| Saudi Arabia | Feb 01, 2017
Five developments that will define Western Asia in the decades to come.
Who remembers the Second Anglo-Afghan War of 1879? Less, one imagines, than those who visit New York’s St Patrick’s Cathedral (1878) or the Cathedral of Cologne (1880) on a given autumn afternoon. The Commune of Paris is a dying whisper on the lips of ageing leftists; Sacre Coeur, erected upon its ashes, is a household favorite from Fujian to Florianópolis.
The same can be said of all times. When the doyens of the 23rd century look back upon the deeds and debacles of our own, the Freedom Tower—if it’s still standing—will likely loom much larger in the collective consciousness than the Battle of Fallujah, though both were the offspring of a troublesome 2006. A century from now, Grozny will probably be more associated with the Akhmad Kadyrov Mosque (2008) than the Second Chechen War, a conflict that literally cleared the way for it.
What of West Asia? It is no secret that children would rather attend a schoolyard fight than watch carpenters do the tuck-pointing. Nonetheless, contemporary coverage of Turkey, the Middle East, and the Caucasus fails to convey the extraordinary dynamism in much of the broader region outside the Levantine and Mesopotamian eyes of the storm. From Turkey and Azerbaijan to Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the 21st century has seen the region take extraordinary leaps forward. Whether fueled by banking, insurance, fossils, services, or indoor ski-slopes, this millennial confidence is nowhere more present than in the region’s architecture. These are five of the developments that will define it a century from now.
Jeddah Tower, Saudi Arabia
Jeddah Tower is significant not only for its size, but its demeanor. Firstly, the fact that it was conceived by Talal is not insignificant. The grandson of Ibn Saud, the kingdom’s founder, and nephew to every monarch since, the Arabian Warren Buffet is not only one of the most powerful men in the kingdom, but also one of its shrewdest. The largest individual shareholder in Citigroup and the second largest voting shareholder in 21st Century Fox, Talal also has huge stakes in Twitter, News Corporation, and Apple through his 95% stake in Kingdom Holding Company, Saudi Arabia’s largest investment corporation, which is financing Jeddah Tower. Endowing the universities of Cambridge, Harvard, Edinburgh, Georgetown, and the American University of Beirut, Talal also helped established the George HW Bush scholarship at the Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts.
In making Jeddah Tower the centerpiece of a new USD20 billion complex along the Red Sea, the Jeddah Economic City, Talal is positioning his country to enter the next phase of global competition. As the Shanghai to Mecca’s Forbidden City, Jeddah Tower and Economic City are part of a broader effort to guarantee Saudi’s place at the post-fossil fuels table through a mix of gargantuan commercial and residential offerings. The project and the developments around it will guarantee the kingdom’s most ‘liberal’ city a place in the hearts of Red Sea urbanites for decades to come.
Though he has contracted the Chicago-based architectural firm Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture to design the building—a prestigious firm that already boasts the Burj Khalifa, Trump Tower Chicago, and the Pearl River Tower in Guangzhou in its portfolio—construction for the world’s largest building has been awarded to the Bin Laden Group. Founded by the father and managed by the brother of the century’s most notorious son, the group also has the contract to build Jeddah’s first metro system over the next five years.
Sheikh Zayed Mosque, Abu Dhabi
An elegant combination of Mughal, Persian, and Moorish themes, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque is a tribute to the myriad architectural, linguistic, and theological influences that have swept across the maritime Persian-Arab Gulf over the past millennium. The vision of the founding president of the UAE, Sheikh Zayed, it struck ground in 1996 and was completed in 2007. More than 3,000 laborers using materials imported from Italy, Macedonia, China, Iran, Malaysia, Germany, Morocco, Pakistan, Turkey, the UK, New Zealand, and India helped construct this modern masterpiece of Islamic architecture.
Launched by the late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan to “unite the world,” the white-stone mosque drew its largest inspiration from the famed Mughal-era Badshahi Mosque (1673) in Lahore and the much more recent Hassan II Mosque (1993) in Casablanca, two iconic structures that lay 10,000km apart and span the ancient hinterland of the Islamic world. While the mosque’s dome layout and floor plan were inspired by the Badshahi mosque, its archways are classically Moorish, and its four 107-meter minarets quintessentially Arab. With more than 80 marble domes and a roofline supported by more than 1,000 pillars, over 100,000 tons of pure Greek and Macedonian marble were used to construct it.
With a capacity of more than 41,000 people at prayer time, it also houses the world’s largest loomed carpet. Its arabesque motifs were designed by the Iranian artist Ali Khaliqi and hand-woven by more than 1,200 Iranian knitters using New Zealand wool over a two-year period. In keeping with Zayed’s mission of uniting the world, the northeast minaret of the mosque holds a library with a 200-year-old collection of books and manuscripts in Arabic, English, French, Spanish, German, and Korean, among others, and an extensive selection of works dedicated to Islamic culture, architecture, the arts and sciences, and literature. It is one of the few mosques in the region open to non-Muslims.
Whatever befalls the region in the decades and centuries after peak oil, the Sheikh Zayed Mosque will be a tribute to what was possible in the region’s prime.
Heydar Aliyev Center, Baku, Azerbaijan
Designed by world-renowned British-Iraqi architect Zaha Hadid and completed in 2013, the Heydar Aliyev Center in Baku is Azerbaijan’s aesthetic declaration of independence from Soviet Modernism.
For a capital with a long tradition of imperial tastes and temperaments, whether Venetian gothic (the Ismailiyya Palace, 1913), classical late Russian imperial Polish and Armenian (the Azerbaijan State Academic Opera and Ballet Theatre, the Hajinsky Mansion), or simply Stalinist (National Academy of Sciences and Lenin Palace, now renamed the Heydar Aliyev Palace), architectural innovation is nothing new to Baku. That being said, while its distinctive skyline reflects the republic’s post-Soviet prosperity, developments from the oil bonanza of the early 2000s have failed to give it a global voice or aesthetic of its own.
Enter Zaha Hadid. When the most renowned female and Arab architect in the world agreed to design the country’s premier cultural center in 2007, she left an indelible mark on the young and bustling capital by its completion in 2013. Drastically breaking with the rigid and monumental strictures of the Soviet era, the building is a beacon of fluidity, undulation, and gravity-defying folds. But given Azerbaijan’s curious place within the global cultural caliphate, its unconventional contours are less rebellious than might otherwise appear.
Rather, the building’s sweeping kaleidoscopic asymmetry is a bold, fierce, and elegant manifestation of both traditional and contemporary Azeri culture. Flowing forms, after all, are nothing new to Islamic architecture. As trees might in a forest, the traditional rows, grids, and columns that drift into eternity in Islamic architecture emphasize the anti-hierarchical nature of the faith. In this sense, Hadid’s free-flowing and wildly unconventional—but still fundamentally unitarian forms—only bolster this tradition.
Whatever other signals it sends, the Heydar Aliyev center is a shout from the rooftops that no matter the price of oil, Baku has a stake in the future without averting its eye to the past.
Åžakirin Mosque, Istanbul, Turkey
In a calamitous struggle to define itself, Turkey stands at the edge of an abyss of identity: the statement is so tried and, sadly, so true that it could have been uttered at nearly anytime since 1908.
An overwhelmingly Muslim country in which outward signs of piety were all but outlawed until the new millennium, Turkey has been on a mosque-building bonanza since the coup of 1980. In an effort to kill two birds with one stone and systematize and standardize both the country’s educational system and create a more formidable disciplinarian-cultural glue, the generals funded and oversaw a massive increase in religious education programs, Koranic schools, and mosques after taking power in 1980—a trend that has not receded since.
In the decade from 2005-2015, nearly 9,000 mosques were built across Turkey. While many of these are makeshift affairs, a few remarkable instances will stand the test of time. Of these, the most remarkable so far is the Åžakirin Mosque in Üsküdar, Istanbul. The first in the world whose interior and prayer space were designed by a woman, the inimitable Zeynep FadilliogÌ†lu, Åžakirin is not only the namesake of the deceased couple, Ibrahim and Semiha Åžakir, to whom it was dedicated by their children, but also means “those who are thankful to God” in Arabic.
Åžakirin is dominated by light, open space, and a simple elegance. Its mammoth and asymmetrical chandelier not only hangs unusually low, but consists of small, suspended glass globes shaped like drops of water—a cool and delicate reminder that Allah’s light should “fall on believers like drops of rain.”
In a particularly toothsome touch, the balcony designed for the women’s prayer section is a large, graceful, spacious affair that affords the choicest views of the chandelier in the entire building. Meanwhile, both its mihrab (the fireplace-like niche in the wall that indicates the direction of Mecca) and its windows’ wrought iron grills are shaped in old Seljuk patterns, while the exterior betrays a sleek, metallic shell set against dark grey stones that compliment and contrast its open, luminous interior.
In all the country, no building better defines the promise or crossroads at which contemporary Turkey currently stands: a place of worship that doubles as an beacon of modernism and light; a bold and experimental structure that graces the entrance of one of Istanbul’s oldest and most traditional cemeteries; the first mosque in the world designed by a woman and which places inordinate stress on the beauty, grace, and comfort of the women’s prayer section in a famously conservative neighborhood; and an iconic architectural addition to a city by a native-born architect who made her name designing Istanbul nightclubs, London restaurants, and New York retail stores.
Rarely are non-religious architects afforded such an opportunity—much less sophisticated female ones with far more experience catering to cosmopolitan tastes than conjuring the divine. As such, Åžakirin is more than an expression of a child’s love for a dearly departed parent or a contemporary profession of piety. It is a potent symbol of Turkey’s reconciliation with itself: its mind to the west and heart to the east; its craving for the modern and yearning for the divine.
Solidere, Beirut, Lebanon
Much ink has been spilt about Solidere, the public-private land developer that revolutionized the nature of the relationship between urban development and property rights, and did more than anything to rebuild downtown Beirut after a disastrous 15-year civil war. The construction, architecturally tasteful though much of it is, almost exclusively caters to a trí¨s haute Arab leisure class that has largely failed to materialize, in part because of the 2005 assassination of Solidere’s founder, business tycoon and former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri.
Following this event, and after a spate of kidnappings of wealthy Gulf Arabs by Hezbollah operatives, many GCC states banned their citizens from traveling to Lebanon, depriving the exclusive residential and commercial district synonymous with Solidere (200ha of downtown Beirut) from the bulk of these would-be patrons.
As a result, much of sparkling downtown Beirut lies dormant, if not downright empty, and shares in Solidere have tumbled over the past decade, from USD40/share in 2008 to USD10.25 today. Though stock prices rallied by 25% with the selection of Rafic’s son Saad Hariri as Prime Minister in November, they have since fallen to pre-election levels. How then does the single largest, and certainly the most controversial, developer in Lebanon intend to chart these troubled waters?
Ironically, Solidere Lebanon, which has a 39% stake in its spin-off, Solidere International, has relied almost entirely upon the latter to stay afloat. And Solidere International, in turn, is only growing because of its expansion into Saudi Arabia and the UAE. It’s an ironic twist of fate: the firm of the self-made, Saudi-naturalized, Lebanese billionaire Rafic Hariri—who brought immense capital made in Saudi in the 1980s to rebuild Lebanon in the 1990s—must now lean on its prestigious but culturally ruinous reputation in Beirut to win construction gigs in the Gulf.
Created in 2007, Solidere International was capitalized at USD700 million and showed profits of USD11.5 million in 2013, USD67 million in 2014, and USD61.8 in 2015. Though its biggest recent project has been a multibillion-dollar, 1.6km beachfront stretch of luxury mixed-use development in the Emirate of Ajman with a golf course, residences, and hotels, the company has stated that its focus going forward will no longer exclusively be on high-end properties. Rather, it wants to focus on “places of life” accessible to ordinary people in order to generate long-term value.
Solidere catering to the middle classes of the Gulf for its survival: has the world turned upside down? Whatever the case, its commercial turn of heart seems part of broader, stranger forces: first, Saad Hariri, scion of Solidere and heir to his founding father’s fortune, moved back to Beirut in the spring of 2016 after five years of self-imposed exile in Saudi Arabia and France. He dropped a few pounds, shed the Saudi “chin puff” for a short-boxed beard, and struck a temporary truce with Hezbollah, the blood-foe thought by many to have killed his father in 2005.
What will be next? If his facial hair is anything to go by, the Lebanese Prime Minister has set the Cedar nation’s relationship with Saudi Arabia on a far less intimate footing. Those in line to rebuild Aleppo should take note.