January 31: Pritzker Paradise

2016/01/31 § Leave a comment

On this day in 2007 a press release announced the official start of construction of Saadiyat Island Cultural District.

Saadiyat Island is a huuuuuge development in Abu Dhabi, even by contemporary Persian Gulf standards.  Ultimately it will house 145,000 residents–basically a Kansas City built in about fifteen years.  (The comparisons with Kansas City stop there.)  The proposal’s monumental waterfront edge is a 600-acre cultural district–basically two Millennium Parks.  But whereas that Chicago venue boasts only one Pritzker architect (Frank Gehry, 1989 laureate) (two if you include the neighboring addition to the Art Institute by Renzo Piano, who got the prize in 1998), Saadiyat Island will boast a collection of five–count ’em, FIVE!–Pritzker prize winners:

There is no arguing that this will become a must-visit among architects upon its projected completion in 2020.  The architects have enjoyed huge budgets, tremendous support and virtual freedom to deliver their most astonishing work to this ancient land.  The buildings will provide a comparison of the different approaches of these contemporaries, especially in the degree to which they have designed for this place, vs. just designing that thing they are known for.  Gehry and Hadid surely fall into the latter category: Hadid’s theatre complex looks like her other aggressively curvaceous buildings and shoes and whatnot; Gehry has designed one more big mess of stuff (although he did report seeing some kind of similarity between his “messiness” and the non-axial masses of Hagia Sophia, which for Gehry, we suppose, is being culturally relevant).  (Clio winces a bit at the idea that these buildings share some kind of Ottoman connection, but will let it pass.  For now.)  Ando and Foster are more literal in their adoption of, respectively, the sails of the Arabian boat called a dhow for his maritime museum and the wings of a giant metallic bird of prey for a museum dedicated to the Sheikh who was a great falconer.  Nouvel, who has the most experience of them all in conjoining his modernism with Islamic traditions, has designed a huge metal star-design webbed disk that will filter light and deliver a traditional dappled experience in an unpreceented interior.
A monument to contemporary architectural imagination, this Modernist Mecca comes at a stiff price.  Solid figures on the proposed budget for each project are hard to find; even suggested sums are suspect due to the nature of the timeframe and global economic troubles that have even affected Abu Dhabi.  Estimates range from 87 million as the low-ball estimate for what the Louvre might cost, to a round figure of 27 billion for the whole project.  At that point, it hardly matters: when you start rounding numbers by the tens or hundreds of millions, you may as well not count at all.
These tremendous sums (greater than the GDP of some Polynesian island nations) will buy significant architectural glamour and stunning cultural display.  But beneath its luxe and shiny surface, the story of Saadiyat reveals some corrosion.  It’s a very expensive and high-quality version of a pop-up store, providing instant concrete culture in a place where civilization has been historically transitory, commemorated by ephemeral artifacts.  The Maritime Museum and Zayed National Museum are dedicated to local history, but designed and planned by foreigners, as are the rest of the cultural landmarks, two of which bear names of far-away museum foundations.  Perhaps this is just the way of architecture.  In 1892, midwestern architects were peeved when East Coasters were brought in to plan the Columbian exposition, and, in spite of that, Chicago has turned out to have a fine little building culture of its own.  Likewise, the construction of a great number of giant cultural landmarks to modernize a city virtually overnight is not unprecedented; consider Haussman’s Paris and Franz Joseph’s Vienna.  The difference, of course, is that the new institutions in those European cities were built on extant cultural foundations, and built up by European architects and builders.
At least the Saadiyat architects will walk away with massive fees to pay all of the CAD jockeys who will bring their ideas to reality.  What of the people who will actually build them?  The mostly-immigrant crews suffer from substandard working and living conditions, nonpayment by their employers and other rights violations that are unacceptable in the architects’ home countries (the situation is improving, but still problematic: see recent reports from Human Rights Watch here and here).  In short, the aim of Saadiyat, to create a world-class destination that will attract people from across the globe, has already done so: the armies of architects, curators, planners, engineers, builders and laborers are almost all foreign, and when the project is complete, they will need to go home.  The multi-cultural hands that are to credit for the cultural center will be dismissed once it is ready to be opened as a tourist magnet.
One of Modernism’s main tenets has been the adamant belief in truthful representation.  One hopes that the glitter and sparkle of the Pritzker laureates’ paradise will not obscure the world’s perception of the foundations on which their buildings are actually constructed.

check out the master plan here

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