Saudi cities of the future hark back to Brasilia and the Soviets

Philip Langdon, New Urban Network

Four massive urban centers being developed in Saudi Arabia may end up pleasing no one.

Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic of The New York Times, has been to Saudi Arabia, and he doesn’t like what he found there. The desert kingdom, in an attempt to create an economy less dependent on oil, has laid out four large urban centers around the country.

“Architecturally they couldn’t be more dreary and conventional — bloated glass towers encircled by quaint town houses and suburban villas decorated in ersatz historical styles,” declares Ouroussoff, in a Page One article available here.

It’s no secret, of course, that Ouroussoff has rarely seen a new traditional-style building that he didn’t consider ersatz. He is part of the modernist coterie that regards traditional architectural culture as dead, when in fact it remains very much alive (though far from dominant).

I keep wishing that Ouroussoff would read a book like Steven Semes’s The Future of the Past, reviewed here last June. Semes intelligently argues for an architecture that draws from the best of what humanity has created over the centuries. How can the world create great cities and towns if nearly everything built before 1900 is dismissed as irrelevant to that pursuit?

What’s fascinating about Ouroussoff’s latest critique, however, is not its usual rejection of historical styles but rather, its protest against modernist urban planning, at least as it’s practiced in a largely closed Muslim country.

He writes of the urban developments being built near Riyadh, Jidda, and elsewhere: “Their gargantuan scale and tabula rasa approach conjure old-style Modernist planning efforts like the creation of Brasilia in the 1950s or the colossal Soviet urban experiments of the 1930s ….”

The King Abdullah Financial District, which is to be completed in  Riyadh in 2012, reveals the same veneration of automobile traffic and the same reliance on separating one district from another that have characterized most modernist planning efforts all the way back to Le Corbusier.

Ouroussoff complains of the Financial District: “Highways surround the site, isolating it within rivers of traffic. Many of the meandering streets created by the wadi dead-end in cul-de-sacs, adding to the feeling of disconnection from the street grid of Riyadh. Most people will enter by car, parking on one of four underground levels and riding elevators to street level. Once inside they will walk among buildings through more than two miles of air-conditioned skywalks, a vision that seems to have been airlifted from cold-war-era Houston.”

He attributes much of what’s disturbing about the emerging Saudi cities to the royal family’s desire to “restrict comings and goings as well as to shut down the entire district if there is a security alert.” One reason the new urban precincts are being physically set apart is that they will apparently be freer than the rest of the kingdom. For example, the Financial District’s design guidelines do not call for separation of men and women. Apartments in the district will be less sheltered from outsiders’ eyes than is usual in this part of the world. The role of Muslim religion will be softened.

It would be nice to think that the Saudis will succeed in making urban places where women can move above more freely and where some degree of tolerance will prevail. Ouroussoff suggests that tensions in Saudi society may make this impossible.

From the perspective of city-making, it’s unfortunate that Saudi leaders are trying to achieve their goals through “old-style Modernist planning.” By now, leaders ought to know better, even in the more cloistered parts of the world.