Saudi’s 100-mile mega-city is meant to blow our minds – so we forget the crimes of its rulers

The ObserverArchitecture

Rowan Moore

Rowan Moore

Protesters against Neom don’t last long. How can western architects ignore this?

Designers’ visualisation of a future structure in the Neom region, Saudi Arabia.
Design for the redevelopment of the Neom region, Saudi Arabia. Photograph: Getty Images

Sun 23 Oct 2022

The ambitious development of the Saudi region of Neom, goes the PR gush, is “dedicated to the sanctity of all life on Earth”. Well, not quite all, it turns out. It was recently reported that three members of the Huwaitat tribe, arrested for protesting against the forced eviction of their and other families to make way for it, have been sentenced to death. Another protester from the tribe was shot dead by security forces in 2020. Which, for all those businesses and consultants who help to plan, design, build, market and otherwise enable monuments for tyrants, poses an old question with new force: what point is too much? When will whatever gain that might arise from the creation of extraordinary buildings cease to outweigh the atrocities that go with them?

Neom is arguably the most dramatic project in the world of architecture and construction right now. It includes The Line, a planned structure to house 9 million people, that will run dead straight for 170 kilometres (105 miles), projecting at one end into the Red Sea, but will be only 200 metres wide. It will be flanked on either side by 500-metre high walls of building, mirrored on the outside. Imagine a tower taller than the Empire State Building extruded from Birmingham to Leeds, and then doubled, and you have an idea of the scale. There have been some doubts whether The Line would truly happen but last week drone footage showed that a start has been made on digging its foundations.

OMA’s case for working on the CCTV building was that, if they didn’t, some big bland American company would do it

It will be, claimed Saudi Arabia’s crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, “a civilisational revolution that puts humans first, based on a radical change in urban planning”. It comes with extravagant promises about sustainability. It will allegedly “blend with nature”. Neom also includes Oxagon, a city for tech industries built on the sea, and Trojena, a mountain region where, with the help of yet more spectacular architecture, the 2029 Asian Winter Games will be held.

The Line raises doubts, urbanistically speaking. How can such a colossal project be in any sense sustainable, given that its construction would produce (according to one estimate) more than 1.8bn tonnes of carbon dioxide, which is equivalent to more than four years of the UK’s entire emissions? What is the benefit of its height, when there is so much desert in which it could spread out? What would actually be good about life in this deep narrow canyon, probably subjected to high levels of surveillance and control?

But the salient fact about Neom is that it is clearly an instrument of both soft and hard power wielded by an exceptionally murderous and repressive regime. It is aided and abetted by western consultancies such as the once-hip Californian practice of Morphosis (which is designing The Line) and the London-based Zaha Hadid Architects (at work in Trojena), both of them winners of the biggest prize in architecture, the Pritzker. How might they square what’s left of their progressive reputations with a real estate endeavour where objectors get killed?

A visualisation of 100-mile city, The Line, projecting into the Red Sea.
A visualisation of 100-mile city, The Line, projecting into the Red Sea. Photograph: Getty Images

It’s not a new issue. Monumental architecture has gone with power since ancient Egypt and before, and powerful regimes tend to be brutal. More recent examples include the decision by the also Pritzker-winning Dutch practice OMA to design the vast headquarters of the Chinese government’s main television station CCTV, completed in 2012; as the writer Ian Buruma asked: would they have done the same favour for Pinochet’s Chile? You could also look at the stadiums built for the forthcoming World Cup in Qatar, with the notorious and lethal exploitation of migrant workers. The arguments for collaboration are well aired. OMA’s case for working on the CCTV building was that it was good to engage with and encourage the more forward-thinking elements in Chinese society – and that if they didn’t design the building, some big bland American company would step in and do it anyway. In which case, it would be better to get some remarkable architecture out of the situation than none at all.

Architects and other construction professionals can also point to the ways that governments and businesses consort with despots – how British arms exports help to kill civilians in Yemen, for example, or how British ministers and our ever-obliging man in Riyadh, Neil Crompton, smoothed the way for the Saudi takeover of Newcastle United Football Club. But, if they want to claim any sort of cultural leadership, the people who design buildings could start with their choice of clients.

Cantilevered colossus … Zaha Hadid’s port authority HQ in Antwerp, a result of the revolutionary ‘open call’ system.

Lines do get drawn, if hazily. Practices that were happy until this year to work for Putin’s cronies now don’t go near them. The British architect Norman Foster (again a Pritzker winner) withdrew from the advisory board of Neom over the murder of Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, but his practice continues to work on Saudi projects such as the Red Sea airport and an “experiential marine-life centre”. Some architects will work in China, some won’t.

Then, when there is no further room for equivocation, previous positions look weak. When Russia invaded Ukraine, previous attempts at “engagement” looked at best futile. OMA’s relatively enlightened Chinese allies have lost the argument there, and, for all their good intentions, the CCTV headquarters ended up as a dominating and excluding tool of control. There must be a possibility that Saudi Arabia will one day acquire the international pariah status Russia now has (and there is already no moral distinction between them).

In which case, why wait? Why not decide now that murder is too high a price to pay for architectural glory? This position might conceivably deprive the world of a few monuments at which tourists of the future might gawp, in which case we should thank the pharaohs and their ilk for previously laying in a good supply of such things. A boycott of projects such as Neom would, more probably, slow the creation of follies that eat energy, belch carbon and make no practical sense.

 Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent


Categories: Arab World, Saudi Arabia

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