Hajj Terminal

A Terminal Worthy of a Pilgrimage

Jeddah’s architectural masterpiece endures—and its design is newly relevant for the pandemic era.

Original site plan for the Hajj Terminal.

Health and sanitation must have been matters of concern from the earliest days, but the first epidemics spread to and by the Hajj started to occur only in the 19th century, the first in 1831. Pilgrims infected with cholera arrived in Mecca from points east and transmitted the disease to other pilgrims, who then returned to their homelands. Major outbreaks in 1865 and 1893 killed tens of thousands of pilgrims — between 15 and 30 percent of attendance in those years. International conferences in Paris (1851) and Venice (1892) attempted to establish health norms and to prevent the spread to Europe through Egypt by establishing quarantine camps. With the foundation of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in 1932, the responsibility for the health and safety of the pilgrims passed officially to the Saudis.

Plane at Hajj terminal
Hajj Terminal with B747. © Owens-Corning
Aerial view of Hajj terminal model
Model of one of the five modules making up each half of the Hajj Terminal.

The lineaments of contemporary terminal design are commonly thought to have come together during the 1990s, but several of these key components were formulated in the Hajj Terminal, which opened in 1981. Among these are: the two-way, square grid cellular structural-spatial field supporting a long-span roof; ventilation assisted by “air towers” served from below the primary occupied level; clear sight lines from the curbs to processing functions and out the sides of the building; the balance of a single shared space with semi-private, semi-enclosed enclaves for groups; and a sophisticated response to climate and environment.

Infrared image of Hajj tents
An infrared image shows a dramatic temperature difference between the floor level and the peak of the tents.

Many designers today are planning outdoor areas for new terminals. The ultimate source of this idea is standing in Jeddah.

This ingenious, large-scale, and unprecedented solution could not be replicated in an enclosed terminal, but it informed the principle of displacement ventilation and was assisted by the introduction of “air towers” at the ground level. Viewing early photographs of the Hajj Terminal in use, one’s eye goes to either the pilgrims in their distinctive national garb or to the billowing tent structures overhead. However, look closely and you will see a series of octagonal pylons with rows of nozzles around them. These “air towers” deliver fresh air at the occupied level to assist the stack effect of the tents and provide additional temperature mitigation for the pilgrims.

These design moves are closely bound up with the form, function, and technology of the superstructure, but are transferrable to more conventional systems for fully enclosed and conditioned terminals. And that is what happened. Most of these strategies are taken for granted today, but were unknown or uncommon when the Hajj Terminal was designed. The utterly unique and singular purpose of the terminal for the pilgrimage has meant that the Hajj Terminal’s influence has gone largely unacknowledged. The terminal became known only for the tents, while its other innovations were obscured by a superficial understanding of what lies beneath them.

This article originally appeared on Medium.