Architectural Interventions in the Desert: Natural Escapes, Minimal Intervention and Reclusive Luxury

Architectural Interventions in the Desert: Natural Escapes, Minimal Intervention and Reclusive Luxury

Set deep within some of the most isolated desert landscapes across the Middle East and further afield, these desert camp hotels offer a way to connect with their surroundings through the solitary experience of open and expansive scenery.

By disregarding the kind of structural interventions that might alter their historic and often culturally relevant landscapes, the projects position traditional and local skills, materials, and architectural techniques alongside high-end luxury interiors.

As the Middle Eastern region uses development to transform and diversify its economies towards tourism and other more sustainable sectors – with various business, hospitality, and cultural projects in the pipeline if not already in full flow – these desert camp hotels show that as well as preparing for its future, the region is still focused on preserving the traditions and environments of its past.


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1- Environmental Protection

Positioned just 15km from the UNESCO World Heritage site of Hegra in Saudi Arabia, Al-Ula is an ancient oasis city in the middle of the desert, surrounded by architecturally and historically significant tombs and rock formations. As part of the Saudi Vision 2030 – the Kingdom’s official strategy for transformation through economic, social, and cultural diversification – the Banyan Tree Al-Ula Resort groups 47 suites underneath stretched canvas tents.

By stretching these sand-colored tents over the built structures, the project architects AW2 were firstly able to protect the hospitality spaces from the harsh desert sun, but the dual-tier building envelope also ensures ventilation between the roofs and the canopy. Meanwhile, the project’s selected palettes of color, material, and pattern – such as the compacted sand facade’s variation of horizontal lines matching up with rock formations in the background – blend seamlessly into the dunescape.

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In the planning of the project, the environment’s natural topography takes precedence over the built structures, rather than the other way around. For example, original sand dunes are retained and used to form corridors and passageways between suites and amenities, and the resort’s signature pool is set in a natural rock crevice.

Banyan Tree AlUla Resort / AW2 architecture and interiors

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2- Hybrid Design Mixes Old With New

About an hour’s drive from the United Arab Emirates coast and major cities, sits the Mysk Al Badayer Resort, a manmade oasis offering tourists and locals the opportunity to escape into the nearby desert landscape, without straying too far from civilization. In fact, with a cafe, restaurant, amphitheater, gym, indoor pool, and sauna all based in the resort’s tent-covered plaza at its center, all the amenities usually associated with luxury hospitality settings are just a stone’s throw away.

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While the ten tented suites that circle the compound’s perimeter – and 15 more planned – offer easy access to its services, they also back onto the bare beauty of the desert, blending the comfort of connectivity with a calming sense of isolation.

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‘Expressing a form of hybrid identity’ as the resort’s architects, Wael Al-Masri Planners & Architects, put it, Mysk Al Badayer brings together local traditional architectural typologies such as courtyards, arcades, and mashrabiyas; a desert peach color palette; and the use of high pergolas for shaded protection, with ‘the careful use of modern planning systems, repetitive architectural forms, building technologies, and the use of contemporary tensile fabrics.’

Mysk Al Badayer Retreat, Desert Camp / Wael Al-Masri Planners & Architects

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3- Blending Architecture and Environment Par for the Course

While the first two featured projects use either the ancient features of their surroundings such as sand dunes and rock formations, or traditional local architectural typologies, palettes, and skills, the Ayla Golf Academy resort in Aqaba, Jordan, enlists the more contemporary material of sprayed shotcrete to produce a Clubhouse structure that imitates the undulations of the desert.

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Part of a 17-square-mile leisure development that’s set to include residential, hotel and commercial space, the 13,000sq ft Clubhouse ‘establishes a unique connection with nature by capturing the elemental, vibrant beauty of the rolling desert landscape, explains Oppenheim Architecture, as the continuous surface ‘emerges from the sand.’

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Instead of highlighting and employing the work of skilled local craftspeople and artisans in traditional architectural work, the Ayla Golf Academy taught the innovative shotcrete pouring technique to workers on the project, allowing them to take ownership of the construction and ultimately to obtain the specialized shotcrete skills themselves. However, it’s not all about contemporary skills. A local artist applied a traditional pigmentation technique to the interior surfaces, giving them a raw, unadorned look, and corten steel screens were perforated with triangles in motifs inspired by traditional Jordanian patterns to create mashrabiyas in the facade.

Ayla Golfclub / Oppenheim Architecture

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4- From One Desert to Another

Although the materials and architectural techniques employed to build these projects are local, the concept of a luxury desert camp, blending high-grade amenities and design with the open expanse of the desert sky, travels across borders. Set in rocky scrubland close to Monument Valley – a section of the Native American reservation Navajo Nation that hugs the border of Utah and Arizona in the US – Camp Sarika makes good use of the iconic landscape, surrounded by sandstone buttes and mesas that star in many Hollywood Westerns.

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Inspired by the safari camps across Africa, Camp Sarika is North America’s first all-weather, year-round luxury camp, able to withstand the natural temperature variation of the site, which ranges from 20 to 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a three-layered membrane, each tent begins with a custom polyester-weave ceiling liner, underneath a waterproof patterned Riptech canvas, and topped off with a recyclable pre-stressed structural canvas that overhangs the rest of the structure to ensure passive cooling and outdoor shelter.

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With few additional amenities to rely on, Camp Sarika instead offers luxurious interior quality. Sandwiched between unobstructed views of the Reservation’s mesas to the east and sunsets to the west, the tents’ engineered canvas overhang provides each one with shaded outdoor spaces for heated plunge pools, loungers, and campfires.

Camp Sarika / Amangiri + Luxury Frontiers

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Find these Desert Camps from the Middle East and other isolating landscapes around the world in this ArchDaily folder.

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