It seems too late to offer help to the Saudi’s to find a balance between the need for a new, bigger Mosque and the need to maintain representative and worthy monuments of the past for prosperity, connection with the community’s roots and a sense of continuity. Time and again mankind has been shown to benefit from a memory of the past in seeking to enrich the future. Architecture is so often the prime symbolism of that memory.
Medina has a packed centre and the Mosque clearly belongs there. One can only hope that the proposition of creating the world’s biggest building, a new Mosque for 1.6 million Muslims, overlaying this central site, will be one which combines preservation and rejuvenation with the creation of the new. There are rumours that it will not. A fundamentalist approach is apparently being adopted which will cut ties with the past, to rid the city of its historic connections, even with the buildings that hold meaning as poignant as that which houses the tomb of the Prophet Mohamed.
I hope it’s not true. I hope it’s not too late to apply the kind of analysis that we use in the UK, where we accept occasionally that heritage must give way to the new, particularly where doing so serves the public good. It seems that a public good is afoot in this case, but is the argument balanced? Has the exercise of analysis been carried out? Have the 4 archi-types of cultural value, developed here, been applied there? First, how valuable is the archaeology of the buildings? Second, how valuable is the expression of the past and how valuable the craftsmanship of previous builders to display it? Third, what about the beauty of the structures under threat. Do they lift the spirit? Will the new building achieve the same value? Fourth, will the familiarity of the place be lost, that which people are comforted by, that which the community as a whole recognise as theirs.
These are of course western values and they may not be appropriate to the desserts of the Middle East.
If similar questions have been asked, out of the Muslim culture, then so be it. If not, perhaps a pause for thought, deep thought of the kind the Prophet Mohamed might have applied, should prevail before it is too late.
Heritage Consultant London
Chairman of World Architecture News WAN