the aircraft gates, a fully enclosed and air conditioned “terminal within the terminal” houses immigration, customs, and baggage claim facilities. After completing arrival formalities, the pilgrims emerge into the open-air tent structure. Each building module comprises 21 conical fabric tent segments, suspended from 150-foot tall tapered steel columns on a 150-foot square grid. The corners of each segment start at 66 feet above the floor before rising to a steel-ringed oculus 110 feet off the floor at each peak. In total, the two tented structures cover 105 acres. The modular design also accommodates future expansion, if needed.
Though strikingly modern in appearance, the tents allude to both vernacular nomadic dwellings in the Arabian Peninsula, and to the tents that house pilgrims in the Mina Valley on their way to Mecca. Bunshaft denied the influence of vernacular architecture on the design of the terminal, as he typically denied the influence of any architectural precedent, but Khan was more willing to acknowledge the connection. The design team was also adamant that the terminal was not a religious space, but that it should evoke the spirit of the Hajj. As Khan described in an interview with Progressive Architecture magazine, “It creates the spirit, it gives you a feeling of tranquility and a sense of continuity, of transition into the real place, which is Mecca.”
Upon its completion in 1981, the building was celebrated around the world. It received an AIA National Award, and a Progressive Architecture Award, as well as the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1983. But the Aga Khan Award jury made sure to note that the award was specifically in celebration of the structure, and the, “brilliant and imaginative design of the roofing system…covering the vast space with incomparable elegance and beauty,” and not for the relatively banal furnishings and support spaces. In 2010 the Hajj Terminal received the AIA 25 Year Award, in recognition of the structure’s lasting accomplishment.
Nearly 35 years after its completion the Hajj Terminal continues to ably accommodate the annual flow of pilgrims. Despite its age, Wired magazine recently featured the terminal as part of its recent “Future of Cities” feature, noting that today 3 million Hajjis make the pilgrimage to Mecca each year, and almost all of them arrive through the Hajj Terminal.
 Bierig, Aleksandr. “25 Year Award: Hajj Terminal,” Architectural Record, June 2010, 122.
 Bierig, 122.
 Adams, Nicholas. “Skidmore, Owings & Merrill: SOM since 1936.” Milan: Electra Architecture, 2007. 262.
 Adams, 263.
 “Invitation to the Haj,” Progressive Architecture, February 1982, 120.
 Adams, 263.
 “Invitation to the Haj,” 122.
 “Structure of the Hajj Terminal, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia,” Architectural Review, October 1983, 104.