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Redesigning Mecca

November 18, 2010 7:11 pm

by Maryam Eskandari

This last week, roughly between two to four million Muslims were honorary guests at the “House of the Divine” to fulfill a spiritual cleansing. Millions of people come each year to visit this architectural wonder, built by the father of the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. They get to witness the foundation that Abraham laid, in order to build his Ummah or the society of the “Abrahamic Faiths.” This year Muslims visited the Ka’aba, before it goes under heavy renovation by two of Britain’s “starchitects”: Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid.

Hadid and Foster, along with 18 other handpicked architects have been chosen to redesign Islam’s holiest city and mosque complex.  The design parameters are to include the “Royal Mecca” clock tower and to increase the al-Haram mosque, which currently has the ability to hold 900,000 to 2,700,000 people recognizing itself as the “highest occupancy building” in the world. This being a response to King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz’s initiatives to “establish a new architectural vision” for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The “Royal Mecca” clock tower, which has a diameter of 151 feet, twice that of Big Ben, has the inscription of “In the name of Allah” and is the most grand of the seven towers making up the new Abraj al-Bait complex. The programmatical function of Royal Mecca was to contain an enormous shopping mall, two helipads for VIP guests, and another prayer area with visual access to the Ka’ba that would fit up to 30,000 people and 2,000 room hotel. Nonetheless, the clock tower hotel is to contain 800 rooms, all having visual access to the al-Haram mosque.

The clock tower, built by the Bin Laden Group – Saudi Arabia’s largest construction company, stands as the world’s second tallest building, at nearly 1,983 feet, while the Burj Khalifa stands at 2,717 ft. On the surface of the clock are over 2 million LED lights. The 21,000 green and white lights flash five times a day – signaling for a call to prayer, up to 18 miles away, re-inventing the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer.

The al-Haram mosque has been planned out for three phases in the next 10 years.  The first phase is transforming the mosque from its current official capacity to nearly twice the amount from 900,000 to 2.7 million. Then five years from now it will increase its capacity from 3 million and then 6 million. Atkins engineering and design based out of Epsom United Kingdom has been given not only the feasibility study, rather they are part of the team of Foster + Partners, for the extension of the al-Haram Mosque.

Currently, Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect, has been working side by side with Adams Kara Taylor and Faber Maunsell, both British-based engineers to develop the conceptual design for the al-Haram mosque and frame the multi-billion dollar project. Nevertheless, none of the designs have yet to responded to sustainability and/or recognizing the importance that this holy place is the core of exemplifying the concept of ”Green Deen.”

As I got off the phone with my Aunt, who happens to be in Mecca, I started to wonder: When the Ummah comes together, men and women side by side, all dressed in white; there is no difference between race, gender, and class, we all are there to be humbled by the spirit of the Divine. To let go of our egos and allow our souls to flow into this Zen state, in a timeless manner that one experiences while there. However, is this notion of purity, fear and pleasure, experiencing the sublime, all interrupted by the flashing 2 million LED lights, and the extravagant hotel suite that looks “down” at people as they make their pilgrimage? Or is this the response to modern architecture, and truly highlighting the architecture that Prophet Abraham erected?

Maryam Eskandari is an Architect in Training and is in the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture at Harvard and MIT.

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1 Comment

  • Salaams. Thanks for a great article. We really need to have this discussion. The entire ummah has an interest in the haramain and their development should be open to comment rather than a unilateral imposition. There seems to be a universal distaste for this imposing monstrosity. All cities in the world have town planning schemes to control the built form and development in the form of height and bulk restrictions etc. Surely the surrounds of epicentre of the Islamic world, the most important building to muslims need some sort developmental control. 
    Further, don’t expect the Islamic principles of humaneness, humility and moderation to be advanced by the appointment of Hadid and Forster. Rather than a billboard for these ‘starchitects’ we need a humane, rooted design. While people like al Wakeel come to mind, such a project should really be subject to an international design competition.

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