Mecca goes Vegas

If you’re not Moslem, chances are you’ll never see the architectural wonders of Mecca.  The NYT has a short (7 photos) slideshow of the new and the old, including a tacky replica of London’s Big Ben, decked out in green Allah neon.

In a companion piece, the NYT also tracks the controversy over the latest architectural additions to the holy city: New Look for Mecca: Gargantuan and Gaudy.

It is an architectural absurdity. 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. ….

“It is the commercialization of the house of God,” said Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect who founded a research center that studies urban planning issues surrounding the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, and has been one of the development’s most vocal critics. “The closer to the mosque, the more expensive the apartments. In the most expensive towers, you can pay millions” for a 25-year leasing agreement, he said. “If you can see the mosque, you pay triple.”

….[The construction boom — and the demolition that comes with it] has been facilitated by Saudi Arabia’s especially strict interpretation of Islam, which regards much history after the age of Muhammad, and the artifacts it produced, as corrupt, meaning that centuries-old buildings can be destroyed with impunity.

Contrast some building projects of the past, Frei Otto’s tent cities from the 70’s:

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.

and Skidmore, Owings, & Merrill’s Hajj terminal at King Abdul Aziz International Airport, completed in 1981:

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.

Some say the new construction will change the spiritual experience of the hajj as well.

…. Many people told me that the intensity of the experience of standing in the mosque’s courtyard has a lot to do with its relationship to the surrounding mountains. Most of these represent sacred sites in their own right and their looming presence imbues the space with a powerful sense of intimacy. But that experience, too, is certain to be lessened with the addition of each new tower, which blots out another part of the view. Not that there will be much to look at: many hillsides will soon be marred by new rail lines, roads and tunnels, while others are being carved up to make room for still more towers.

“The irony is that developers argue that the more towers you build the more views you have,” said Faisal al-Mubarak, an urban planner who works at the ministry of tourism and antiquities. “But only rich people go inside these towers. They have the views.”

[image: NYT]

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