Loss of identity and the contemporary Arab predicament:
The case study of the Arab national bank new corporate branches
A critical article published in the Magazine: Design
“We have become extinct. We have the quantity. We have the masses of people, but a people becomes extinct when it no longer has a creative capacity, and the capacity to change its world.”…. (2)
Arab Creative Capacity: Cultural extinction or intentional obliteration?
Architecture is a social act because it affects society. Our biggest problem in Jeddah, and most of the Arab world is that architecture has ceased to be perceived as a cultural asset. It has been demoted to mere “buildings that serve the requested functions,” with maximum return on investment. End of story. The impact of architecture on culture is not taken seriously; we seem to naively accept whatever the municipality approves (as long as it has a food court!).
The newly built branches of the Arab National Bank here in Jeddah, present to us yet another failed example of the PoMo (Post-Modernism) trend to turn architecture into advertising. However, the unintentional humour wears off pretty quickly. While the last remnants of PoMo have long faded since the late 90s globally, it seems they are still thriving in this part of the world. Simply put, the “architects” or should I say more appropriately, the engineers (The Muhandiseen) have ignorantly resorted to naive, primitive recycling of alien historic motifs in a bland pastiche manner. Unlike fashion or graphics, where fatuous witless mistakes can be forgotten—or at least forgiven—architectural blunders are permanent intrusions that are harder to live with. That’s not to say the architecture of corporate banking has some memorable incarnations in the Arab World (a trip to Bahrain would clearly prove so), but, alas, the new Arab National Bank branch is not one of them.
“One of the characteristic features of modernity is the recurrent emergence of what Fritz Stern once called “the politics of cultural despair.” (2)
Cultural Despair: A contemporary attempt
It is baffling how Arab National identity has been reduced to a consumable style. As if it were not enough that we already suffer from an acute case of identity crisis, it seems a new epidemic has been unleashed upon us. In their desperate attempt to present to “the Client” something original, the architects of the new Arab National Bank branches have deprived their architecture of content and meaning by introducing Ancient Egyptian temple forms & motifs!
We have reached a point of despair, where out of all the Arab countries’ regional architecture and references (Andalusian, Memluke, Fatimid, Hejazi, Ayyubid, Iraqi, etc), none were good enough for the architects and the Bank CEOs, and as a result, the one chosen was Pharaonic!
What’s worrying is that even educated and experienced professionals believe that Ancient Egyptian, or Pharaonic architecture is part of the Arab architectural heritage! How could they miss the point so badly?
“That is our real intellectual crisis. We are facing a new world with ideas that no longer exist, and in a context that is obsolete. We must sever ourselves completely from that context, on all levels, and think of a new Arab identity, a new culture, and a new Arab society.” (2)
Lunapark-itecture: Ancient Egypt in KSA?
Why when building a banking institution devoted to customer service and openness, choose as a model an Ancient Egyptian temple—a place devoted to secrecy that houses Ancient Deities and contains a sacrificing altar? At first glance, one cannot help think that he has passed by part of an epic-Hollywood film-set with echoes of Cecil B. DeMille’s stage props for “The Ten Commandments.”
It seems strange that to be really up-to-date, a bank has to clash crude and clumsy mimicries of past architecture to make an impact. It appears as just another attempt of the Disneyfication of the city.
It seems that by that using an example from a closer region, the architects intended to impress the CEOs of the bank. By injecting a fresh twist on the borrowed colonial pastiche scene of Jeddah’s architecture (which is already numb with examples from the whole history of Western architecture: Rome, Greece, France, Santa Fe, Medieval, Baroque, Renaissance, even nineteenth-century eclectic), senior management must have applauded this ingenuous attempt as original and dazzling. This act of mindlessly copy-pasting obsolete exotic influences without too much concern for their historical, functional, geographical, political, or social contexts has clearly resulted in this permanent alienated edifice.
“The Arab situation has been very chaotic and this is regrettable,” Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa told reporters in Kuwait in January 2009. (1)
Contemporary Arab Predicament: Lost between the dialects
One wonders if the design of the Arab National Bank buildings reflects contemporary Arab political chaos—a case of being lost between Arab dialects. Taking a closer look at the building, we realize that the logo & corporate identity embossed in the precast concrete facade panels differ from the new corporate identity applied by the bank lately. It is obvious that the architects were not informed of the executive decision to develop and renew the CI and the logo of the bank. However, as a result of this miscommunication, this mistake is engraved in concrete, displayed for all passersby to see. What message is the bank portraying to the Arab World? Is this the new model of the banking temple?
When will architects realize that it is only in private houses that these mishaps can go unnoticed and are the prerogative of the owner, but in the venue of public building projects they have a responsibility that goes beyond function? As a result, a true opportunity to help forge a new Arab architectural identity has been dismissed comically and tragically. The outcome is an odd and alienated building—a whimsical sample of banal styling, pretentious a la mode formalism and crass borrowing from a bygone era. It’s an erroneous, permanent folly that shames the prestigious architect’s office responsible for its creation.
Jeddah, April 24, 2009