Skip to content

Line in the Sand

Handmaidens of dystopia in the Saudi Arabian desert
A blurred rendering of

On January 31, Dezeen published an article listing the names of the prestigious architecture firms that have pledged to lend their assistance to the realization of “The Line,” a 105-mile-long mirrored and enclosed luxury horizontal skyscraper in the Saudi Arabian desert that will allegedly run on 100 percent renewable energy and eventually house 9 million consumers of the future, presumably not among them the thousands of indigenous people to be forcibly displaced for its construction.

This “civilizational revolution” now underway will form the backbone of NEOM, a futuristic city-state roughly the size of Belgium near the border of Jordan and Egypt that will, at an estimated cost of $500 billion, include a floating, semi-automated port and innovation hub; a year-round ski resort (in the desert); and a man-made freshwater lake (also in the desert). The Guardian reported in 2020 that an artificial moon, glow-in-the dark beaches, robotic butlers, holographic teachers, and something akin to Jurassic Park were also being considered. In any case, it promises to be surveilled by a corps of drones and facial recognition software held accountable only to the Saudi security state and its de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. If this sounds like some kind of dystopian nightmare-cum-PR-project, that’s because NEOM is both of those things.

The hypocrisy is astounding in a field where maintaining a nebulously liberal image still seems to matter.

The twelve architecture firms that have been revealed as participating in this stupid, brutal, and improbable vanity project are in no way marginal players. They include some of the biggest in the field, including the I.M.-Pei-less ghost of Pei Cobb Freed & Partners; 2000s darlings Coop Himmelb(l)au; stark, high-style Tom Wiscombe Architecture; Thom Mayne’s showy and often disappointing firm Morphosis; the designer of the acclaimed Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), Adjaye Associates; and Peter Cook’s speculative firm CHAP, among others.

Before Mayne’s firm’s participation was made public, he spoke obliquely about his role designing the “city of the future” at a recent conference in New York. “There needs to be the advancement of something much more complex, as architects take responsibility for shaping the world,” Mayne told the audience at Center for Architecture. Architects need to “start thinking like Tesla” (the company whose cars are spontaneously combusting and whose CEO is posting his own wealth out of existence on Twitter). To do so, architecture should stop focusing so much on “looks” and instead prioritize things like the power of AI. Mayne said all of this without any hint of self-reflection on just the kind of world his latest client, Saudi Arabia, hopes to build. Bin Salman promises The Line will “tackle the challenges facing humanity in urban life today” and “shine a light on alternative ways to live,” by which he presumably means alternative ways of shopping for Hermès scarves while subject to the whims of an invasive security state.

Participation in The Line—an indoor, climate controlled mall only conceivable in a state absolutely drunk off oil money that will almost certainly never get built and, if it does get built, will come at the cost of massive human suffering—is not just an embarrassment; it should be nullify the progressive reputations of all firms involved. For a very long time, architecture firms have talked out of both sides of their mouths, espousing reverence for resiliency, egalitarianism, and environmentalism all while working for some of the most despotic regimes on the planet.

In 2020, Bjarke Ingels, known for his “fun” “solutions” to climate change (see, for instance, his super cute power plant that’s also a ski slope), was caught palling around with then president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, in hopes of working to develop a tourism masterplan for part of the country. Ingels, of course, defended his meeting with Bolsonaro, noting that criticizing a man responsible for escalating ethnic cleansing and deforestation in the Amazon is “an oversimplification of a complex world.” (I have yet to see Bjarke palling around with Lula.) More recently, countless words were spilled about the slave labor used in Qatar to erect the World Cup infrastructure from scratch, by firms including the one run by the late Iraqi-British architect Dame Zaha Hadid. But the Cup went on regardless, littered with dozens of architectural baubles.

The hypocrisy is astounding in a field where maintaining a nebulously liberal image still seems to matter. For instance, how can a firm like Adjaye Associates—known for working with great sensitivity on projects that highlight diversity and center marginalized experiences, like the highly acclaimed NMAAHC—pretend to care about the concept of human rights when taking money from a petro-regime that assassinates journalists and has already begun jailing indigenous people in order to erect a nightmarish tube for the wealthy to live “in harmony with nature” ? How can Coop Himme(l)blau—granted, a firm deeply committed to technobabble nonsense for thirty years—claim in its mission statement to “[propagate] an architecture that is open, consciously unstable, and as such represents a form of democracy” by building for one of the most undemocratic countries in the entire world? And how can Morphosis purport to care about environmental sustainability while overseeing the arrogation of a massive amount of resources—steel, water, concrete, lithium—required to build an “emissions-free” city of the future. All of this, it must be remembered, is backed by oil money. 

Perhaps one should not be surprised that Peter Cook—best known for his fanciful Yellow Submarine-esque imaginary cities and paper architecture from the 1970s via his group Archigram—is still tinkering with the impossible, albeit in a much less fun, creative, or incisive way. His work with Archigram imagined entire worlds centered around endless and effortless consumption, wherein even cities themselves could wander nomadically from place to place. The first part of that idea lives on somewhat in NEOM—hence the appeal—however, the idea of a luxury scar across the landscape is not even original. Cook’s rivals, the Italian radical design group Superstudio, already proposed such a thing in the 1970s and with much better drawings. They did so as a critique of capitalism. The irony of all this would be delicious if it weren’t so sad.

Many will wonder why these firms, if they are so concerned with their images as benevolent world-shapers (in Mayne’s words) and stewards of the environment, would even take on a project as obscene as The Line. The answer, of course, is money and fame. Indeed, the participation of the likes of Morphosis and Adjaye Associates makes a lot more sense if one dispels the notion of the architect as an artist or artisan, devoted to crafting lovely little things at a critical remove from society. Thom Mayne, David Adjaye, and all the others are not individual great men and women of the arts. They are at their core bosses: capitalists running firms employing the thousands of often well-meaning people lured into the field by architecture schools and the promise that they, too, could one day have their name on a building, only to instead be subjugated to ten hour days of drudgery and the other myriad indignities of wage labor. And so it goes.

The year-round ski resorts and indoor shopping malls and bespoke manses of NEOM will be built on the backs of human suffering.

By default, ethics are blurred in the industry, especially under capitalism, where, as the tired adage goes, there is no ethical consumption. Projects like NEOM are not particularly novel: Norman Foster and Zaha Hadid have conceived of superyachts for the obscenely wealthy and luxury trifles for despots in the Middle East—like the Al Janoub Stadium in Qatar, one of the major venues for the 2022 World Cup. On occasion, this status quo can be challenged, as evidenced by those firms who have ceased their Russian projects as Putin and his cronies continue their imperial misadventure in Ukraine.

However, as far as pie-in-the-sky vanity projects go, NEOM feels different. Even if it’s never completed, the environmental havoc, displacement, and immiseration it will inflict should puncture once and for all the image of architecture as some kind of world-bettering public service exempt from the horrors and temptations of capitalism. To take on a project like NEOM is objectively and profoundly unethical. To take on any project bankrolled by dictators, oligarchs, petro-regimes, as well as the carceral state here at home, is unethical.

The year-round ski resorts, indoor shopping malls, and bespoke manses of NEOM will be built on the backs of human suffering. They actively harm the world, not improve it. This is obvious to anyone with a conscience. There is nothing an architect can say, no promises they can make, no theory jargon they can toss off, no AI they can weaponize, to justify participating in the perpetuation of high levels of misery and inequality at the behest, expense, and pleasure of Saudi Arabia’s rulers. NEOM comes from a combination of the Greek word for new and the Arabic term for future—and what a grim future its slickly produced renderings augur, one of perpetual surveillance and consumption. No self-respecting architect should be its handmaiden.