A Matter of Meters

Por Francisco Javier Casas Cobo

I just came back from Dubai, a place that fascinates me and repels me in changing proportions, after a third or fourth visit to this instant city that I never thought I would end up knowing firsthand.

I have visited for the first time the artificial reclaimed land from the sea archipelago known as The Palm, the first of the huge urban developments that the city conquered the Persian Gulf thanks to oil money and Dutch engineers. After the great sales success of this huge urban complex, there would be others even greater whose success, as in the case of The World, already completely isolated from the mainland, is yet to be confirmed.

I stay in one of the many hotels that were erected on the last dike of the palm tree, and therefore the furthest from the city, which goes into the sea at least a couple of kilometers. While I run through the boardwalk of the curved promenade, I look at the construction of an impressive new complex called The Atlantis Royal, and then at the hotel I find out that it has been designed by the very solvent and ubiquitous KPF (Kohn Pedersen Fox), which leads me to think that, despite the monstrosity in environmental terms, the building can only make jealous everyone who was once an architect like me.

The curved building adopts the shape of the aforementioned perimeter and is erected with modules that are locked in a sort of giant scale module-work leaving huge empty gaps in its facade with provocative overhangs at its ends.

I think of my work teaching at the university in Riyadh, modest, quiet; relevant only to the small group of students that my effort and talent, or its absence, may affect, and am jealous of the architects who work on these big projects. Some colleagues, of course, believe that a small work or a restoration is also architecture, that small details of any design do care and, finally, all that whopper of the craftsman and the service to society in which I also believe somehow.

However, if we look at the three masters of the previous century, none of them missed the opportunity to build big when they had the chance, they worked tirelessly, to different extents each of them, in being great propagandists of themselves, and in fact they would not have passed, let’s admit it, to the history of architecture as what they are if they had only built, say, their best known and admired work, but an extensive set of buildings with actually larger surfaces.

Similarly, the great architects of the 21st century (I do not intend to make a list or look for the exceptions and oddities of some Pritzker prizes or in the architects who continue to work in an artisanal way such as Zumthor or Murcutt) I speak of Piano, Rogers, Foster, Koolhaas or Hadid , all of them have built a lot and have never given up doing it for ethical reasons or moral conflicts with certain governments or political systems, many of them justifying themselves with a simple “if I don’t do it, another one will do it, and maybe he/she will do it worse.”

I remember that Bigas Luna movie about a builder in Benidorm, who was performed by Javier Bardem, and it seems to me that architecture, or the ego, are still matters of square meters, and that this was the ambition – or one of the ambitions – of the modern architects and so is now of the contemporaries, but I think most of us are ashamed to admit it because it would reduce architecture to a quantitative issue lacking of interest or, as Bigas Luna might have said, to a matter of balls.

Text translated by the author. Francisco Javier Casas Cobo is architect and lives in Riad since August 2014.


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