Mecca, an ancient city of utmost significance for Muslims around the world, has a perverse past when it comes to architectural heritage. The Saudi Arabian capital of Makkah was once a treasure trove of incredibly detailed houses, mosques and palaces of immense historic and religious significance. However, the relentless march of modernization – not to mention the infiltration of commerce – has led to some irreparable urban surgery being carried out on this burgeoning settlement. Since 1985, about 95% of Mecca's historic buildings, most over a thousand years old, have been demolished – all to make way for extraordinarily extravagant buildings like this.
The Abraj Kudai hotel will be packed with 10,000 luxury rooms and 70 restaurants, set within a dozen towers that incorporate over 2 million square feet of floor space – the top 5 storeys will be reserved, naturally, for the Saudi royal family. The building’s monumental scale and lavish post-modern styling is extravagant to the point of absurdity, matched only by what must be the world’s most hideous super-tall building, the Makkah Royal Clock Tower – just down the road from this new exhibition in colossal construction.
The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright summed up the gargantuan complex succinctly: “Modelled on a “traditional desert fortress”, seemingly filtered through the eyes of a Disneyland imagineer with classical pretensions, the steroidal scheme comprises 12 towers teetering on top of a 10-storey podium, which houses a bus station, shopping mall, food courts, conference centre and a lavishly appointed ballroom.”
“The city is turning into Mecca-hattan,” says Irfan Al-Alawi, director of the UK-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, which campaigns to try to save what little heritage is left in Saudi Arabia’s holy cities. “Everything has been swept away to make way for the incessant march of luxury hotels, which are destroying the sanctity of the place and pricing normal pilgrims out.”
Al-Alawi’s concerns appear well founded – between 2009 and 2012, the historic Ottoman-era Ajyad Fortress was demolished to make way for the Makkah Royal Clock Tower, and more ancient buildings are likely to be razed during the development of the Abraj Kudai.
Indeed, Mecca’s development appears relentless, and the rate of change is staggering – this vast hotel is set for completion in just 2 years time. The question for pilgrims must surely be, though – what heritage will be left to make a pilgrimage to as these mega projects proliferate? Will they be content with visiting the Masjid al-Haram on its own, surrounded by an ocean of over-sized modern hotels, shopping malls and restaurants?
Regardless of the views of people such as Al-Alawi, Wainwright and myself, the rise of super-development looks unlikely to be halted any time soon – and the wealthy demographic this hotel is targeting will soon be spoilt for choice in Mecca. Anyone got 4 helicopters to land? You’re in luck…
The Angry Architect