The world's longest fig leaf

When an Arab state wants to divert attention from its misdeeds and a renowned U.S. architectural firm provides the built fig leaf, the results are sometimes astonishing. Saudi Arabia has presented the current plans for the new city "The Line" on the Red Sea.
by David Kasparek | 8/16/2022

In geometry, the line plays a decisive role between point and surface. Lines accompany us from the markings on the streets to the sketches, drawings and planning documents that are elementary for the design disciplines. And what can you not think of when it comes to lines? Hergé's ligne claire, the lines drawn on mirrors, toilet lids or the backs of hands on some club evenings, over which protagonists of public life stumble from time to time, all the way to Kae Tampest's wonderful last album "The Line is a Curve".

"The Line" is also the name of one of several projects with which the Saudi royal family has been trying for five years now to quickly turn onto the publicity path already successfully taken by Qatar and other emirates: Away from fossil fuels, toward social media-suitable glitter worlds between sports and influencerism. The experience of the last few years shows that at some point even the most persistent journalists get tired of referring to the human rights violations in Qatar (Paris) and Abu Dhabi (Manchester City) every time they report on Manchester City or Paris Saint Germain and their superstars Erling Haaland, Jack Grealish, Lionel Messi and Neymar Junior. Grandees like Franz Beckenbauer want to have seen "no slaves" during the visit of Qatar before the upcoming World Cup, national players like Thomas Müller relativize and laviert, addressed for example to women's rights in the World Cup country. Soccer players and reporters are not a special case: Influencers with large numbers of followers on Instagram and TikTok willingly let themselves be accommodated in the Persian Gulf, enjoy the luxury and reward this concession with uncritical videos about the advantages of heat and sea outside, air-conditioned hotels and pools inside and a laissez-faire between shopping, desert adventure and sunset romance. The entertainment factor is attractive; human rights violations and a few thousand dead people who had to build the stadiums of modernity like slaves of antiquity don't really matter.

New Saudi Triad: Oxagon, Trojena and The Line

With "Neom," Saudi Arabia, which pretends to be open to the world under the leadership of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, has launched a project that is supposed to be an attempt to "do something that has never been done before. "Neom" is a made-up word from the ancient Greek "neo" and the first letter of the Arabic word mustaqbal, which can be translated as "future." So it is a new future that has just been presented in a broad-based advertising campaign and impressive, animated photos and videos. And it is part of the "Vision 2030". By this year, the share of oil and gas in Saudi Arabia's overall gross domestic product is to be reduced from 47 percent today to 11 percent. To achieve this, a planned city is to be built in the northwest of the country between the Red Sea and the border region with Egypt and Jordan - in the middle of the desert. Or as Neom's marketing department calls it, "Ideally located at the hub of the world." That's not what they're doing here. The creators claim: It "comes at a time when the world needs fresh thinking and new solutions," "a vision of what the future could look like." And in principle, they are right. Where we only see desert, a video explains, the minds behind the project are discovering a whole host of great possibilities. In the south, "Oxagon" is to be built, a "reimagined industrial city" where hydrogen production and other regenerative energies are the focus; in the northern mountains lies "Trojena," "an iconic and world-class destination" with snowboarding and ski slopes; and in between, a city for nine million inhabitants. Drawn as if by a ruler: from the sea, through desert, mountains and valleys, 170 kilometers long.

Work of an environmental artist or already architecture?

The recently presented views look more as if an environmental artist had pulled a few of his designs for films and video games out of the drawer that could not be used for Denis Villeneuve's "Dune" or for a season of "Game of Thrones". Along the 170 kilometers, a double of two skyscraper slices, standing close together and 500 meters high, stretches dead straight through the landscape. It looks spectacular, this mirrored endless bar, to which a few yachts and cruising emission giants dock at the sea and which apparently cannot be stopped by mountains or valleys on its way across the country. Between the two discs, a kind of canyon is created in which, as pictures and videos would have us believe, cool freshness reigns between forests and waterfalls. There are no more cars here. Instead, a kind of turbo subway in the basement will connect one end with the other in just 20 minutes. As of today, no train in the world is capable of doing this - the Hyperloop project, which still hasn't really gotten off its magnetic paws, could come close to achieving the necessary values.

Insanely sustainable, all of this is supposed to be - after all, the footprint of a ribbon city compared to a conventional one is undoubtedly smaller - and since no cars are needed and everything is powered by renewable energy, it's also a clean thing to do. Meanwhile, Philip Oldfield, head of the Faculty of Built Environment at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, estimates for dezeen that building "The Line" alone would activate more than 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide. That would be equivalent to more than four times the annual amount of total British emissions. The Saudi government wants to invest 500 billion U.S. dollars, but is also looking for additional donors in every conceivable way. For orientation: In 2020, Saudi Arabia's total gross domestic product was just over 700 billion U.S. dollars. For the former director of the Saudi daily Al-Watan, this is yet another reason to criticize Saudi Crown Prince Salman: On Aljazeera channel's talk format The Arena, Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi said the project could ruin the entire country financially. Khashoggi, until then a constant critic of Mohammed bin Salman, was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul on October 2, 2018. His body has not been found to date, but the killing by Saudi officials has been confirmed.

Now, planned cities in architecture have a mile-long and very straight history. Arturo Soria y Mata devised one for Spain (1882), Nikolai Miljutin one for the Soviet Union (1930s), Le Corbusier one for French-occupied Algeria (1930/31) and Hans Scharoun one for Berlin (1945). Superstudio formally took up similar themes (1969/70), formulating both a fanatical statement and a critique of modernity. Thinking in utopian scenarios is also, with great regularity, a gain for progress in general, as well as for the designing disciplines in particular. Here, however, all the relevant points of an actual or utopian design are left out: from the question of where all the water that pours into the artificial canyon at all corners and ends in the animations actually comes from in the middle of the desert, to logical ones, such as the targeted adiabatic air conditioning in the completely homogeneous building shell, to logistical ones - namely, how all the hip nine million TikTokers and Instagrammers are supposed to get from their yachts to the turbo subway in the end or just from the outside into one of the buildings. Instead, one reads about buzzwords of all kinds: there is talk of sustainability where none can actually be created with the means chosen, and as a symbol of the future viability of one's own idea - or a greeting to Bavarian female politicians - a few air cabs are also being flown in. What is not read is the protest of the local tribal population, such as the al-Huwaitat, and their justified concerns about land and life.

On Twitter, Alexander Luckmann describes the current design by Morphosis, the architecture firm founded in 1972 by Thom Mayne and Michael Rotondi, quite aptly. "Check out this architect's bold plan for a carbon-neutral city on the Red Sea!" writes Luckmann, posting a graphic to go with it: it shows a black line on a white background. And with that, we draw a line under it.

NEOM | What is THE LINE?