A Terminal Worthy of a Pilgrimage

Flights are canceled, but Jeddah’s architectural masterpiece endures—and its design is newly relevant for the pandemic era.

There may be no building more seminal to its type than the Hajj Terminal, yet largely unknown today. The result was both deeply resonant and entirely new.

First, a clarification of the current state of affairs. After initial reports of an outright cancellation, the Saudi Ministry of Hajj and Umrah announced that this year’s Hajj, taking place between July 28 and August 2, would be limited to some 1,000 pilgrims already residing in the Kingdom (compared with the nearly 2.5 million travelers accommodated in 2019). These fortunate few, not limited to citizens of Saudi Arabia, will represent many nationalities, but they must be younger than 65 years of age and have no chronic health conditions. Furthermore, they are required to be tested for COVID-19 upon arrival; they must wear masks and maintain a minimum of 1.5 meters’ distance from other pilgrims during the multiple rituals of the pilgrimage, including the circumambulation of the Kaaba, the most sacred site in Islam.

Original site plan for the Hajj Terminal. © SOM

Before air travel, the journey to Mecca was arduous, expensive, and time-consuming. Caravans marshaling at Cairo, Damascus, and Baghdad could take up to 35 days to reach Mecca. Under sail, the voyage from the Muslim communities of Southeast Asia to the port of Jeddah on the Red Sea could take as long or longer, and probably entail more hazards. These immemorial means of travel were briefly supplemented in the 19th and early 20th century by steamship (astonishingly, a British monopoly for the most part) and the Hejaz Railway, built by the Ottomans from Damascus to Medina. Opened in 1908, the railway was closed in 1920 at the fall of the Ottoman Empire — and as a result of having been attacked repeatedly by the forces led by T. E. Lawrence, “Lawrence of Arabia,” and the Arabs during the war.

Muslim pilgrims make the journey to Mecca by bus, circa 1977. © SOM
Hajj Terminal viewed from the air.
Hajj Terminal viewed from the air. © Owens-Corning
Hajj Terminal with B747.
Hajj Terminal with B747. © Owens-Corning

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.

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.

Air towers cool the expansive area at ground level while hot air escapes from the tops of the tents.
Air towers cool the expansive area at ground level while hot air escapes from the tops of the tents. © Jay Langlois | Owens-Corning

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

Setting aside the religious dimension, contemporary airport terminal design attempts to break down the immense scale of the building into areas that are more comprehensible and inviting, without losing the sense of general orientation and wayfinding that is also necessary to navigate such spaces. This “passenger experience” dimension of the Hajj Terminal design is not fully appreciated.

Pilgrim tents during Hajj. © SOM

Watch this video for a deeper dive into the construction of the Hajj Terminal.