Big Oil Buys Cultural Capital, Big Surprise

December 26, 2010

I am compelled to add yet another entry to my list of colossal architectural projects that have wasted money and other resources during the last bubble: Abu Dhabi and Doha museums. The New York Times sent its hapless critic to visit the region last month, and his report ought to send shivers of revulsion through any rational human’s nervous system.

Imagine small countries with unlimited wealth, an inferiority complex, a problem with Western scorn over terrorism, and very little credibility in the high culture marketplace. Though such an Arab country could justly and proudly celebrate the rich, ancient art and culture of Islam, it would not accrue what Bourdieu calls “cultural capital” with such an endeavor. When you have only oil riches, cultural capital is what you desire most.

So U.A.R. and Qatar decided to to just what China did during the last Olympics: hire the approved list of Starchitects to design a set of glamorous, expensive museums, some with connections to A-list western institutions like the Louvre and the Met, to get on the art and culture map. In the parlance of today, these Arabs were “remaking their image” in a western narrative to counteract the negative associations of a post-Sept. 11 world.

The expected result–nearly a dozen bizarre, ludicrously showy, possibly unbuildable projects–has come to light, and it is hard to look at them seriously. Only the venerable I.M. Pei acquits himself with dignity, by designing a rather conservative, Islamic-inspired museum that seems to fit not on the culture but the desert climate. It is white, geometrically pure, and effective as a symbol of Arab artistic prowess during the Middle Ages. Pei’s respect for history has advanced as he has matured, and here he seems to get things right.

His contemporaries, Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Jean Nouvel, are still full of hubris–each must “invent” his own response to the desert, Islam, and the bedouin nomads that inhabited these hostile places for thousands of years. For Gehry, it is another Bilbao with tube shaped “trellises,” that could be anywhere. He says he is bonding with his opaque and hardly sociable clients.

Foster’s concept, looking a lot like a more successful effort by Renzo Piano in the South Seas, is purported to be a kind of garden oasis, marked by massive parabolic forms made of glass, metal and porcelain. Were he really building a garden, we would perceive mainly palm trees and flora, not giant, expensive techno-sculptures. Calatrava has made a better case for such gestures as both engineering and art. To his credit, the architect presented a more modest proposal in 2007, but “was told that the country’s leadership wanted something grander, even though there was still no clear idea of what, exactly, would go inside.”

Jean Nouvel, who made his name be designing an Arab cultural institute in Paris (still his best building), gets to build both in Doha and in Abu Dhabi. At the Louvre branch in the latter city, he  comes close to the poetry of his Paris building by placing a picturesque Arab village under a giant stainless steel “umbrella” that will admit light through geometric perforations. In Doha, he does what so many Modernists are prone to do by borrowing a completely inappropriate reference–a “desert rose”–and literally converting the tiny flower into building forms that range from a few meters in diameter to a hundred. These tired conceits, “conceptual” leaps, are losing their cachet as the world faces a future of diminishing resources. That’s a good thing.

The great irony in these follies is that Middle Eastern nations are indeed emerging from the cultural shadows in a post-9/11 narrative. Were their leaders as aware of the true cultural diversity around them as students in international universities who listen to adventurous world music, we might see really poetic, appropriate architecture in desert cities (like the work of Hassan Fathy in Egypt a generation ago). Until then we’ll get the same museums in Bilbao, Beijing, and Bahrain.

2 Responses to “Big Oil Buys Cultural Capital, Big Surprise”

  1. Mark Wright said

    The world needs a very great deal more of Abdel-Wahed El-Wakil’s work, and a very great deal less of much else.

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