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The James Review calls for an intelligent client; Saudi Arabia opts for dimwitted hubris

Governments should make use of architects, but architects should be wary of governments, writes Rory Olcayto

At last a government report on the design and construction of buildings – schools in this instance – that bothered to consult the architectural profession. The James Review on BSF even mentions the word ‘architect’ five times (once in the executive summary, once in the footnotes, three times in the appendices, although curiously never in the body of the report itself).

As Paul Finch makes clear in this week’s Letter from London, Sebastian James has authored a pragmatic report that deserves your attention. However, its recommendation to funnel investment and advice through a new ‘central body’ seems at odds with this government’s drive to localise decision-making.

It also describes the need for the central body to be an ‘intelligent client’, which in my experience means a client body that involves architects in the process sooner rather than later. The implication is clear: we must lobby hard now to have architects embedded within the hierarchy of this new organisation – and preferably at the top.

Kingdom Tower

News this week that the Saudi government has green lit the construction of the Kingdom Tower was eagerly picked up by the nationals. Twice the height of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai, currently the tallest building in the world, it was being heralded by its developers just 18 months after SOM’s tower in Dubai completed.

In the world of electronics, there is a principle called ‘Moore’s Law’ that says computing power doubles every 18 months. The benefits are obvious: smaller, faster digital tools. So could Moore’s Law be applied to supertalls as well?

No, in reality, the Saudis’ announcement has more in common with the farcical comedy Huevos de oro, directed by Bigas Luna in 1993, a favourite film of mine. It stars a young Javier Bardem as Benito Gonzalez, a hustler who dreams of building the biggest skyscraper in Benidorm. The film bluntly, but very entertainingly, uses the central image of a vaunting, under-construction skyscraper to frame Benito’s reckless machismo.

The truth is apparent early on: Benito lacks imagination, his ambitions rather vulgar. Is there a more appropriate metaphor for dimwitted hubris than the desire to build a giant tower? The film even stars a rival hustler who builds alongside Benito in an amusing ‘whose is bigger’ contest. The parallels with the demand for towers in the Arabian Peninsula are clear.

Unlike Huevos de oro, however, or to give it its English title, Goldenballs, the Kingdom Tower plans are not very funny. Firstly, there was no image accompanying the press release. Secondly, the architect originally associated with the project, Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, has denied involvement. And thirdly, the timing of this announcement comes as Saudi troops execute protesters in neighbouring Bahrain, quell riots in their own country, and, like the idea of a mile-high tower, provide comfort to a regime which fears revolution. Smoke and mirrors, anyone?

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