Although the human and spiritual dimension of architecture is one of its most essential qualities, yet it is the quality most lacking in our Saudi Arabian buildings and cities. While our buildings and cities successfully address the functional needs of their inhabitants, they rarely demonstrate the level of vision or thinking necessary to create an environment that inspires and uplifts the human spirit.
We have for decades built our buildings and developed our cities with an overwhelmingly functional and commercial mindset with almost no appreciation for the needs of the human spirit. Many of us have travelled to developed and developing cities around the world and I believe most of us would agree that despite our relative wealth as a nation, our Saudi Arabian cities are uninspiring environments generating little joy for their inhabitants.
The lack of a human or spiritual dimension to our cities may be acceptable in our regular cities, however when this mindset encroaches upon Islam’s holiest location, Makkah Al Mukkaramah, this raises several concerns about the judgment of ofﬁcials responsible for the planning, monitoring and safeguarding the development of this city especially within the sacred area around the Haram.
A devout Muslim architect colleague of mine visited Saudi Arabia recently after an absence of several years.
During his visit he performed Umra and afterwards described to me his experience: While performing Tawaf he was constantly distracted by looking upwards at one of the new towers overlooking the Kaaba and unlike previous tawafs, instead of focusing on his prayers, started wondering how much it might cost to stay in one of the tower’s apartments.
We have for decades built our buildings and developed our cities with an overwhelmingly functional and commercial mindset with almost no appreciation for the needs of the human spirit.
To build the Makkah Clock Tower the historic Ottoman Ajyad fortress, built in 1780, had to be demolished and Bulbul Mountain, on which the fortress was located, had to be leveled.
This decision to demolish a part of Ottoman heritage within Makkah was criticized by the Turkish authorities but was justified by the Saudi authorities as being in the best interest of Muslims throughout the world as it provided much needed accommodation for pilgrims. It should be mentioned that there is in fact a huge shortage of suitable housing for Pilgrims visiting the Holy city and the Tower is designed to be predominantly residential, hoping to serve the huge influx of pilgrims visiting the Haram throughout the year. However, the tower targets visitors looking for luxury accommodation in Makkah with the added convenience of being in close proximity to the Haram and as such is probably beyond the reach of many.
An exercise which you can easily do yourself is the following: using Google Earth, search for some of the holiest sites around the world and view the areas surrounding them. In almost all cases the scale of the holy site has been given utmost respect with no higher structure being built around it to reinforce its importance as well as visitors’ sense of spirituality derived from the site.
Conducting the above exercise guides us to ask the following worthwhile question: whether a 600m tall building dedicated to commercial luxury accommodation should be situated only meters away from the holiest site in Islam?
Most of us agree that all Muslims visiting this holiest of sites should be able to derive from their visit the essential and fundamental spirituality associated with visiting the Haram and therefore would also agree that every effort should be made to promote and safeguard visitors’ right to this highly inspirational experience. However, safeguarding this essential dimension of visitors’ experience requires solutions for the Haram area development that our officials utilize a very different analytical paradigm; a paradigm that underscores the importance of the human and spiritual aspects of architecture and space.