This summer, Madeline Amhurst was one of very few people in the world to walk through the ruins of an ancient city in the desert of Saudi Arabia, which dates back thousands of years. Walking upon empty desert roads that once laid home to an ancient people was a surreal moment for Amhurst, who completed her master’s in architecture this May with a concentration in sacred spaces and cultural studies.
“The landscape was like being on Mars … It’s very stark, so every pop of color, every stone stands out, and you can see whatever items they had fallen in love with climbing out of these sites,” Amhurst said. “Picking up a stone, you might find a painting underneath or a teapot someone had left behind. There was a real sense of discovery that I just don’t have in my regular life.”
Amhurst’s trip to Saudi Arabia was part of an ongoing project for the architecture firm where she now works. While working in close cooperation with Saudi Arabian communities, the firm is working to design heritage sites that will help educate locals about their cultural history. Amhurst was part of a small contingent of architects sent out to get a feel for the location and meet local stakeholders.
“Saudis don’t have a lot of places to learn about their heritage,” Amhurst said. “This archeological site is a gem they want to revitalize, and they want to make sure it’s a sustainable community. So we’re working with them on how to maintain and restore the architecture of the site and recapture the spirit of this spectacular place.”
She also credits her time studying in the Sacred Spaces program with preparing her to enter the project with “a more thoughtful and sensitive approach,” by being reflective of the local people and culture and self-aware of her own actions.
— Madeline Amhurst
In previous years, the firm has been working to build an interactive museum in a world heritage site near Riyadh. Once completed, the ambitious project will include a visitor center, agritourism, exhibition galleries, and multimedia presentations to educate tourists about the area’s history.
The week-long trip to Saudi Arabia this June was an experience Amhurst could never have predicted. While she originally felt some trepidation about the trip, she was moved by how warmly her team was welcomed to the country. She also credits her time studying in the Sacred Spaces program with preparing her to enter the project with “a more thoughtful and sensitive approach,” by being reflective of the local people and culture and self-aware of her own actions.
After talking with members of the Saudi community, Amhurst said she has a greater appreciation for how design can serve a purpose in enriching a community’s life and culture.
“To know that thousands of people will now come here and be able to learn about their history, that’s extremely impactful to me,” she said. “I try to think less about my own experience and more about those people who were smiling ear to ear, and so excited to tell us about what they had learned from these sites.”