By Nicolai Ouroussoff
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 centrepiece of a complex that is housing a gargantuan shopping mall, an 800-room hotel and a prayer hall for several thousand people. 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 centre 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. “It is the commercialisation of the house of God,” said Sami Angawi, a Saudi architect who founded a research centre that studies urban planning issues surrounding the Haj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
“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.” Saudi officials say that the construction boom — and the demolition that comes with it — is necessary to accommodate the ever-growing numbers of people who make the pilgrimage to Mecca, a figure that has risen to almost three million this past year.
Architects, preservationists and even some government officials believe the real motive behind these plans is money: the desire to profit from some of the most valuable real estate in the world. That mentality is dividing the holy city of Mecca along highly visible class lines, with the rich sealed inside exclusive air-conditioned high-rises encircling the Grand Mosque and the poor pushed to the periphery. There was a time when the Saudi government’s urban planning efforts, especially around Mecca, did not seem so callous. In the 1970s, skyrocketing oil prices unleashed a wave of national modernisation programs, including a large-scale effort to accommodate those performing the Haj.
The projects involved some of the world’s great architectural talents, many of whom were encouraged to experiment with a freedom they were not finding in the West. The best of their works — modern yet sensitive to local environment and traditions — challenge the 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 Haj pilgrims without damaging the delicate ecology of the hills that surround the old city.
The current plans, by contrast, can read like historical parody. Along with the giant Big Ben, there are many other overscale developments in various mock-Islamic styles. But the Vegas-like aura of these projects can deflect attention from the real crime: the way the developments are deforming what by all accounts was a fairly diverse and unstratified city. The Mecca Clock Tower will be surrounded by luxury high-rises, each designed in a similar Westminster-meets-Wall Street style and sitting on a mall that is meant to evoke traditional souks. They form a postmodern pastiche that means to evoke the differences of a real city but will do little to mask the project’s mind-numbing homogeneity.
Like the luxury boxes that encircle most sports stadiums, the apartments will allow the wealthy to peer directly down at the main event from the comfort of their suites without having to mix with the ordinary rabble below. At the same time, the scale of development has pushed middle-class and poor residents further and further from the city centre. “I don’t know where they go,” Angawi said. “To the outskirts of Mecca, or they come to Jidda. Mecca is being cleansed of Meccans.” The changes are likely to have as much of an effect on the spiritual character of the Grand Mosque as on Mecca’s urban fabric.
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. The issue is not just run-of-the-mill class conflict. The city’s makeover also reflects a split between those who champion turbocharged capitalism and those who think it should stop at the gates of Mecca, which they see as the embodiment of an Islamic ideal of egalitarianism. “We don’t want to bring New York to Mecca,” Angawi said. “The Haj was always supposed to be a time when everyone is the same. There are no classes, no nationalities.
It is the one place where we find balance. ” The government, however, seems unmoved by such sentiments. When I mentioned Angawi’s observations at the end of a long conversation with Prince Sultan, the minister of tourism and antiquities, he simply frowned. “When I am in Mecca and go around the kaaba, I don’t look up.”
Source: Indian Express