On Shaky Ground A German Architect Remakes Saudi Arabia

Gerber Architekten

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Part 2: Albert Speer's Troubling Riyadh Courthouse


Amnesty International collects facts each year about that other side. The organization's 2012 annual report on Saudi Arabia stated, "Planned protests inspired by events elsewhere in the region were ruthlessly suppressed and hundreds of people who protested or dared to call for reform were arrested; some were prosecuted on security-related and political charges. Thousands of people suspected of security-related offences remained in prison. The justice system and information about detainees, including prisoners of conscience, remained shrouded in secrecy, although it was clear that torture and grossly unfair trials continued. Cruel, inhuman and degrading punishments, particularly flogging, continued to be imposed and carried out. Women and girls faced severe discrimination in law and practice, as well as violence; increased campaigning for women's rights resulted in arrests as well as some small improvements. Foreign migrant workers continued to be exploited and abused by their employers, generally with impunity. At least 82 prisoners were executed, a sharp rise over the previous two years."

We travel by car through the city's congested streets. One of Gerber's projects here is a subway station, which will have a swooping roof lined with palm trees. It will also be one of the first metro stations in this city of 5 million, which currently has next to nothing in the way of public transportation.

Our drive takes us into the diplomatic quarter, to a meeting about the subway station project. This part of the city was constructed in the 1970s following a design drawn up by Frankfurt-based architect Albert Speer. Its loveliest building, the tent-shaped Tuwaiq Palace, was built in 1985 and is the work of Frei Otto, also German. Speer and Otto were pioneers here, and their diplomatic quarter bears the same light ocher hue as the rest of Riyadh.

Here, the architects, engineers and financial planners responsible for the subway station meet with two representatives of their client, a government department responsible for architecture. Around the table are two people from Saudi Arabia, one from Poland, one from Asia, three from England, one from Ireland and three from Germany. They form something of a miniature United Nations.

The meeting lasts for hours and a Pakistani employee serves tea and Middle Eastern pastries. Negotiations are underway concerning the project's costs, and it seems difficult -- they have disagreements.

Sharia Law in a German-Designed Courthouse

Later, Gerber will say that this is precisely what he believes in, this sort of clash, because conflict means that both sides change and develop. "Buildings are always the result of a joint effort," he says.

During a break in the meeting, the two local architects withdraw to a prayer room, while the rest of us remain in an outer room, contemplating models of construction projects currently underway in Riyadh. One appears hermetic, an almost entirely sealed cube.

"That will be the courthouse," Gerber says. "We entered the competition but didn't win."

"Who won?"

"Albert Speer."

Fourteen years ago, Albert Speer gave a SPIEGEL interview about himself and his father, also named Albert Speer, who was Hitler's architect and armaments minister. The younger Speer described a lifetime of being associated with his father's crimes, saying he understands why this is so, but at the same time that it isn't easy. It's not hard to sympathize with Speer -- children should never be blamed for their parents' deeds.

Yet successive generations do bear responsibility. And part of that responsibility involves asking whether a forward-thinking German architect should design a courthouse for Saudi Arabia, a country ruled by sharia law. Homosexuals can be executed here, as can adulterers.

In response, Gerber points out that the death penalty is applied in the US as well, and no one would reproach a German architect for building there. But the US has been a democracy for over 200 years and can't be compared to Saudi Arabia. The issue of whether a German architect should build a courthouse in Saudi Arabia, though, is much easier to resolve. And the answer is no.

The Simplest Things are the Hardest

The architects in the conference room are doing calculations now, in dollars, euros and Saudi riyals. Gerber says architects are always businesspeople as well -- he needs €600,000 ($800,000) a month to keep his business running. But, he says, for him constructing buildings is about more than just money. It is also about creating change.

It's warm in the conference room, despite the air conditioning. The female architect on Gerber's team says the Saudis present agree we can take off our veils, that this is allowed here inside the building.

Out on the street, though, we will hide ourselves once again. Religious police patrol outside, checking that everyone is following the dress code.

Later that day, we visit the library once again, to see if any of that change is visible yet.

Gerber and his team have created a public square in front of the library, 150 by 150 meters (490 by 490 feet). This is unusual for Riyadh, where the heat means everyone escapes indoors and public spaces are next to nonexistent. But a square is well suited for relaxation -- or for protests.

During the day, with the temperature at 41 degrees Celsius (106 degrees Fahrenheit), the square was empty. Now, in the evening, the temperature has dropped by four degrees Celsius (seven degrees Fahrenheit), the library is fully illuminated and the square is lovely, with its two lawns, palm trees and a ground-level fountain, also illuminated, in which children might play. But no one is there.

Suddenly, two men in white robes appear. One of the architects hurries over to take a picture of them, but by then they have disappeared again. Perhaps the square is still too new. Or perhaps everyone is on the way to prayer, with the muezzin already calling.

Since we are alone, I take my shoes off. The Moroccan salesman in Hamburg recommended close-toed shoes -- this, too, is a sign of respect. But close-toed shoes are uncomfortable in such heat. Incidentally, so are the arm covers, which I haven't worn at all. I step into the fountain and look toward the library. The men's entrance is visible from here.

It would take just a couple changes to the building, the architects explained, to combine the women's space and the men's into one. It would be "very simple," they said.

Saudi Arabia's flag waves in the distance, a green background bearing the Muslim declaration of faith and beneath it the image of a sword, symbolizing justice.

As they claimed, it would be "very simple" to combine women's and men's spaces here.

The simplest things have always been the hardest.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein

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spon-facebook-1090747063 08/09/2013
1. National library in Saudi Arabia
What is a library in Saudi Arabia? What is kept there? Who is allowed to see it and use it?
Jim in MD 08/09/2013
2. Damn with Faint Praise
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?
walter_tonetto 08/11/2013
3. optional
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!
spon-facebook-844290583 09/17/2013
4. Saudi Arabia
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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