World biggest artificial island, tallest skyscraper, most expensive horse riding competition, the list goes on and on.
In UAE, words such as world biggest, tallest, most expensive are pretty familiar. These words have replaced what generally was referred to as most effective, or most suitable.
Architectural assessment has always been about efficiency, optimisation, and suitability for the task in hand. However, when one look at a building such as Sheikh Zayed mosque in Abu Dhabi or Khalifa tower in Dubai we have to ask what has gone so wrong that such buildings are getting recognition. On what level have these buildings succeeded?
Consider the Sheikh Zayed mosque; one can only imagine the amount of money and effort that are sunk into this place. For one; it contradicts with its very own function; a place of worship, of contemplation. It only offers misdirection. The core of the standard mosque - or any place of worship - is to offer a peaceful space. In this mosque ‘ballroom’ is the word used to describe it. Bulky pillars eat up the oversized space; although the best mosque designs minimize the interruption of rows of people.
The exterior mass is distorted copy of Taj Mahal, as if it is coming back from a journey in enchanted woods, covered with all sorts of flowers. Even the furniture pieces inside are all about cost and size, displaying contempt for aesthetic choices and ‘suitable’ judgment. There is no trace of Alberti's harmony between the parts and the whole, nor Vitruvius’ Virtues.
This robs the precious artistic pieces of their presence; like the Manber - the wooden steps inlaid with shells from Damascus which takes a huge amount of effort and craftsmanship to create and the Iranian carpet which has to be the ‘world biggest’.
This is not a single incident; it has become a way of thinking and living. This is not only the fault of people of that region, but also the international architects who are directly responsible for the architecture there. . Are they really convinced with what they are offering? Or the grand claim to be ‘most paid’ that secured their ever grander claims?
This architecture of records has become the true architecture now. And perhaps quantity is becoming the new quality; of course by this I mean quality of architecture not of the building; because no one could argue with the high quality of the used materials or the construction techniques. This kind of consideration doesn't apply for the quality of thought behind the built product, in fact dealing with architectural accomplishments as products within the overwhelming consuming lifestyle is defect in itself. The way I see it; almost everything in UAE is growing on the surface, with no roots; from the rolls of grass over the face of desert, to the tall towers with all the space around, fed by imported food from all over the globe.
When I came across the ‘World’s largest firework display’ on New Year's Eve, I couldn't help but think of the "World biggest ship", Titanic; with its glorious luxury sailing through the Atlantic Ocean, displaying fireworks with its rich up and poor way down. This time let's hope this one will be more careful when an iceberg shows.
Marwa Al Sabouni is an architect based in Homs, Syria