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The starchitects learn Arabic

Will Foster and Hadid create icons at Mecca?

The AJ broke possibly the biggest architecture story of the year last week, with the news that Foster + Partners and Zaha Hadid Architects are to work on one of the greatest logistical, symbolic and scalar challenges on earth – the redevelopment of Islam’s most important site of pilgrimage, Mecca.

The story has been picked up around the world, as well as being borrowed by national newspapers, countless blogs and other news outlets. It is rare in trade journalism that a story has this kind of impact, and it is a credit to our reporter, Richard Waite, that people have had to get their information from us – no one else has this kind of access.

The media interest in the story also speaks of the massively increased attention paid to the Middle East by Western news outlets. Our literacy about that part of the world has increased, perhaps from seeing maps on the evening news describing another conflict or tragedy. But there is also a recognition that while the world depends on fossil fuels, much of its near future will also depend on the Middle East.

The selection of UK-based architects for the most high-profile of Islamic sites is recognition of the UK’s historical links in the region. It also confirms something that is clear whenever you travel in the Middle East: there is a perception that British consultants bring quality, flair and reliability to construction projects.

Last week I travelled to Doha in Qatar to see one of the more successful examples of a Western architect attempting to create an authentic Arabic architecture. I M Pei is Chinese, but was educated and has practiced in America. His Museum of Islamic Art in Doha is a finely wrought building, generated from six months dedicated to the study of Islamic architectural history.

One wonders how these two giants of the London scene will adjust their architectural languages for this culturally loaded situation. Will Saudi Arabia get two pieces of international architecture? Or are Foster and Hadid capable of making buildings that can take their place alongside the Taj Mahal and the Alhambra?

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