French architect Jean Nouvel has unveiled new concept designs for Sharaan by Jean Nouvel, a luxury resort sculpted by Saudi Arabia’s AlUla desert. Located deep within the Sharaan Nature Reserve, the designs draw on the nearby Nabataean heritage of Hegra – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – and could revive the 2,000-year-old architectural legacy for the first time since the ancient Nabataeans last carved into its sandstone rock.

The development will comprise 40 guestrooms and three resort villas cut into a cliff face, with each suite featuring a balcony that offers vistas of the surrounding landscape and sandstone walls that pay homage to the former Nabataean city. Meanwhile, the resort’s entrance will take the form of a circular courtyard carved into the sandstone hillside; from here, a series of guestrooms will be arranged around an 80m-high lift shaft.

In order to adapt old ways of life to the modern world and minimise the impacts on natural and urban landscapes, Nouvel has used abstraction and sculpting within the landscape itself rather than competing with it. Inspired by the Nabateans, his design plays on the old ways of living to build on the present and meet the challenges of the future, integrating the way Nabateans interacted with their environment – both verticality and horizontality – to reconnect to the earth and build sustainable habitats.

The architect also views the resort as an opportunity to bring to life a strong spatial, sensorial and emotional experience on the borders of nature, architecture and art – where the sound, musicality, harshness, tactility, power and complexity of nature are everywhere, from finely chopped stones on balconies to the singular granularity of each rock wall, meaning all becomes an artwork in itself.

“Our project should not jeopardise what humanity and time have consecrated,” he emphasises. “Our project is celebrating the Nabateans spirit without caricaturing it. This creation genuinely becomes a cultural act.”

Taking on a curatorial approach in the museographical sense, Nouvel has created public spaces geared towards the joy of living there by day and by night, with various colours, light, shadow, wind, torrential rain and the passage of time. He invites travellers to embark on a journey through thousands of years of civilisations and geographical strata within every detail of his designs, from the permanent feel of the rocks to the soft comfort of the armchairs, sofa and seats.

“AlUla is a museum. Every wadi and escarpment, every stretch of sand and rocky outline, every geological and archeological site deserves the greatest consideration,” says Nouvel on the importance of preserving such a unique landscape. “It’s vital we keep all its distinctiveness and conserve its attractiveness, which largely rests on its remote and occasionally archaic character. We have to safeguard a little mystery as well as the promise of discoveries to come.”

The end result will see guests immersed deep within in a memorable journey through time and space, offering a true discovery of AlUla’s essence. Through immersive experiences in Sharaan’s wilderness, visitors will have personalised exposure to the hundreds of archaeological sites. This level of luxury will not be at the cost of the natural landscape, however, as the new resort will draw on emission-free power and new standards in sustainability.

Nouvel’s commitment to respecting AlUla’s landscape and ancient heritage has not meant shying away from modern architectural ideas: “AlUla deserves to acquire a degree of modernity,” he suggests. “Envisioning the future is a never-ending obligation that requires us to be fully alive to places in the present as well as conjuring up the past.”

The Sharaan by Jean Nouvel Resort will be a key element of The Royal Commission for AlUla’s (RCU) strategy to develop the region as a global destination for culture, heritage and eco-tourism. It is designed within The Charter of AlUla, a framework document that includes 12 guiding principles that commits the RCU to long-term future development. It will also contribute to the area’s diversified economy through a Retreat Summit Centre and restaurants.

Amr AlMadani, CEO of RCU, comments: “These concepts, which showcase Jean Nouvel’s masterly innovation in architecture, underscore our commitment to developing AlUla as a global tourism destination without compromising the history, heritage and landscape of AlUla. We are a destination built by artists. Sharaan by Jean Nouvel will build on that legacy to become a timeless landscape-architecture that will last forever – a gift to the world.”