Cities of the Imagination

The building boom in the Middle East– spearheaded in large part by Western design firms–is the latest chapter in that region’s centuries-old struggle between its cultural identity and its utopian dreams.

At the Western Wall in Jerusalem, I saw it for the first time. It was there in Cairo at the old Ibn Tulun mosque as well. It was clearly visible in bomb-cratered Beirut in the 1980s, in the spaceport skylines of Kuwait City and Jeddah, and at the former U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The tangible, structural features of these streets and buildings were not what the people of these places saw when they looked at their cities. Instead, everywhere in the region, I found invisible cities of spiritual memory and passionately embraced prophesy, in a vivid architecture of the imagination.

As a young reporter with a liberal, secular background, arriving in the Middle East for the first time nearly three decades ago, I anticipated observing cultural contrasts, political unrest, and religious passions with a detachment appropriate to the mission of a Western journalist. I was not prepared for how the actual cities and neighborhoods of my new home seemed deeply humbled by their own history, and were plastered over with this dream architecture of yearning for mythological places of the past, and for a future variously utopian or prophetic, but completely of the imagination.

In my Middle East, only the past and future were inhabited. The present was a dormant state, almost beside the point. The holiest shrine for Jews was not a partially demolished bearing wall; it was a temple of ancient memory, or for the more radical Israelis, a temple of the future, a prophesy to be fulfilled by rebuilding it on its former site. The slum in Gaza was not the Jabaliya refugee camp, it was a waiting area in preparation for the rebirth of Palestine. Chunks of masonry in the West Bank were not bits of rubble, they were weapons for expelling the Israeli occupier. Towers and glassy spires in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi were not rides in an oil-themed amusement park, they were monuments to the anticipated restoration of an Islamic empire. The 1948 concrete-and-steel Ides van der Gracht building in Tehran was not the U.S. Embassy, it was the “den of espionage.”

Everywhere in the Middle East, buildings and pieces of buildings are exquisite crystals of petrified history, fixtures of life and reality as dominant as the sun and moon. It is an architecture that circumscribes culture in an array of rituals, political and religious, that freezes time in a visual language of domes and rocks and temples and mounts and minarets and ziggurats and walls—so many walls. The curious irony and tragedy is that the standing buildings nearly always speak to the past, while the abundant rubble in the many war zones is generally all about the present.

Here, architecture is geography, history, politics, and heartbreak. It overwhelms the exterior and interior spaces of the ancient urban centers of Damascus, Beirut, Mecca, Jerusalem, Baghdad, and Cairo. Other, less well-known cities that are tied to the staggering, if less transcendent, pipelines of oil and wealth convey a deep yearning for the undisputed significance of the ancient shrines. Monuments of glass, metal, concrete, and structural ceramic composite in Riyadh, Doha, Kuwait City, and, of course, Dubai, etch new, radically accelerated construction schedules onto fragile young skylines, crowding out horizons of desert that have been static for millions of years.

These cities breed super-tall shrines to vanity that are engineering marvels of extreme height and radically distorted scale, constituting a school of unselfconscious excess we might call Twenty-First-Century Vegas Gothic, an opulent fusion of the most sacred and the most profane.

The architectural history of the Middle East is partly the story of an extraordinary and difficult partnership with the West that began with the imposed domes and archways of the Islamic Umayyad empire in conquered European cities like Córdoba, Spain; was reversed by the classical and modernist gestures exported by Britain and France during the colonial period of the nineteenth century; continued with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire after World War I; and accelerated with the discovery of oil and the arrival of American and European architects after World War II.

The latest development in this relationship is possibly the most interesting and disturbing of all. The global recession, rising petroleum prices, and the highly competitive and restrictive environments of the economic dynamos of India and China have drawn an enormous amount of work to the Middle East, creating an oil-soaked rave pit of unregulated building and development. The mix of projects, both under construction and planned, reflects an uneasy boom mentality on many levels. There is the urgency of the enormous postwar rebuilding efforts in Iraq and Beirut, as well as local citizens’ incredulity that the fickle petroleum wildcat days of OPEC may have returned once more.

There is also a growing sense of desperation among Western architects, starved for work in the United States and Europe, who are finding that only the Middle East can bankroll the visions of building that are commensurate with the traditional prosperity counted on by the most successful firms. China may have unlimited resources for construction these days, but with some notable exceptions, like the 2008 Olympics or OMA’s bold CCTV tower in Beijing, China’s collectivist aesthetic takes a relatively guarded view of the individual styles of the Frank Gehrys and Rem Koolhaases of the world. With the combination of its financial strength and its cities’ almost neurotic determination to share the global stage with the likes of London, New York, Rio, and Hong Kong, there may be no architect today who cannot be seduced by the Middle East’s latest promises of glory. But with its history of war and political repression, and distinctly mixed record of embracing modernism, there may be no architectural wonder in the region that has escaped tragedy. The Middle East has both a supreme reverence for architecture, and what sometimes seems to be an overwhelming immunity to any of its civic benefits.

“It’s the order of magnitude of the projects in the Middle East, along with the recession in the U.S. and Europe, that’s the real game changer here,” says Rick Bell, the executive director of New York’s Center for Architecture, which is operated by the local chapter of the AIA. The organization is holding an exhibition on current work in the region, Change: Architecture and Engineering in the Middle East, 2000–Present, which will be on display until June 23. Bell says the Middle East is driving a boom unlike anything he has seen outside of the crowded, crane-pierced metropolises of East Asia. Four hundred sky-scrapers are currently under construction or in development in the region, including 59 super-tall structures—buildings over 80 stories. “The Middle East is different from East Asia because it’s so vast, and because of the interesting rivalries between the various sheiks and politicians,” Bell says. Here, competition isn’t the client-driven bidding contests of the West, or the crony politics required to get significant work in China. In the Middle East, clients are competing with one another, and their intensity tends to float all boats. More often than not, there is something for everyone. In the Emirates, this obsession with outdoing others distorts or even eliminates the traditional bidding dynamics between major firms.

“What’s going on now in the Gulf has rightly been called the Las Vegas of culture,” says Nezar AlSayyad, a professor of architecture, planning, urban design, and urban history at the University of California, Berkeley. “But there is actually a well-established precedent among Arab elites for relying on foreign design expertise for the building of important political and cultural symbols. Traditionally, the caliphs and emirs throughout the various Islamic dynasties called on architects in Anatolia [in what is now Turkey], or from Cairo, or even southern Spain and North Africa.”

AlSayyad, an Egyptian-American, is clearly gripped by the political, economic, and cultural excitement in the land of his birth. He has been consulting on numerous projects, as well as spending a lot of time answering questions from the American media about the sudden prospects for democracy in the Arab world. He considers it refreshing to see tangible evidence that the Middle East is moving beyond the shallow narratives of colonialism, oil wealth, and Cold War–era dictatorships and instability. Yet the pro-democratic revolutions in Egypt, Libya, and Syria, and the new instability they have brought to the streets of Cairo, Tripoli, and Damascus, have further delayed any significant new projects in these places. There is no clear sign of when investment might resume.

“With the Arab Spring in 2011,” AlSayyad says, “all of the activity has gone to the Gulf countries, and other places on the cultural fringe. It’s a massive amount of work, involving a who’s who of the architecture world, but the cultural centers of the region with the greatest historical lineage have mostly been left out.” Even Baghdad—with the invasion winding down, and its rich history cradling both East and West—remains far too unstable to attract much development capital. In what might have been considered absurd only a few decades ago, of all the Arab legacy cities, only Beirut has managed to capitalize on the current investment boom, erasing many scars from the long civil war that began in the mid 1970s.

Nevertheless, there is a strong mix in this new work. There are the inevitable monument towers, many with the excitement and boldness to inspire hope, such as SOM’s torqued and twisting Al Hamra Firdous Tower in Kuwait. At the other end of the scale, there are provocative small projects with the ambition to experiment with fundamentally new visual languages. In between these smaller buildings and the eye-popping Xanadus, there have been major investments in educational facilities. “Campuses are popping up anywhere and everywhere,” says Rosamond Fletcher, the director of exhibitions at the Center for Architecture. “Of particular interest are the huge growth at Kuwait University, the numerous new projects in Abu Dhabi, and the Saudi King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.”

Not surprisingly, Saudi projects have embodied the greatest ambition. The King Abdullah Economic City (KAEC) is a joint venture of the United States–based Parsons Corporation, SOM, and WATG, and is intended to become a city of two million inhabitants. The descriptive official language for the project suggests that it’s part of an attempt to buy the kingdom a future after petroleum, cutting a path beyond total reliance on the oil business. Plans for the “Economic City”—a title redolent of a certain naïveté; what city isn’t an economic entity?—include four times the geographic area of Hong Kong, three times the population of Dubai, and an economic output equal to Singapore’s. The objectives may reveal more about the Saudi royal family’s admiration for Hong Kong and Singapore than they do a practical model for their realization.

Abu Dhabi’s interest in creating a global art and cultural center has produced the Zayed National Museum, which tells the relatively unknown (and truth be told, not terribly interesting) story of the founding of the Emirates. In case that isn’t enough of a draw, franchises of the Louvre and the Guggenheim are underway. Referring to the rise of giant cultural complexes, world-class museums, and university campuses throughout the Gulf countries, AlSayyad says that while the less challenging elements of beauty and architectural importance have largely been addressed, the harder question of why these facilities are being built has been ignored: “I love the new museums in Abu Dhabi, they’re visually exciting and aesthetically important, but certain questions may never be asked because the available money seems so utterly without limit.” Saudi Arabia and the Emirates have tiny indigenous populations that are dwarfed by the millions of foreign guest workers. “So what’s the reason for building a Louvre museum in the Persian Gulf, where most of the people are not even citizens of the countries where they live?” asks AlSayyad. He’s quick to add that this is not a question that is often posed in the West, either—like when, for example, an architectural spaceship designed by Frank Gehry and piloted by the Guggenheim landed unexpectedly in Bilbao, Spain.

Sandy Isenstadt, an associate professor of the history of modern architecture at Delaware University, says that until cities like Damascus, Cairo, Baghdad, and Tehran take on a bigger role in this Middle Eastern resurgence, successes in the Emirates will only amount to dots on the edges of Arab and Muslim culture, thin veils of irrelevance or puffed-up importance not unlike Atlantic City’s Monopoly-game remoteness from New York and Philadelphia. Still, Isenstadt believes there is reason for hope. “Over the past 60 years, the impetus has gone from an attempt to impose modernism with some decorative regional motifs, to something much more integrated. The question of ‘how to be modern and Islamic’ has changed to ‘how to be Islamic and modern.’”

Given the bitter missteps that were made in the pursuit of modernism in the Middle East during the last century, this constitutes progress. At the Center for Architecture, a somber room exhibiting some of the historical mistakes made in the 1950s accompanies the showcase of modern work. City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952–1982 recalls a moment in Iraqi history when anything seemed possible. On display are Walter Gropius’s cartoonish dome for the University of Baghdad campus, Frank Lloyd Wright’s mythical master plan for central Baghdad, and C. A. Doxiadis’s rationalist grid project for the Al Thawra neighborhood of Baghdad that later became known as Sadr City—the Shia ghetto that became a center of violence, repression, and sectarian carnage in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Isenstadt argues that because of these failed projects, the region may have a body of knowledge to rely on, moving forward. “There is a history of developing-world postmodernism that can be traced to the efforts of the 1950s,” he says, adding that the region may understand the deliriousness that always accompanies moments like the current boom: “The roots are deeper and the stakes are higher. Even some of the more outlandish-seeming projects may stick, and give us a window on what’s going to really work in the future.”

AlSayyad is also hopeful, but in a guarded way. The political changes of the Arab Spring are the wild card that may determine whether the broad population of the region connects to or benefits from the transformations that are currently underway. Right now, while the resources are largely parked in the Gulf, the narrative is paused. Things could go either way. AlSayyad believes the most important criterion has yet to be addressed: “Have we elevated the discourse in the region?” he asks. “I say yes. Have we contributed in any meaningful way to world culture so far? I doubt it very much.”

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