Architectures of Oil: Earthworks and Petrochemicals in Saudi Arabia c. 1973


  • B. Jack Hanly Massachusetts Institute of Technology



environmental history, history of technology, ecology, oil, the architects collaborative


This paper examines the development of the Saudi cities of Jubail and Yanbu in the aftermath of the 1973 OPEC embargo. Developed as a means of shifting away from pure resource extraction and towards value-added technology sectors, the Saudi government aspired to build up the cities as petrochemical production hubs and investment "growth-poles." It considers the ways in which architecture, landscape, and environment became tools of petro-capital valorization. More specifically, it looks at how the master planning efforts of the construction conglomerate Bechtel and the late modern architectural firm TAC looked towards the quality and composition of the earth as their object of management, study, and design. Such a terrestrial vision of an extractive enterprise would seem to be paradoxical, but the paper ultimately shows how an emergent discourse of ecological systems thinking that legitimated the diffusion of energy and chemicals. This program therefore depended upon a kind of interdisciplinary convergence between architects, engineers, oilmen, scientists, and officials, who collectively manipulated these "natural" resources as the preliminary activity of Jubail and Yanbu's urban administration. These efforts exhibited a scalar flexibility -- from the micrological to the territorial -- that show the labile modalities of extractive activity, as well as a planning regime that adjusted itself to the vagaries of oil's global political economy. The demand to both protect the environment from, and cultivate it with the cities' attendant petrochemical infrastructure demonstrated a melding of technology and nature otherwise overlooked in histories of oil and architecture.


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How to Cite

Hanly, B. J. (2021). Architectures of Oil: Earthworks and Petrochemicals in Saudi Arabia c. 1973. Histories of Postwar Architecture, 5(8), 69–92.