Arabian Nightmare

There are very few architects or designers who don’t want to be in Saudi Arabia at the moment – and it is a cruel irony that Sami Angawi is one of them.

The veteran Mecca-born architect recently finished work on his family home in Jeddah, a building that has attracted attention from across the world (US ex-President Jimmy Carter has visited twice), while a new hospital he designed in Saudi Arabia’s coastal hub recently won acclaim from King Abdullah himself.

Yet at a time when firms from across the globe are falling over each other to get into the country, Angawi is doing his best to stay away. He is currently in Egypt, and prefers not to travel home unless he has to.

“I’m trying to go back to Saudi Arabia less and less, even though I have that beautiful house that everybody likes to visit. I’m being isolated,” Angawi told Middle East Architect from Cairo.

“There are things that I would love to do in my country but I am not allowed to. I felt that I had to leave. I was not saying what everybody likes to hear. That’s why I am in Egypt, I’m not on holiday. I am trying to do projects away from my country.”

As founder of the Hajj Research Centre, Angawi has never been one to bury his head in the sand. The centre has been working to preserve the history of Mecca and Medina for more than 25 years, and Angawi has been outspoken in his criticisms of recent development in the cities that are home to Islam’s holiest shrines.

But in 2010, as the “stupid clock tower”, due to become the second tallest building in the world, towers over the Grand Mosque, Angawi feels that he is beaten. Mecca has succumbed to the kind of development that seeks to imitate the flash, glitz and glam of the Gulf, and it seems that there is little that anyone can do about it.

“What is going on in Mecca and Medina is wrong, it’s unsuitable from every aspect. Mecca is a sanctuary, it is not a city. You shouldn’t allow this sort of thing to happen, and anywhere else in the world it would not be allowed,” he said.

“And the clock tower, would you allow that in Rome? Or in the middle of London? Even if somebody now wanted to make Big Ben bigger, you would have all Londoners objecting against it. Now we copy like monkeys, bring our Big Ben tower to be the biggest tower in the world, in Mecca. That makes me angry.”

Angawi believes that imitation is the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia at a time when it is opening its doors to bigger projects and international firms, pointing out that the majority of schemes that are on the boards at the moment have no relationship to the country or its people.

That said, Angawi is quick to point out that he is no traditionalist. The architect has recently designed a thoroughly modern hospital in Jeddah, and is working on similar projects elsewhere in the Middle East. Angawi’s concept of al mizan, meaning balance, guides the way that he mixes modern and traditional aspects of design, taking the best of both – it is not about using glass or stone, it is about using both when they are most appropriate.

“There is a big misunderstanding that I would like to correct. People say, are you a traditionalist, or are you a modernist? There is no such thing in my way of thinking. It is all using what you need to serve what is needed from the functional, from the social, from the environmental and so on. When talking about al mizan we say what are the factors, and what are the weight of those factors in the function of the building,” he said.

“This is where the ingenuity comes in, it’s not a question of glass being modern and wood being traditional, it is using, by al mizan, how much glass you need for this, and how much you need for that. This is art, and this is science, you work with cultures and with your mind. The word al mizan is the tool of balance, it is the scale to weigh things with.”

But in Saudi Arabia today, the scales are well off. As international firms come up with bigger and bolder plans for the country, Angawi can only despair that both developers and the government in the country are happy to accept buildings that could have been built anywhere. What is worse is that Saudi Arabia seems destined to not just copy the buildings, but the mistakes too.

“Copying is easy, you just put things in the Xerox machine and copy. But we are using the wrong original and using a bad machine to produce what we have. It’s a bad copy made with a bad copying machine,” he said.

“I wish that instead we would imitate the ideas of sustainability, or the idea of environmental respect, Isn’t that what is happening now in the world, leaving behind all those crazy things and moving towards sustainability and green design? But now we are imitating what was the fashion 50 years ago, to build towers taller than everyone else. Why do we always run behind?” he said.

This is particularly true for Jeddah, Angawi said, which has been thoroughly let down for decades, and still has no credible regeneration plan in sight. Unlike the West, where modern cities try to preserve their historic areas, Saudi Arabia seems content to let its historic heart rot.

“If we are imitating the western world, then we are not doing it correctly. They have proven everywhere else in the world that the most valuable parts of the city are the old parts, so there must be something wrong either with the 50 years of experience, or with our thinking,” he said.

Finally, it is the legacy of Saudi Arabia’s current boom that should motivate designers and architects today to think past the dollar signs in their dealings with Saudi Arabia.

“All we are showing to God and to the people who come in the future is that we have money, and we will spend it. We could have used at least part of our money to do something for the world. To serve humanity, not only ourselves. How are we advancing humanity with what we are doing in the Middle East?

“The load is on us, as architects and planners, because people are not listening yet. We need to advise them on what to do,” he said.



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20 Responses to Arabian Nightmare

  1. Dr. Yasser Mahgoub says:

    I appreciate very much Architect Angawi’s enlightened view and his concept of “Al Mizan” or the balanced coexistence of life (or “Al-Muqabasat” for Jaber Ibn Hayan Al Tawheedi). I’ve seen many “stupid” schemes by “starchitects” for expanding Al Haram. The schemes lack any sense of understanding or appreciation of the place. Just another statement of the “STs”; “first”, “biggest”, and “tallest” that is typical of the 21st century Gulf cities development. The problem is a “neo-orientalism” attitude, on one hand, coupled with lack of trust in Arab professionals on the other hand. “Oqdat Al Khawaga” who knows what’s good for us … even how we should worship our God!

  2. Omar Kashef says:

    the clock tower
    why compare what is allowed is Saudi Arabia to what is allowed in Rome or London? not being like copycats means getting used to making one’s own set of criteria. To beacon the accurate time to the Muslim World is if fact a practical need, the manifestation of this obviously has more negative than positive criticisms. Honouring the future integrity of Muslim shrines will only be guarded by the way we think and discern in a disciplined way. if imitation is the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia at a time when it is opening its doors to bigger projects and international firms, pointing out that the majority of schemes that are on the boards at the moment have no relationship to the country or its people.

  3. Abdul Sattar MANGI says:

    There is no comparission of Mecca & Madina in the world over. These are holy cities and will be protected by God Almighty.

  4. FYZ says:

    Whilst I agree that the Holy City of Makkah should stand as an icon in its architectural design, and heritage, I very much support the development of the grand clock of Makkah, to beacon the accurate time, to the Muslim World, of Qiblat Al-Muslimeen.

  5. Nedaa Elkadi says:

    It seems that influential investors of Makkah have lost sight of a spiritual holy city. Now they see it only as a holy chicken laying golden eggs. Before Islam, the Kabaa was surrounded by idols of stone. Now it is re-surrounded by new idols of concrete and glass, headed by the massive clock tower, the God of new Gods!!!!

  6. Mustafa Kirwan says:

    Urban Planning Guidelines Required in Mecca
    I was very much astonished to see that the zoning in Mecca does not protect the scale and urban balance of this historical city and the surrounding area of the Grand Mosque and the Ka’ba and that new towers are being built all around, growing out of proportion and harmony with this holy landmark. Additionally the entrance into Mecca, from Jeddah, is greatly in need of improvement for beautification and safety reasons. With so much wealth and opportunity, it is a shame that better urban planning and regulations are not already in place to guide appropriate development for such a significant destination for Pilgrims now and for future generations who are obliged to visit Mecca. A solid urban framework and design guidelines are what is required to sustain the delicate balance between the preservation of culture, the natural environment and real estate development.

  7. Ubaid says:

    Makkah doesn’t need a landmark, the holy mosque is..
    Millions visit Makkah every year to worship in the holy mosque. Building high rises hides the main view people come for, i.e. Ka’ba in the holy masjid. Not only do these kind of buildings hide the beautiful view of haram, but they also divert one’s attention. The same is true for Madinah.

  8. David Chaddock says:

    As a 35 year veteran of the Middle East, I fully support Mr Sami Angawi’s position. There is absolutely no need for much of the modern construction which lies out of context with the climate and culture. Would a monstrosity like the clock tower in Mecca be allowed in any European city? Absolutely not. Biggest is not best and in many cases is certainly not required. If you see a man walking around shaking his head it may be me expressing disbelief and disappointment at what I see.

  9. Regina Marie Maibusch says:

    Although not an architect, I agree wih those who aposse alarge clock. It is not in keeping with the mileau. .

  10. Meena Gandhi says:

    I entirely agree with AR.ANGAWI:S views. Architects are those who create space within the space.They should be truthful to their creation. If one wants to copy ,one must see to it that whether it can adapt itself to that culture or to that climatic condition.

  11. Sami Haddda says:

    Till today the planning go Mecca is unclear, should done a better urban planning and spaces, working with strategic criteria, and systems of newrbanism, do not see a transportation systems, pedestrian, urban space, green, hubs of transportations, affordable accommodations
    hospitality, noon of all,,,
    “I wish that instead we would imitate the ideas of sustainability, or the idea of environmental respect, Isn’t that what is happening now in the world, leaving behind all those crazy things and moving towards sustainability and green design? But now we are imitating what was the fashion 50 years ago, to build towers taller than everyone else. Why do we always run behind?”Sami Angawi

  12. Ismael Utteenun says:

    I wonder if the people in Saudi Arabia can recognise themselves with these ‘foreign’ buildings built by foreign firms. One day will come when one will see every country in this place except Saudi Arabia.

    I’m sure Mr Angawi finds himself in foreign land whenever he goes to Mecca. The place has been invaded by a different culture. Arab architects should stop and think: what is our culture?. Do we have one? Architecture is part of one’s culture and tradition.

    The people in Saudi Arabia must think but to think you must first have……brain. If you have brain you will not let others think for you.

  13. Bharti Bhatia says:

    I tend to agree with Mr Angawi. In my limited experience in the middle east region, I have come across the tendency (that sometimes becomes an inevitable norm) to copy what other countries are doing without any concern/respect for the context that it is copied into. My design team calls them “cookie cut” ideas. As an architect/designer it is our basic responsibility to try and provide an original idea. Provide something that is needed, that could benefit the individual and community at a larger scale. Inspiration is a good thing but imitating is just running away from ones professional responsibilities.

  14. Muhammed Farooghuddin says:

    I appreciate Mr. Angawi’s view, of modernizing the state within the values demanded by our culture and religion, along with realistic needs by factors not by formalities of competing for supiriority. However Competation of Superiority within the allowed parameters is strength, not merely for competation.

    Thou,Mr.Angawi’s; some of views may vary with others, on how to do….but definately..not what to do….particularly in sensitive issues like holy places…..
    since millions of followers are have thier commmon view.

  15. Indu Varanasi says:

    This is most sensible article I have read in a long long time. My salutations to Mr. Angawi.

    I this voice and other unheard voice do carried. Sensitivity is the key!

  16. Riad Bleibel says:

    At the time where architects, developers, businesses around the world are taking the social factors into consideration, thinking of the impact of any development on the society, you see developments’ concepts in this part of the world are driven by one person’s dream, wealth, and capability
    The damage has done and continuous to be there, I don’t agree with Mr. Angawi decision giving up and leave the country, as a reputable architect and social figure, I believe he can do more and he must have some sort of influence over the decision makers to control the attitude those riche developers (his work is being recognized by the King himself, Ex-US president, etc …..)

  17. Komal Parvez says:

    Way back in the early 80’s while visiting Mecca i was horrified to see a palace ( King Fahad’s?) being built on a mountain overlooking the Kaaba . If as a young girl with no training in architecture or planning I could sense something not right why could’nt the qualified advisors ?
    Each time I go back the rock mountains dissapear to make way for another monstrosity . The clock tower is meaningless in a setting where time stands still

  18. Abu Aisha says:

    Very well said by Mr.Sami. Our lord has made this universe with al-Mizan (with balance). You can only get this balance with doing proper justice so that the Al-Mizan always remains in equal proportion.

    The Tower is beautiful but does not suit the location. Mecca and Madina has now become picnic places rather than worship. People comes to spent their holidays in luxurious tower. They love to stay inside the luxurious room of the tower relatively sitting in the Masjid. Peoples heart no longer remain connected with Masjied al- Haram, although they stays at the door steps of the Masjid but they come late for prayer. Peoples wants to come late and go early.

    Everything has become opposite. During Ramadan at the time of breaking fast, shinning LED lights glitters over the tower therefore peoples are waiting to watch those dazzling lights instead of seeing Kaba and break the fast.

    Intention of peoples are targeted and every Muslims are fallen under the trap.

  19. S.W.F. says:

    Did Mecca need a Big Ben to make it more important?

  20. ?????? says:

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