On Shaky Ground: A German Architect Remakes Saudi Arabia

By Susanne Beyer

Photo Gallery: Can Architecture Change Saudi Arabia? Photos
Gerber Architekten

Eckhard Gerber is a socially progressive, successful architect with a passion for democracy. So why is he building prestige projects -- including a new National Library -- in a repressive place like Saudi Arabia?

Our Lufthansa flight has begun its descent. With 43 minutes until landing, we're flying at an elevation of 9,296 meters (30,499 feet).

I pull the black clothing out of my bag and lock myself in the plane's bathroom, where the light is cold and severe. First, I put on the floor-length robe. Then comes a black cap, which covers my hair and neck but leaves my face free. Then I wrap the scarf around my head.

I bought these clothes a few days ago in Hamburg, near the central train station, where prostitutes line the sidewalk and neon hearts blink from sex clubs. The clothing store was diagonally across from a mosque and run by a Moroccan man, who addressed all his customers with the German informal "du."

"What do you have in your heart?" he asked me.

"Do you have a black robe, an abaya?"

"Are you going to Saudi Arabia? You'll need more than that there."

He rummaged in his baskets, emerging with a head covering, a black scarf and separate arm covers for the forearms. "People there will be happy if you show respect," he told me.

A lot of clothing, it seems, equals a lot of respect.

"And don't wear make-up or perfume, that would be impolite. And change while you're still on the airplane. Go into the bathroom, and become a different person."

A Forward-Thinking Architect?

Now, on the plane, the man who is the focus of my story is sitting up front in business class. Architect Eckhard Gerber, 74, has offices in Dortmund, Berlin and Hamburg, with 120 employees. In Riyadh, Saudi Arabia's capital, he designed the National Library and also has two universities currently under construction, as well as a subway station and a "butterfly dome," a glass bubble outfitted with a tropical climate, where visitors can walk among flitting butterflies.

There are many reasons why architects with large firms look to secure contracts abroad. The German construction industry grew disproportionately large in the years following the reunification of East and West Germany, but demand dropped off about 15 years ago. In the Middle East and Far East, though, there is plenty of work to be had, while in Germany, projects can get tangled up with angry citizens staging protests in trees at construction sites and with politicians who have considerable say in public development projects.

But is that justification enough for carrying out symbolic construction projects for countries that are not democracies?

Employees of Gerber's firm say he is a particularly fair employer and that he hired women as site supervisors for two of his projects in Saudi Arabia.

Gerber experienced Germany's own struggle for democracy firsthand. Born in 1938 under the Nazis, he then grew up in the German Democratic Republic (GDR), completing his high school education in the small East German city of Apolda in 1957 and then again in 1958 after escaping to West Berlin. Gerber says he suffered under the lack of freedom in the GDR and has considered freedom as a gift every day since his escape.

Yet Gerber -- this believer in democracy, patriot for freedom and supporter of women -- designs buildings for an absolute monarchy, a misogynistic regime whose leaders evidently view arts and culture as a threat -- movie theaters and concerts are banned in Saudi Arabia. Germany's Foreign Ministry notes on its website that Saudi Arabia denies women "fundamental human rights."

'A Sea of Black and White'

Once our flight has landed, I disembark wearing the abaya and a headscarf that slips and slides -- I disembark as a different person. This trip is a complicated one. Journalists should try to meet the people they talk to as equals, but how am I meant to do so while veiled like this? Tourist visas here are rare and visas for business travelers are limited; it is particularly hard for journalists, especially women, to enter the country. In my case, I have a government visa, which makes this feel almost like an official state visit. Are guests of a government free to say what they think?

When he sees me in the arrivals hall, Gerber says, "Didn't recognize you."

Gerber has brought with him two architects from his Berlin office, one woman and one man. The woman is now veiled as well. She bought her abaya on Berlin's Sonnenallee, she tells me, a street that was once divided by the Berlin Wall.

She, too, appears changed by the abaya. A couple hours ago, when we boarded the plane in Frankfurt, she was wearing a short skirt, her simple but attractive clothing allowing the observer to make inferences as to the sort of style she prefers -- a not unimportant matter in her profession.

Such things surely exist here in Riyadh, too, signs people use to signal who they are, or who they want to be. But what are those signs? A couple of women in the arrivals hall are carrying Chanel bags. One has ruffles on her abaya, black ruffles against a black background.

We line up in a sea of black and white -- men in white, women in black and a couple of Europeans in their usual clothing. Male visitors to the country are not required to change.

The women's line moves forward more quickly than the men's, and the men in our group explain that this is one way Saudi Arabia shows that women are protected here. The veil, too, they say, is considered a form of protection in this culture. "I know that's hard for us to imagine," Gerber says.

After passing through border control, I would normally pick up a rental car, but in Saudi Arabia, women aren't allowed to drive. Instead, an architect from Gerber's team ferries us through nighttime Riyadh, where a desert wind carries sand through the air.

On our right, we pass the country's first university for women, a high wall enclosing the campus. King Abdullah is trying to implement more rights for women, while at the same time attempting not to antagonize the country's religious fundamentalists. The king came into power the same year as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, in 2005, and Germany and Saudi Arabia are important trade partners. There is a photograph of Merkel, Gerber and King Abdullah at a reception.

With the German chancellor and Saudi king eager to engage in trade, is questioning whether architects should work here justified? Gerber, for one, considers such criticism unwarranted. "I come from the GDR," he says, "and I don't want to equate Saudi Arabia with the GDR. I'll simply say what left an impression on me, and that was Willy Brandt's Ostpolitik of 'change through rapprochement.'"

A Veiled Library

We drive to the National Library, where the site supervisor, a Palestinian, gives us a tour of the building. He works for the Saudi Binladin Group, a construction conglomerate founded by the father of terrorist Osama Bin Laden.

The Palestinian site supervisor speaks English with the construction workers here, who come from Pakistan, Sri Lanka and India. English can be heard everywhere in the city, which has its share of shopping malls and McDonald's restaurants. Saudi Arabia has an ambivalent relationship with the United States.

The library's façade is a lovely thing, a thousand small white sails stretched across a glass exterior. These sails lend shade to the building's interior, but are also a nod to Bedouin culture.

Inside the square shape of this new construction stands an older building. This is the previous National Library, constructed 40 years ago using traditional elements and preserved as part of the current project. In creating this design, Gerber's team drew on the idea of the veiled woman and the concept, widespread in the Arab world, that a veil serves to protect and enhance something valuable. They constructed their new building such that it wraps around the old one, enclosing it.

What exactly does it mean, this idea that a veil serves to enhance? Hidden behind a veil, all women appear the same. Wherever we go, the female architect and I are the only women present, and people continually mix us up. We even have a nickname among our group: the penguins. We can laugh about it, since it won't be like this is forever. For us, it has an end.

We walk into the library through the main entrance. When the library officially opens in November, I will no longer be allowed to pass through here -- this is the men's entrance. The women's entrance is on the other side of the building, where the women's reading rooms are also located. The building has a space for women and a space for men.

Bauhaus Comes to Saudi Arabia

Gerber sees progress in the fact that so much is being done for women's education here. "That in turn will bring about more change, there's no way for it not to," he says. King Abdullah spends nearly a quarter of the national budget on schools and universities, and there are 120,000 men and women currently studying abroad on scholarships from the king. But is hope alone enough justification for accepting this way of doing things, always with a space for women and a space for men?

Most buildings in Riyadh are built more like caves, designed to keep out light and heat. German architects, though, love the glass and lightness of the Bauhaus esthetic, with its clear forms and transparency. That Bauhaus transparency always had a political connotation as well, standing for the opening up of a stagnant society -- the Bauhaus movement arose in Germany at the same time as the Weimar Republic -- and ever since then, architects have seen themselves as a force driving societal change. "We design images of a society," Gerber says.

Gerber's library is near Saudi Arabia's first skyscraper, designed by British architect Norman Foster and completed in 2000. We ride the elevator to the skyscraper's observation deck, a trip that lasts 27 seconds, to view the National Library from above.

It's windy on the observation deck, blowing my black scarf in my face. Seen from up here, Riyadh is a city of a single color, a light ocher that is the hue both of many of its buildings and of the surrounding sand. Will Riyadh lose this color if glass buildings are constructed everywhere?

A New District in the Sky

In the northwestern part of Riyadh, the growing King Abdullah Financial District is one gigantic construction site. Here, on over 1.5 million square meters (16 million square feet), nearly 100 skyscrapers will rise up in the space of just a few years, according to the site supervisor there, with offices for 45,000 employees and apartments for 12,000 residents, as well as gyms, five-star hotels and a large mosque. The project employs 40 international architects. When the district is complete, the site supervisor says, a security firm will keep watch over it with more than 10,000 surveillance cameras.

Gerber designed a university here in the financial district, as well as the butterfly house. Saudi Arabia's Public Pension Agency, which commissioned these projects, gave him no specifications for the job, the architect says, simply telling him, "Do it however is best." In the case of the butterfly house, the assignment was simply to create a relaxing space. Gerber's five-year old son, who likes pretty insects, provided the architect's inspiration.

The developers behind construction projects in Germany take a very different approach. "You should never give an architect free rein. You have to capture their dreams," Hartmut Mehdorn, CEO of the Berlin airport whose construction has been plagued by repeated delays and scandals, told SPIEGEL in an interview.

From here atop the skyscraper, it is possible to gaze out over much of the city. To the northwest, along a wadi -- a streambed that fills with water only occasionally -- lies Diriyah, a settlement of old mud-brick buildings that was the capital of the first Saudi state, founded in 1744. Construction experts from around the world are working together, with UNESCO support, to reconstruct these historic buildings using bricks made of straw and mud.

To the one side, then, lies a search for the past, to the other a leap into the future. Gerber will visit both construction sites in the next days. He is a welcome guest, receiving a warm greeting wherever he goes. Everyone is eager to show him the good work they're doing, their progress. Gerber knows, though, that he's only seeing one aspect of the country. "The other side of Saudi Arabia is something we only hear about," he says.

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1. National library in Saudi Arabia
spon-facebook-1090747063 08/09/2013
What is a library in Saudi Arabia? What is kept there? Who is allowed to see it and use it?
2. Damn with Faint Praise
Jim in MD 08/09/2013
Given the rise of wrapping older buildings in Berlin, New York, London and Paris; this is pretty timid stuff. I'm not sure that you did German architecture any favors by focusing on politics either. Doesn't the chancellor bank on selling the Saudis more panzers anyway?
3. optional
walter_tonetto 08/11/2013
I stopped reading when she lugged out the usual stereotypes ... "on the one had a nice guy, on the other ..." Superficial journalism has this perfidious dualist perspective ... go and get a life!
4. Saudi Arabia
spon-facebook-844290583 09/17/2013
There is an amount of religion and custom associated with Saudi Arabia that we cannot do away with no matter what. No Muslim in the world would want that. It is a holy place for millions and that is why the government always has to be careful to not try to modernize the country too much. However, architectural developments such as the ones mentioned here are completely harmless and in fact a good idea for the Saudi economy. But again, Saudi Arabia is not the UAE.
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