The government of Saudi Arabia unveiled plans last week for the city of Neom, the idea for which was first proposed a year and a half ago. As part of the project, Riyadh is planning a massive megastructure called The Line.
It is to be composed of two parallel skyscrapers that stretch for 170 kilometers, from the Red Sea shore through the desert toward the mountains, will be 200 meters wide and soar to a height of 500 meters (higher than most of the world’s towers), and will be faced on all sides with gigantic mirrors.
In presenting the grandiose undertaking, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman noted that "this design will challenge the traditional flat, horizontal cities and create a model for nature preservation and enhanced human livability. “The Line will tackle the challenges facing humanity in urban life today and will shine a light on alternative ways to live.”
Besides residential areas slated to house nine million people, The Line will contain shopping and leisure sites, schools and parks. The press releases touted various other features: the predominantly horizontal design of homes and shops; the transportation system that will connect both ends of the city; the fact that it will run on renewable and sustainable sources of energy. The Line is the central feature of the huge Neom plan for Saudi Arabia that includes agricultural and industrial areas, tourist attractions and an airport.
This 'insane' project is based 'on blind faith in the power of technology to solve humanity’s problems,' says one Israeli scholar.
“We cannot ignore the livability and environmental crises facing the world’s cities," the crown prince declared. "Neom is at the forefront of delivering new and imaginative solutions to address these issues. Neom is leading a team of the brightest minds in architecture, engineering and construction to make the idea of building upward a reality.” (By the way, the name Neom combines the Greek word neos, or new, with the Arabic word mustaqbal, or future.)
The Saudis may think that this is a wholly original project, but in terms of form at least, its architectural imagery is rather shopworn. Indeed, back in 1965, American architects Michael Graves and Peter Eisenman designed The Linear City. Their vision included the creation a continuous linear, urban bloc along the East Coast, from Boston to Washington, and focused particularly on a 35-kilometer (22-mile) stretch in New Jersey. Their plans called for a mega structure composed of two mammoth, strip-like edifices – one for industry and the other for housing, offices and shops.
The new Saudi project also calls to mind the design for the floating pool from the 1970s, which appeared in architect Rem Koolhaas’s book “Delirious New York” – resembling an elongated, endless and pointless Manhattan block. Perhaps the most significant inspiration for the new project came from the Italian Superstudio collective, which at a 1972 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art displayed a series of images of massive structures superimposed on famous natural sites and also on New York City itself, as a protest against contemporary architectural trends. The images of structures that Superstudio created had sealed and smooth facades that resemble the mirrors of The Line as envisioned by the Saudis.
The crown prince’s presentation may have impressed certain people, but it is also eliciting horrified reactions from researchers who have witnessed other visions of this sort throughout the 20th century. For example, for his doctoral dissertation at MIT, Eliyahu Keller – an architect and historian who serves as the coordinator of History and Theory of Architecture studies at the SCE Negev School of Architecture – researched how fears of nuclear Armageddon and apocalyptic thinking affected architectural imagery and visions in the United States during the Cold War.
“Architects during those years created extreme images of the future, society and the role of architecture,” Dr. Keller says, noting that their plans never reached fruition. “These projects were not thought about in terms of construction, but in terms of ideas.”
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In his work, Keller cites Oscar Newman’s 1969 Underground City Beneath Manhattan. Newman came up with his designs within the framework of a U.S. government research program involving the possible use of nuclear explosions for the purpose of infrastructure construction. The architect's rendering of the project showed a huge sphere suspended below Manhattan with thick walls and a catacomb-like appearance.
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Keller also mentions a number of designs by the rather unconventional architect Lebbeus Woods, who also dabbled in the realm of science-fiction. Woods’ Underground Berlin, conceived in the 1980s, combined architectural imagery and movie scripts about a community that lives underground and thus negates division of the city into West and East, using architecture as a political tool.
“The Saudis are presenting a sort of science-fiction jumble – 'Black Mirror' with touches of 'Blade Runner,' and with an abundance of [references to] experimental architectural projects designed throughout the 20th century,” Keller says, offering his own take on why such projects are still being planned and sometimes actually built in our times: “It's also apparently for PR purposes.
"I don’t think [the Saudis] understand how problematic their proposal is, and I think that they’re ignoring the significant and very serious questions at the heart of the project. Behind it is a blind faith in the power of technology to solve humanity’s problems. These are images that fit the popular conception of what the future should look like – glittery, shiny, full of neon. They don’t even raise the question of why they should go to this place, to the desert, or what kind of community is supposed to be there. Or what sort of government there will be and who will build this insane project.”
A year and a half ago, Haaretz columnist Zvi Bar’el wrote that the Saudi kingdom was struggling to find jobs for its numerous unemployed citizens, that 60 skyscrapers that were built in Riyadh’s financial center are standing empty, and that foreign investors are not rushing to bankroll the country's development.
“In recent decades," Keller says, "we’ve learned that it’s hard to create a new place from scratch. Cities that were built around the world, and in Israel, after World War II, function less well than cities that have been around for a much longer time. The pre- and post-war theories of modernism, of ‘let’s do away with Paris and build skyscrapers and roads’ – it doesn’t work.”
Adds Keller: “There’s no reason to go and build a new city like this. Instead, effort and thought and resources should be put into figuring out how to transform Riyadh into a city without emissions and without cars. There is no need to start from scratch. The thinking that says it is possible to build a new city from scratch is exactly what has led to the current situation – suburban locales where people are completely dependent on having their own car, cities that aren’t walkable at all and where you have to get in the car just to buy some milk. The effort to meet the challenges of the climate crisis ought to be focused on improving our existing cities, not on creating new ones.”