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Metabolizing Mecca August 6, 2012

Posted by claass in Graduate, Individual Fellowship, Saudi Arabia.
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Scott Claassen

The Hajj pilgrimage is the largest gathering of human beings on the planet and represents one of the most challenging system design problems seriously undertaken by architects. Participation has exploded from 80,000 pilgrims in 1900 to almost 3 million in 2008. Essentially the population of Chicago simultaneously lands in the desert every year, only to disappear five days later.

For the next month I’ll be based in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia studying the unique architectural solutions that have been built and proposed to address this incredible influx of people. My focus isn’t so much on the current condition of the Hajj as a unique phenomenon so much as it is the extreme case of things that occur in cities globally. Issues such as crowd control, resource management, tourism and sacred space are pushed to exceptional ends.

More specifically I’ll be focusing on interviews and site visits. The obvious and immediate difficulty with this is that not being a Muslim, I can’t actually get within approximately 30 km of the city (the border isn’t exactly a fixed radius, just more about the geography of the valley). Jeddah though is the gateway to Mecca and is the point of entry for almost all international pilgrims, as well as most of the infrastructure that keeps Mecca functioning. Many of the facilities and people involved in the hajj are based in Jeddah, and the city is simultaneously undergoing substantial development that dovetails with what is happening in Mecca.

As a little background, the problems of Hajj design have attracted an eclectic array of architects for the past half century. Cheaper, more comfortable travel options paired with a monarchy eager to maintain good relations with the clergy meant that the royal family became particularly eager to develop Mecca and make it more convenient for pilgrims to reach. Development was made easier by a strict interpretation of religious doctrine that had the Sauds fearing any preservation could be misinterpreted as the creation of shrines (a forbidden concept as far as the Wahabbi establishment was concerned). Since that view was made clear, the renovations and expansions have been a constant presence in the valley.

Photo: Arab News, Hajj Photo Gallery 1432 | 2011

For my purposes, the most significant proposal was put forward by Kenzo Tange, leader of the Japanese post-war avant-garde group known as the Metabolists. In 1974 right as Hajj participation began to boom, he was commissioned by King Faisal to develop the ultimate pop-up city in the Mina Valley just outside of Mecca–a city annually unleashed to house 2 million pilgrims only to dematerialize after just days. The design required the comprehensive planning for deployable infrastructure that would not impose on the sacred site. His almost-realized proposal was a demonstration of how architecture could metabolize staggering influxes of people, goods, and systems flexibly. The proposal looked towards architecture as everything required to make the site habitable rather than just a final static structure.

More recently, the Saudi Arabian government is increasingly turning to large scale inflexible hotel developments and heavy mono-functional infrastructure. Notably, a massive 5-story pedestrian flyover, an expansion to the Masjid al-Haram mosque to hold over 1.5 million pilgrims at a time, and the largest building in the world by mass and second tallest in height which towers directly over the Kaaba. The unrealized metabolist project did briefly inspire ‘softer’ approaches to design for the pilgrimage, evident in the open air, tensile Hajj Terminal built by SOM in Jeddah in 1981, but this has proved to be an anomaly in the hardscape.

This concrete-bound approach results in a constant state of resource-intensive demolition and reconstruction leaving many observers to describe the city as an unceasing construction site. The magnitude of the problems involved means such rigid solutions are condemned to quickly become outdated.

While much research has been dedicated to spiritual, sociopolitical, and economic elements of the Hajj, its unique urban conditions have gained considerably less attention by those outside the process. But the Hajj provides an exceptional case study to see an ephemeral city stripped to its most vital systems. Something particularly useful at a time when architects and urbanists have become increasingly concerned with the systems and resources that regulate buildings and cities.

The Ministry of Hajj refers to the event oversight as a form of ‘crisis’ management. But it is a crisis they have sought to prepare for, for hundreds of years. It reaches a point of criticality at the edge of chaos, but on a predictable lunar schedule. Then the question becomes whether or not there are lessons in dealing with this ‘crisis’ that can spread.