A morally bankrupt exhibition in New York suggests how not to look at architecture in the Middle East—by neglecting the works’ political contexts
An architecture show titled “CHANGE: Architecture and Engineering in the Middle East” opened a couple of weeks ago near the NYU campus, sponsored by the American Institute of Architects’ New York chapter. Among its supporters is Columbia’s Graduate School of Architecture. With that name, an exhibit might be expected to at least mention the Arab Spring, and to acknowledge the ways in which architecture has been used by dictators like Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi.
Hah. The word “revolution” does not so much as appear in this show, which runs through June. Nor does any mention of the fact that most of the region surveyed still labors under tyranny, and that tyrants paid for a great deal of the public architecture on display throughout the region. (The show includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Israel, Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.) The curator, Hassan Radoine, holds, among other advanced degrees, a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania, and he is currently, as described by an Islamic urban heritage school, the “Chairman of the Architectural Engineering Dept., College of Engineering, University of Sharjah, UAE.”
Sharjah, for those who have not had to pass through there, is a truly benighted place, a mashup of Islamofacist theme park and Third World labor camp, where even the female mannequins in store windows sport covered faces, the taxi drivers mainly come from the AfPak border, and the ruling thuggery has put up an enormous, excellent, and almost unvisited museum of Islamic art. I understand that Radoine might not be able to speak his mind freely, though I am not sure I want him to. But this exhibit is mounted in the heart of New York City, not in Sharjah—not that one would know it from the wall captions and choices of projects. While there are some admirable buildings showcased here, there are also many of no worth whatsoever, and quite a few that must be blights upon the landscape.
The wall caption, for example, that lumps together Turkey, Iran, and Iraq speaks of:
an enduring nationalist ideology, from the powerful symbolism of Attaturk and Shah to Saddam. This nationalism is ongoing in government and public buildings in the Middle East and has had a tremendous impact on the image of its major cities. … It is striking to see how neo-colonial styles have become intertwined with Neo-classicism (sic) and Art Deco to assert an architectural language of power.
There’s a word for that, of course: fascist architecture. But heaven forbid the curators should use it. No, they continue to talk of the “tremendous threat during the recent conflicts” to “Iraq’s ancient sites, including Babylon,” without mentioning the gruesome vulgarities Saddam inflicted on Babylon, the bathroom tiling used in reconstruction, the gigantic palace that blocks the view from the site on one side. No mention of the terrible condition of the Seljuk masterpieces of Baghdad—only of the upcoming restoration of the Shia sites, truly hideous buildings. Once again, someone’s political agenda is being advocated, and whoever was supposed to vet captioning didn’t get it—or was there anyone who was supposed to do that?
Speaking of fascist architecture, the organizers might have usefully included before-and-after photographs of some of the celebrated symbols of the Libyan regime—the revolutionaries showed good taste in torching many of Qaddafi’s favorite pieces of kitsch in Benghazi early on. Radoine chose as the sole Libyan works depicted a pair of parks in Benghazi. The landscape architect of those parks, Tunisian-born Ramla Benaissa, lists only these projects on her website under “works” though the site says the firm has residential, commercial, and hospitality experience in the United States and Europe. (“Our design philosophy focuses on creating places that respond to and engage the physical and cultural settings,” reads a bit of self-promotional material from the site.) But Benaissa, who practices in Philadelphia and has a doctorate from Penn, is unlikely to be high on the list for commissions from the new Libyan government. At the time the revolution broke out, the engineering firm on her Benghazi projects, SNC Lavalin, Canada’s largest, was working on a prison for Qaddafi. The Globe and Mail reported in February 2011, shortly after the outbreak of the Libyan revolution:
The Guryan prison will cost an estimated $275-million (U.S.) to build and was supposed to be finished by 2012, according to an online job posting. It’s not clear when SNC-Lavalin landed the contract but the company placed an ad for an architect last August. …
While it operates in roughly 100 countries, SNC-Lavalin has deep roots in Libya and a long relationship with Qaddafi’s son, Saif El-Islam. Some of the company’s first Libyan contracts came in the mid-1990s, shortly after Qaddafi began building the Great Man-Made River, an ambitious effort to bring water from sources in the south, across the Sahara desert, to cities in the north. SNC-Lavalin has won several contracts on the project, the latest coming last October and worth $450-million. It also won a $500-million contract in 2008 to build an airport in Benghazi. Over the years it has also sponsored a local soccer team as well as the Montreal stop on a global tour of Saif’s artwork. As of 2008, SNC-Lavalin had 2,000 employees in Libya, about 10 percent of its total work force.
The Globe and Mail reported last week, “A Quebec law firm claims SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. misled investors and engaged in illegal activity in Libya, according to a proposed class-action lawsuit filed on Friday. Shares in the construction and engineering firm fell more than 20 percent Tuesday after it launched an investigation into $35 million in mysterious payments and said its 2011 earnings would be less than expected.”
Lavalin’s Libyan project manager was a Riadh Ben Aissa. Ben Aissa left Lavalin shortly after it was reported that he and another Lavalin staffer hired one Cyndy Vanier to smuggle Saadi Qaddafi out of Niger and into Mexico. “Ben Aissa has said the company misrepresented his departure and that he chose to resign and was not forced out,” reported the Globe and Mail last week. Vanier has been held by Mexican authorities since November, an experience that may eventually provide valuable insights to Lavalin about prison conditions in developing countries.
Even on the more anodyne topic of historic preservation, the show’s wall signage is shockingly inaccurate. “North Africa has gained an international reputation for the conservation of architectural and urban heritage,” reads one. That will be news to anyone who has visited Libya’s noble but ravaged sites, or, turning to a city that has been a tourist destination for decades, Marrakech. Consider the case of the Almoravid Koubba, the only surviving building in Marrakech dating from the Almoravid dynasty, which founded the city. It once boasted a complex water system for pre-prayer ablutions, more advanced than anything in Europe at the time. And on its façade is the oldest inscription in cursive Maghrebi script in North Africa.
Yet this gem of a building, also known as the Koubba Ba’aydin, was barely signposted, and though admission was charged, when I visited in spring 2010, no one looked at my ticket. The grounds were littered, and the building was surrounded by weeds and beaten earth. But then, the Almoravid Koubba was built in 1117 but only unearthed from centuries’ accretion of debris in 1948—by a foreign archeologist.
The AIA show’s section on Israel—by far the smallest—is the only one that makes reference to a system of government: in this case, democracy. Oddly enough, the commentary on the wall here would much better apply to every other country in the show: “There are two main types of architecture in Israel: one that seeks to symbolize the legitimacy of the modern State, and the other that deals with the daily lives of a newly settled urban population.” Of course, internal issues about the legitimacy of the state arise more often in places like Bahrain and Iran and Saudi Arabia than they do in Israel, where the state has little to prove to the population. And while Israel has areas of continuous urban habitation for 3,000 years, all of the Gulf states can justly be described as dealing with “a newly settled urban population.” But the caption continues, with as little regard for English usage as for sense: “The continuous immigration and formation of new settlements have exacerbated the order of its cities and has created the ongoing need for high density housing projects.” So we are not really talking about architecture at all, now, are we.
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