Architects working on the Neom mega-project in Saudi Arabia, including the 170-kilometre city The Line, must decide whether they are content to be complicit in an "ecological and moral atrocity", writes Adam Greenfield.
In April 1954, J Robert Oppenheimer – the physicist regarded as "the father of the atomic bomb", and a crucial participant in the American thermonuclear weapons-development program – was hauled before a panel of the US Atomic Energy Commission and questioned about his political affiliations. These hearings are now remembered chiefly for the way Oppenheimer explained the intellectual appeal of atomic weapons work for an engineer, even one as ethically serious as he was. "When you see something that is technically sweet," he testified, "you go ahead and do it."
It's Oppenheimer's words that come to mind when I think of the architects, designers, management consultants and futurists now busily at work on the planned Saudi megaproject Neom, for which ground was recently broken in the Arabian desert. Neom's most notable feature is the linear megastructure – creatively dubbed "The Line" – that will supposedly extrude twinned 150-storey buildings a hundred miles across the desert, with less than the distance between two New York City avenues separating them, and plant a city for nine million in the slot thus created.
On some level, the appeal of working on a project like Neom is straightforward
Neom has other facets as well, notably the planned Trojena winter-sports resort recently awarded the 2029 Asian Winter Games, but it's The Line that people are thinking of when they invoke the broader project. It's a little as if someone had taken Superstudio's 1969 Continuous Monument as a neat suggestion, rather than a pointed critique.
On some level, the appeal of working on a project like Neom is straightforward. Architecture will always be attracted to wealth, firstly, for structural reasons that are more or less obvious: unlike other expressive pursuits, it takes a certain threshold quantity of money and power to get things built in the material world. And there is no question that in Neom's patron, Saudi crown prince and prime minister Mohammed bin Salman, architects have a client willing to hand them what is, in comparison to other projects, an effectively unlimited budget.
Architecture is often drawn to authoritarian regimes, as well, for no other reason than their ability to do things by decree. Between the commercial considerations that dictate what kind of floor plates are rentable, the hemming-in of Floor Area Ratio by zoning, and 10,000 other conditions on building form, the regulatory and market-imposed constraints of working in Western democracies mean that you'll never get to explore the outer reaches of your imagination.
Worse, the city is a roiling pit of contention, crammed to its limits with fractious constituencies all of whom somehow need to be accommodated simultaneously. It is easy to imagine a certain kind of architect (and I think it's fair to say that we all know people like this, and may indeed have someone specific in mind) wondering how they are ever supposed to get their Howard Roark on when they're constantly forced to placate dreary, unimaginative civilians in this way.
And along comes someone who encourages you to dream big, assures you that whatever you imagine can and will be built, and, best of all, offers you a fat purse for sharing the contents of your beautiful mind with the world? How can this be anything but a dream?
If you accept money to work on any aspect of the Neom project, you need to know that you are complicit
But the dream comes at a cost – a twofold cost, actually. The first aspect involves putting not merely your feelings but everything you know about the climate crisis well to one side. Neom is being planned at a time when wet-bulb temperatures in the Arabian desert already exceed 20 degrees Celsius across half the year, and are projected to spike sharply higher by the end of the century.
Such conditions make the desert literally uninhabitable in the absence of massively energy-intensive cooling operations; the most recent reputable study anticipates "significant risks on human survivability in the [Arabian] Peninsula unless strict climate mitigation takes place". If you're going to work on Neom, then, you have to manage the cognitive dissonance of designing as though this were not in fact the case.
The second is more serious still. It involves the fate of the Huwaitat tribespeople forcibly displaced from Tabuk Province to make way for the coming of Neom. In April 2020, Saudi security forces reportedly shot Abdul Rahim al-Huwaiti dead in his home after he posted videos protesting the clearance of communities inconvenient to the government's plans.
And just last month, a Saudi court handed down death sentences to his brother Shadli, along with Ibrahim al-Huwaiti and Ataullah al-Huwaiti, also involved in protests. There is no other way to say this: if you accept money to work on any aspect of the Neom project, you need to know that you are complicit in these acts of violence and cultural erasure.
So, yes: there is no question whatsoever that resolving the design and engineering challenges posed by dropping a hundred-mile linear city in the middle of uninhabitable desert makes Neom a "technically sweet" project. If, that is, the abovementioned fundamental thermodynamic constraints are even amenable to resolution, which is highly doubtful on our rapidly and catastrophically heating planet.
But that really oughtn't be your central consideration. What should weigh most significantly in your calculus is whether the satisfaction of working on this project, and the compensation that attends that work, will ever compensate for your participation in an ecological and moral atrocity.
You're the only one who knows how well you sleep at night
It is especially important for you to understand, as well, that whatever your intention, you will not be able to be "the voice of reason" in the studio, or "represent the unheard". Do not deceive yourself into thinking that any amount of painstakingly marshalled, coolly presented evidence can defer for so much as one hour the progress of a project the partners have decided is key to their practice's future.
If anything, your very presence as a critical voice can be used to demonstrate that "all perspectives were considered". The only tenable move in such a situation is not to validate the premise by furnishing it with the imprimatur of your labor.
I address these words specifically to those now working on Neom at Morphosis, Zaha Hadid Architects and other studios, but also to the architectural profession and its allied industries more broadly. I can't tell you what you should or shouldn't do. You're the only one who knows how well you sleep at night.
We do know what happened with Oppenheimer's project, though. And we know what became of him. He could only look on his work and solemnly reflect: "Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds." Neom is not, it is true, atomic obliteration, or anything remotely like it. But it has already brought death, and in carving a line through a living, breathing community, all of those complicit in its design and construction are already destroyers of worlds.
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