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posted on 01.04.11

“To lose all that is familiar-the destruction of one’s the threat of a loss to one’s collective identity.”

-Robert Bevan, The Destruction of Memory

No city is safe from the scourge of sensational pastiche and grimly uniform luxury towers, even the sacred center of Islam. According to the New York Times, The Saudi government has begun an ambitious plan to redevelop Mecca along the lines of hedonistic Gulf fantasies like Dubai. The centerpiece of the project, bizarrely enough, is a towering replica of Big Ben near the Grand Mosque, capped by a crescent spire, and housing the requisite mall and hotel. The Mosque itself is slated for expansion as well. The government claims that new construction is necessary to accommodate the three million who make the pilgrimage every year, but the profit motive is barely disguised.

The clock tower under construction

An opportunistically fundamental interpretation of Islam sanctions the destruction of historic areas to clear space for highrises. Historical events after the time of Muhammad are seen as corrupt, so there’s no taboo on bulldozing remnants of the city’s past. Of courses, what springs up in their place will hardly be admirable from a Muslim standpoint either; catering to the super-rich contradicts the Islamic ideal of egalitarianism. The planned apartment towers threaten the Grand Mosque visually and socially. The buildings will block views of surrounding mountains, many of which are also sacred sites, as well as encouraging wealthy visitors to isolate themselves from the crowds below. Ostentatious luxury and class striation mock the concept of the hajj as a time set apart from worldly concerns. And, as in so many cities, gentrification will drive working class locals out of the center.

Pastiche fantasy architecture is a simple means of attracting tourists’ attention and cash, from obvious examples like Las Vegas and Dubai to the Nashville Parthenon. The gated-community tendency of the rich to spacially sequester themselves is also dishearteningly common. It’s easier to forgive (or guiltily admire) this type of development when it springs up out of nowhere. Dubai can be appreciated as an oddity because it grew out of a tiny town, a nearly blank canvas. Whatever its other faults, nothing was bulldozed to make room for the Burj Al-Arab. But when it’s inflicted on a city with emotional and spiritual import for millions of people, it is a cruel act of iconoclasm.

The clock tower looms by night

Building a massive replica of Big Ben proves the government’s cold-blooded disregard for the significance of the site. It is insultingly irrelevant to the Mosque, as if picked at random from a list of famous monuments and grafted onto the heart of the city. It exhibits all the symptoms of desperate architectural pandering: height, mimicry, and devoted to shopping. This kind of nonsense is expected in cities that were built on soulless capitalism, but it is intolerable in a dignified setting.

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