Foster to ease Mecca pilgrims' progress
by Chris Gourlay
THE mountain is to move for Muhammad. Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid are involved in plans to transform the landscape around Mecca, Islam's holiest city, to make way for a high-rise metropolis complete with high-speed rail link for pilgrims.
Architectural designs being considered by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia could see the mosque at the heart of the city expanded fivefold to hold 5m worshippers in one go.
However, much of the land around the historic site, including ancient mountains, is likely to be flattened to accommodate seven-star hotels and towering blocks of luxury flats.
Critics believe the 20-year redevelopment programme will turn Mecca into a "mini Dubai", the Middle Eastern emirate that has become a byword for consumerism.
Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who has designed the aquatics centre for the London 2012 Olympics, is believed to have submitted proposals to extend Mecca's Haram mosque. At its centre lies the Kaaba, the black cube-shaped building which all Muslims face in prayer five times a day.
Although Hadid's plans remain secret, she has previously produced bold designs for other mosque projects, including one in Strasbourg which featured a sweeping roof inspired by Islamic calligraphy.
Hadid is also thought to be involved in redesigning part of Mecca's central district, which already boasts a Starbucks and chain stores such as Topshop.
Foster, who designed the Gherkin tower in London and Beijing airport, has been commissioned to design four stations along a new £3.5 billion high-speed railway line linking Mecca to Medina, the city to which the Prophet Muhammad fled in AD622, the first year of the Islamic calendar.
The 186mph link, nicknamed the "Pilgrim Express", will shuttle worshippers between the two holy sites in 2½ hours. It will also pass through Jeddah and King Abdullah Economic City.
Foster and Partners, which is also believed to be involved in Mecca's redevelopment, said each of the train stations would reflect its location and feature "filtered natural daylight throughout". Leaked designs for one of the stations show a vaulted roof punctured by hundreds of small holes, creating a dappled light effect reminiscent of an Arab souk.
Non-Muslims are not allowed to visit Mecca, which means that Foster will have to send Muslim architects to inspect the site, and work on designs remotely.
Each year about 3m people take part in the main hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca, often leading to chronic overcrowding which has resulted in thousands of deaths.
The Saudi royal family claims its modernisation programme, the first phase of which could cost up to £13 billion, will provide pilgrims with improved facilities.
Neither Foster nor Hadid were prepared to discuss their plans. However, the designs of other architects and engineering firms, including the family of Osama Bin Laden, being considered by King Abdullah have shed light on the massive scale of the project.
Some show a new mosque complex surrounded by a motorway and skyscrapers aligned to face the Kaaba.
Leaked plans by Atkins, the British company, show an Ottoman-era section of the Haram mosque replaced by a multi-storey prayer hall, boosting capacity from 900,000 worshippers now to more than 3m. A proposed second phase of development controversially envisages demolishing the old mosque and replacing it with a modern doughnut-shaped building, capable of accommodating more than 5m pilgrims. Only the Kaaba would remain.
Irfan Al Alawi, founder of the London-based Islamic Heritage Research Foundation, which monitors developments in Mecca, said: "The majority of Muslims have no idea what is going on in Mecca because the Saudis are very secretive about their plans, but they are destroying the cradle of Islam.
"The place is being blown to pieces as we speak. They are dynamiting mountains and removing heritage buildings to make way for a ring of 130 skyscrapers around the grand mosque. Mecca has already lost much of its charm and spirituality."
A spokesman for the Saudi embassy in London said King Abdullah was still considering all proposals and a final decision on a masterplan had not been made.
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