Kismet. A useful word. Taking a break yesterday from the authorship of a blog post on the destruction of Mecca by modern architecture, I went downstairs, made myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, and turned on the television.
I had no plan to address this Thursday column to the calamity in Mecca. But …
Just beginning on TV was Kismet, a musical filmed in 1955 and set in Baghdad. A poor poet is kidnapped after being mistaken for a beggar, Hajj, who has gone to Mecca. A gold-bedecked Sheba of the desert sings a song: “O! Baghdad! Don’t underestimate Baghdad!” she cries. “Our palaces are gaudier! Our alleys are bawdier!” The men all sport beards (except for a prince), but the fair sex don no headscarves, and the kasbah cavorts with so many Western stereotypes of Araby – well, it would put today’s Arab street into a Category 5 huff.
Hajj indeed! The film was so bad that I turned it off and went back upstairs. Too late. The kismet clicked, and the assault upon Mecca was too outrageous to ignore.
A New York Times piece, “The Destruction of Mecca,” by Ziauddin Sardar, author of Mecca: The Sacred City, opens by describing how Malcolm X visited Mecca in 1964 and found that it looked “as ancient as time itself.” Then he adds: “Fifty years on, no one could possibly describe Mecca as ancient, or associate beauty with Islam’s holiest city. Pilgrims performing the hajj this week will search in vain for Mecca’s history.”
Sardar describes how the historic center has been pulled down since the 1970s and replaced by what the world knows all too well: “It is part of a mammoth development of skyscrapers that includes luxury shopping malls and hotels catering to the superrich. … The city is now surrounded by the brutalism of rectangular steel and concrete structures — an amalgam of Disneyland and Las Vegas.”
The sacred places of Mecca have not been preserved. “Innumerable ancient buildings, including the Bilal mosque, dating from the time of the Prophet Muhammad, were bulldozed. The old Ottoman houses, with their elegant mashrabiyas — latticework windows — and elaborately carved doors, were replaced with hideous modern ones. Within a few years, Mecca was transformed into a ‘modern’ city with large multi-lane roads, spaghetti junctions, gaudy hotels and shopping malls. The few remaining buildings and sites of religious and cultural significance were erased more recently.”
This was not, at least not on its face, an example of Western neo-colonialism and its handmaidens, the modern architects, stomping on the culture of yet another supposedly independent nation. Sardar blames the Saudi royal family and its leading clerics: They “have a deep hatred of history. They want everything to look brand-new.”
These are the Islamic fundamentalists?
Let’s go back a decade and recall that one of the sources of anger that drove Mohammed Atta to pilot a hijacked airliner into the World Trade Center was said to be his hatred of modern architecture. One is driven by this article to wonder whether Atta should have flown not into Manhattan but Mecca.
Sardar describes how the eradication of Mecca’s historic character has coincided with the transformation of the hajj, or pilgrimage, from a profound ritual into a shopping spree. I exaggerate, but not by much. Now that the “spiritual heart of Islam is an ultramodern, monolithic enclave, where difference is not tolerated, history has no meaning, and consumerism is paramount,” he writes, it should be no surprise that “murderous interpretations of Islam … have become so dominant in Muslim lands.”
It is easy, and proper, to blame this on Muslims and their leaders, but why does a supposedly fundamentalist society harbor such a “hatred of history” and “want everything to look brand-new”?
Something does not jibe here, and it is fair to wonder how much blame should be laid at the doorstep (if you can find it) of modern architecture. Its practitioners have no problem building the instruments of the totalitarian state for tyrants. Witness China’s propaganda headquarters in Beijing, the CCTV tower, designed by starchitect Rem Koolhaas to look as if it were literally stomping on the people. Zaha Hadid has designed a soccer stadium that looks like a vagina in a nation where women cannot show their faces in public. This cultural violence goes back at least to founding modernist Le Corbusier’s proposed demolition of central Paris; he proposed the same for Algiers while working for the Nazis of Vichy France. Founding modernist Ludwig Mies van der Rohe tried, with the backing of Goebbels, to get Hitler to embrace modernism as the design template for the Third Reich.
Mies, Walter Gropius and other early modernists fled the Nazis, were handed architecture plum jobs in America, and used their new power to eradicate the culture of tradition from architectural education, then from architectural practice itself. Philip Johnson, an American Nazi in the 1930s who tagged along on Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939, led the reinvention of modernism as the brand for a capitalism increasingly estranged from the free market. The result is for all to see.
One need not sympathize with Atta’s angst to see a connection, not coincidental, let alone kismet, between modern architecture and the biggest problems facing the world today.