Saudi Arabia is falling for "architectural absurdity," charges New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff.
Not only are kitsch buildings like the Royal Mecca Clock Tower — a knockoff of Big Ben, "blown up to a grotesque scale" — appearing in Mecca. Genuinely historic buildings are being demolished, and the city's old mix of all kinds of people, rich and poor, is being replaced by class stratification.
Ouroussoff has never been very receptive to new traditional buildings, even when they are well-designed and are placed in appropriate settings. But he seems to be onto a real problem afflicting the Saudis in his Page One critique of development in Mecca:
"Just south of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Muslim world’s holiest site, a kitsch rendition of London’s Big Ben is nearing completion. Called the Royal Mecca Clock Tower, it will be one of the tallest buildings in the world, the centerpiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. Its muscular form, an unabashed knockoff of the original, blown up to a grotesque scale, will be decorated with Arabic inscriptions and topped by a crescent-shape spire in what feels like a cynical nod to Islam’s architectural past. To make room for it, the Saudi government bulldozed an 18th-century Ottoman fortress and the hill it stood on.
"The tower is just one of many construction projects in the very center of Mecca, from train lines to numerous luxury high-rises and hotels and a huge expansion of the Grand Mosque. The historic core of Mecca is being reshaped in ways that many here find appalling, sparking unusually heated criticism of the authoritarian Saudi government."
A mentality based on the desire to profit from an ever-growing number of pilgrimages and on an insensitivity to history after the age of Muhammad is, Ouroussoff says, "dividing the holy city of Mecca — and the pilgrimage experience — along highly visible class lines, with the rich sealed inside exclusive air-conditioned high-rises encircling the Grand Mosque and the poor pushed increasingly to the periphery."
Ouroussoff, a proponent of modernism despite the wrong turns that he admits it has taken, argues that Saudi Arabia achieved better architectural results during the oil boom era that began in the 1970s:
"The best of their works — modern yet sensitive to local environment and traditions — challenge the popular assumption that Modernist architecture, as practiced in the developing world, was nothing more than a crude expression of the West’s quest for cultural dominance.
"These include the German architect Frei Otto’s remarkable tent cities from the late 1970s, made up of collapsible lightweight structures inspired by the traditions of nomadic Bedouin tribes and intended to accommodate hajj pilgrims without damaging the delicate ecology of the hills that surround the old city.
"Fifty miles to the west, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Hajj terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport is a similar expression of a form of modernity that can be sensitive to local traditions and environmental conditions without reverting to kitsch. A grid of more than 200 tentlike canopies supported on a system of steel cables and columns, it is divided into small open-air villages, where travelers can rest and pray in the shade before continuing their journey."