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Rethinking a Well-Trod Path: A New Master Plan for Mecca

It's considered the largest single gatherings of humans on Earth. Known as the Hajj, the Muslim holy pilgrimage brings millions of the devout to Mecca, Saudi Arabia, every year. Visitors descend on the holy site to complete a series of sacred rites and circle the Kaaba, the black granite cube at the center of the Masjid Al–Haram, or Grand Mosque (the point towards which Islamic prayers are directed, it's literally the center of the Muslim world). Unsurprisingly, the numbers, logistics and safety concerns involved in such an event are staggering; every year, a miniature city of 100,000 temporary, air-conditioned Teflon tents must be set up in the valley of Mina to provide temporary housing. Those numbers will only become more daunting. In 2012, a little over three million Muslims came for the Hajj. By 2030, 20 million are expected to make the trip.

X-Architect's plan for Mecca.

Even with numerous expansions—the Grand Mosque itself has been enlarged numerous times over the last half century—a call was recently put out to architects and urban planners to design a new master plan for the city to help ease congestion. But how do you properly design paths and pedestrian flows for one of the most trod-upon, holiest sites in the world? According to Farid Esmaeil, a founding partner of Dubai-based X-Architects, which won the contest to design the new master plan, it starts by looking beyond the trail.

"The main objective is to create a better city," he says. "We hope it continues in the right direction with the ambition that started us out, to serve the people."

X-Architects's new proposal for public space in Mecca comes against the backdrop of a high-priced building boom that, over the last 15 years, has radically changed the desert city's landscape. Towers such as the $15 billion Abraj al-Bait, the fourth-tallest in the world, now cast a shadow across the spiritual center of Islam, and buildings with both religious and historical significance have been demolished in the name of progress (the house of the prophet's wife, Khadijah, was knocked down to make way for public bathrooms). A city of public markets has also become one of high-end shopping, with hotels offering views of the Grand Mosque charging more than $5,000 a night. Forthcoming expansions of the city's airport and a rail line to Jeddah only promise to exacerbate these issues.

"In a way, the topology changed from being public to being more exclusive," says Esmaeil. "We like to make this more of a place that serves the public."

The mismatched, high-priced, and, some say, gaudy collection of buildings stands in contrast to X-Architect's proposal, designed to blend in with the desert landscape and existing city. Built on a plain to the east of the Grand Mosque, at the juncture of two main pilgrimage routes, it's the only useable space that can support such a large project (821,229 square meters, or a little over 8.8 million square feet, of mixed-use buildings) and is near both the tents in the Mina and the pilgrimage route, yet is located on any part of the holy site, which has development restrictions.

The main concept is to create a compact grid of buildings, some stretching up to 50 stories tall, which will stand together like a pixelated glass-and-steel boulder, a visual reference to the mountainous terrain ringing the city. Passageways between the buildings, all set on a raised podium, will allow pilgrims to travel and air to flow through the taverns between towers, cooling pedestrians amid the high heat (double-skin facades and water-recycling systems will also seek to reduce energy in the challenging desert environment).

As the number of pilgrims continues to rise every year, accidents have become a serious concern. To improve safety and increase pedestrian flow, the adjoining Grand Mosque Road will be lowered and pedestrian-only routes will be built through the site. By separating pedestrian flow from auto traffic and adding reinforced tunnels, X-Architects believes they can create an easier pathway with more access points.

"One of the most important challenges is that this area has to act like a sponge," he says. "It's a very unique condition. There are serious security considerations, and you have to design the entire structure to respond to peak-time traffic, but have the complexity to adjust itself and work during non-Hajj times."

Esmaeil believes that part of the solution to giving the new complex more relevancy year-round is creating a "sustainable social mix" within the towers, including residential, commercial, clinics, civil defense stations and hotel space. Serving as a gathering place for overflow crowds during the Hajj, it'll also work as a public space for the city the rest of the year; the ground floor passages are meant to recreate traditional Arab markets.

According to Esmaeil, the design team of 20-30 architects and planners have been consulting with local authorities and studying the site for the last three years, traveling to the Hajj and walking the path between Mecca and Mina themselves. While they have won the commission, they still have at least a year of design development before really getting started and breaking ground.

"Only when you understand the culture can you come up with a solution," he says. "We didn't just want to go back and be figurative and incorporate the history. We wanted to learn from history and build something both progressive and timeless."

· More Saudi Arabia posts [Curbed]