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Arabian Nightmare

ME Architect talks to outspoken Saudi Arabian architect Sami Angawi

Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre.
Sami Angawi, founder of the Hajj Research Centre.

There are very few architects or designers who don’t want to be in Saudi Arabia at the moment – and it is a cruel irony that Sami Angawi is one of them.

The veteran Mecca-born architect recently finished work on his family home in Jeddah, a building that has attracted attention from across the world (US ex-President Jimmy Carter has visited twice), while a new hospital he designed in Saudi Arabia’s coastal hub recently won acclaim from King Abdullah himself.

Yet at a time when firms from across the globe are falling over each other to get into the country, Angawi is doing his best to stay away. He is currently in Egypt, and prefers not to travel home unless he has to.


“I’m trying to go back to Saudi Arabia less and less, even though I have that beautiful house that everybody likes to visit. I’m being isolated,” Angawi told Middle East Architect from Cairo.

“There are things that I would love to do in my country but I am not allowed to. I felt that I had to leave. I was not saying what everybody likes to hear. That’s why I am in Egypt, I’m not on holiday. I am trying to do projects away from my country.”

As founder of the Hajj Research Centre, Angawi has never been one to bury his head in the sand. The centre has been working to preserve the history of Mecca and Medina for more than 25 years, and Angawi has been outspoken in his criticisms of recent development in the cities that are home to Islam’s holiest shrines.

But in 2010, as the “stupid clock tower”, due to become the second tallest building in the world, towers over the Grand Mosque, Angawi feels that he is beaten. Mecca has succumbed to the kind of development that seeks to imitate the flash, glitz and glam of the Gulf, and it seems that there is little that anyone can do about it.

“What is going on in Mecca and Medina is wrong, it’s unsuitable from every aspect. Mecca is a sanctuary, it is not a city. You shouldn’t allow this sort of thing to happen, and anywhere else in the world it would not be allowed,” he said.

“And the clock tower, would you allow that in Rome? Or in the middle of London? Even if somebody now wanted to make Big Ben bigger, you would have all Londoners objecting against it. Now we copy like monkeys, bring our Big Ben tower to be the biggest tower in the world, in Mecca. That makes me angry.”

Angawi believes that imitation is the biggest threat to Saudi Arabia at a time when it is opening its doors to bigger projects and international firms, pointing out that the majority of schemes that are on the boards at the moment have no relationship to the country or its people.

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That said, Angawi is quick to point out that he is no traditionalist. The architect has recently designed a thoroughly modern hospital in Jeddah, and is working on similar projects elsewhere in the Middle East. Angawi’s concept of al mizan, meaning balance, guides the way that he mixes modern and traditional aspects of design, taking the best of both – it is not about using glass or stone, it is about using both when they are most appropriate.

“There is a big misunderstanding that I would like to correct. People say, are you a traditionalist, or are you a modernist? There is no such thing in my way of thinking. It is all using what you need to serve what is needed from the functional, from the social, from the environmental and so on. When talking about al mizan we say what are the factors, and what are the weight of those factors in the function of the building,” he said

“This is where the ingenuity comes in, it’s not a question of glass being modern and wood being traditional, it is using, by al mizan, how much glass you need for this, and how much you need for that. This is art, and this is science, you work with cultures and with your mind. The word al mizan is the tool of balance, it is the scale to weigh things with.”

But in Saudi Arabia today, the scales are well off. As international firms come up with bigger and bolder plans for the country, Angawi can only despair that both developers and the government in the country are happy to accept buildings that could have been built anywhere. What is worse is that Saudi Arabia seems destined to not just copy the buildings, but the mistakes too.

“Copying is easy, you just put things in the Xerox machine and copy. But we are using the wrong original and using a bad machine to produce what we have. It’s a bad copy made with a bad copying machine,” he said.

“I wish that instead we would imitate the ideas of sustainability, or the idea of environmental respect, Isn’t that what is happening now in the world, leaving behind all those crazy things and moving towards sustainability and green design? But now we are imitating what was the fashion 50 years ago, to build towers taller than everyone else. Why do we always run behind?” he said.

This is particularly true for Jeddah, Angawi said, which has been thoroughly let down for decades, and still has no credible regeneration plan in sight. Unlike the West, where modern cities try to preserve their historic areas, Saudi Arabia seems content to let its historic heart rot.

“If we are imitating the western world, then we are not doing it correctly. They have proven everywhere else in the world that the most valuable parts of the city are the old parts, so there must be something wrong either with the 50 years of experience, or with our thinking,” he said.

Finally, it is the legacy of Saudi Arabia’s current boom that should motivate designers and architects today to think past the dollar signs in their dealings with Saudi Arabia.

“All we are showing to God and to the people who come in the future is that we have money, and we will spend it. We could have used at least part of our money to do something for the world. To serve humanity, not only ourselves. How are we advancing humanity with what we are doing in the Middle East?

“The load is on us, as architects and planners, because people are not listening yet. We need to advise them on what to do,” he said.

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