Urban Design Serves as Tool of Repression in Bahrain

Arguably, part of being a contemporary architect is being aware of projects and competitions happening all over the world.  Living in a city like New York, especially in Brooklyn, there are many more architects than there are local projects.  That is probably an oversimplification. The truth may be more that we come here, to competitive universities and big cities, to work globally.  We hope that our work and our reputations will cross continents, through publications and academic research, the way that artists' reputations travel with curators and art fairs.

Considering this, I should not be surprised that some of my peers and colleagues have been submitting designs to the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain. I am not talking about large commercial firms designing mega-developments around oil fields and airports.  There is, of course, that, too.  Where there are military alliance and foreign direct investment there will be international architectural projects.  No, I am talking about small firms and freelancers - the kind of folks who participate in Brooklyn's so-called 'new economy' and open offices in Berlin.  The theorists and practitioners who form the avant-garde of an international community of architectural thinkers are unfortunately, perhaps unwittingly, participating in political repression via urban design.

Consider the Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas Competition, ostensibly a typical open competition to gather the best contemporary designs for a specific site.  According to the competition website, the competition is "Organized by the Ministry of Culture of the Kingdom of Bahrain." The competition frames the design context for Bab Al Bahrain square, a public square in the capital of Bahrain, in contemporary and even critical terms:

"One of the few existing public spaces in Bahrain, the Bab al Bahrain square has been progressively turned into a series of surface parking lots. Still, due to its historical importance and its centrality within the Island, it holds the potential to become a lively urban public square; located at the entrance of the Manama Suq it has the advantage of belonging to a tight urban structure which still benefits from a natural pedestrian network.…. Considering the recent political events that have taken place across the region, the competition seeks to question what a contemporary public space in the Arab World should look like."

It is not clear whether the 'recent political events' alluded to here amount to the pro-democracy public protests that took place last year or the military crackdown that followed.  In February 2011 Pearl roundabout was a major site for Bahrain's participation in the Arab Spring.  Bahrain was the only country in the Gulf region to have such a significant pro democracy uprising.  Since February 2011 hundreds of people have been arrested, tortured and sentenced without a trial, including at least 20 medical personnel who did nothing more than care for injured protesters. The monarchical regime tightened military authority with key military support from neighboring Saudi Arabia. An Al Jazeera produced documentary called "Shouting in the Dark" chronicles a full year of democratic protests and the horrific military repression, as well as urban erasure, that ensued.  The Pearl roundabout was demolished and its image removed from coinage.

2 Km from the former Pearl roundabout (now Al Farooq Junction) to Bab Al Bahrain Ave, Manama, site of the Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas Competition

Last month's print issue of Domus, the internationally circulated design magazine, has no articles on Bahrain, but it does include a tear-out pamphlet dedicated entirely to the Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas competition, complete with text signed by the Ministry of Culture.  The text from the Ministry of Culture sounds remarkably like the voice of Domus' editorials.   This should not be surprising since the competition jury includes an editor of Domus.

Each of the Bab Al Bahrain winning designs (presented here on the Domus website) serves to effectively block public aggregation of people on the square.   In other words, each winning project effectively anticipates and prevents the sort of peaceable assembly and democratic protest that occurred at Pearl roundabout. Design tactics to achieve this include - flooding the site with water (the winning proposal), creating a wall around the site, and filling the site with parking spaces.

Lukas Lenherr, Pearl Dive, 1st Prize Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas Competition (via Domus)

The winning design, a water-filled square for fake pearl diving, claims to acknowledge a gulf tradition and tangentially references the Pearl roundabout.  Following the competition's selection, local press in Bahrain exclaimed that "OFFICIALS are considering a major facelift to Bab Al Bahrain that could see the area transformed into a watery oasis."  Regarding the merits of this winning design, the jury offered, in a statement reported widely in the architecture media: "While it completely disregards the conventions on public water accessibility, it offers a convincing urban attractor through a very simple and radical gesture of inversion.... The collage of ordinary programmes, through their careful assembly, creates a powerful urban device."  It is tragically ironic that a design commissioned by a repressive monarchy to forestall the possibility of peaceable assembly might be referred to as an 'attractor' and lauded for its 'radical gesture.'

These urban design proposals in Bahrain are, of course, not the first time that urban design and lofty architectural ideals have been used to hide ugly social repression.  In the early decades of the last century, the City Beautiful Movement arguably furthered racial segregation and displacement of the urban poor in cities such as Washington, DC and Chicago, even before mid-20th century urban renewal and the expansion of federal highways to segregated suburbs.   The City Beautiful movement's popularity with early 20th century US planners may be traced back to the spectacular World Columbian Exposition exhibition of 1893.  Such expositions might be considered precursors to the dispersed multi-media format of publications, panels, and ideas competitions with which we encounter urban design paradigms today.

Recently Bahrain has faced backlash in other arenas where the ruling regime has attempted to produce cosmopolitan images for international consumption.  Leading up to the Formula 1 Grand Prix automobile racing competition in April, there were criticisms from British politicians, Amnesty International, and even from the business press against the Bahrain Grand Prix, as well as cyber attacks by Anonymous  and coordinated protests in Bahrain's capital and villages. Nothing remotely comparable to this international criticism has been voiced in the design community (check yourself on Google), whether regarding the Bab Al Bahrain Open Ideas competition or any other design project.  The design community apparently considers its work less politically charged than car racing (a sport which, the NY Times notes, continued hosting competitions in Apartheid-era South Africa, long after other international sports had boycotted that country).

Perhaps, in this situation, we architects and urban designers are too quick to consider our own work inevitable, to consider our own voices powerless. We do not often say no.  There is a well known story of Cedric Price turning down a commission to design a house for a married couple, on the grounds that a divorce would be more useful. As the Design Museum describes Price, he "redefined the role of the architect as an agent of change, whose main responsibility was to anticipate that, and offer new possibilities for society as a whole." Yes, as contemporary designers we act as agents of change.  We do offer new possibilities for society as a whole.  With that comes a responsibility to choose our projects wisely and to take responsibility for the potential society we help make possible.

15 June 2012 / 2 comments
From More or Less by Mitch McEwen in Architecture
  • http://twitter.com/mitchmcewen mitchmcewen
    As this article has sparked a bit of debate, I have been led to consider this writing from different angles.  I realize that this piece lost a bit of its context as I was editing for my intended 1500 word length.  The context especially relates to how one understands the headline, so I want to address this.  Forgive that some of the below will be disjointed, since I never finished fleshing it out. Primarily, it's important that the background here is the demolition of Pearl roundabout.  I mention that in the final article above, but it comes across as an aside.  I think it is inarguable that the destruction of the Pearl roundabout is an act of urban design intended explicitly to erase the place of peaceable protest.  This relates explicitly to other urban design projects, such as a planned shopping district.  The swift erasure of the space of protest was eerily masterful, coordinated from monetary printing to traffic engineering.  This is the context within which I consider the Bab Al Bahrain competition, as a more recent and ongoing urban design project.  In this context, it is rather undebatable that urban design as a discipline has participated in repression of the democracy movement.  Whether this specific competition and its designs continue that repression or subvert it can be debated more specifically in the terms of design strategies.  With this in mind, please find below some of the draft text addressing this larger urban design picture in Bahrain, which did not make it into the final text. ------------------------------------- Bahrain's approach to the Pearl roundabout, itself, offers an amazing lesson in erasing a monument as a means of editing history.  The demolition was reported by the Guardian last spring, following the repression of the pro democracy protests. - March 2011 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/mar/18/bahrain-destroys-pearl-roundabout.... This erasure of the physical site was coupled with its symbolic erasure. The treasury replaced a coin featuring the monument.  The site is now bahrain Al Farooq Junction.  A shopping center is proposed. - http://bahrain.dxbwebsite.com/bahrain-to-build-new-shopping-district/ http://www.roadtraffic-technology.com/news/newsbahrain-unveils-road-development-plan Sometimes erasure happens through censorship of language and event images - a la http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989 - Here through censorship and erasing of physical places.  attempt to layer meaning onto erasure - http://www.gulf-daily-news.com/NewsDetails.aspx?storyid=324183 Pearl roundabout was constructed as an icon to the Gulf Cooperation Council.  Its cheezy monumentality turned poetic with the protest.  The Pearl roundabout loved by cameras, became signifier of gulf nation state.  Bahrain became an identifiable place through iconography and public performance. - http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/19/opinion/19battuta.html - when the protest was there.... Erected in 1982 on the occasion of the third summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council, which was hosted by Bahrain for the first time in Manama...  was initially a monument to the GCC (the organization of 6 Gulf states that provided the militia force to attack and arrest protesters).  Power of  icons to override their symbolism, capacity of symbols to attach to new meanings, value of place. As noted succinctly in other writing on public space and protest  - http://www.planetizen.com/node/48244, the ability of the public to engage in protest forms almost a litmus test of effective public space. After the repression, arrests, military crackdown (human rights violations - US Embassy report - http://bahrain.usembassy.gov/policy/human-rights-report.html )  and erasure of Pearl Roundabout - People are now left shouting in the dark - http://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/2011/08/201184144547798162.html  Now small anonymous groups making photographs, placing text and images and walls - http://www.demotix.com/news/1252741/protesters-continue-activities-placing-pictures-walls Brave public communication, but no means of public collectivity.  --------------------------------------------------------- Thank you for reading. Upwards, Mitch
  • Jacob Moore
    I'm really heartened by the discussion this article has prompted. In general (and especially in this recession), the possibility of saying "no" to participating in a less-than-worthy or downright destructive project should be given more thought by designers than it often is. We all choose to do what we do, and therefore the onus is on us to affirm that we are making a positive change and not contributing to regressive or violent forces. That being said, even with the added comments here, I agree with Joseph Grima's comments in Domus that the article misses the mark in its refusal to acknowledge the existence of a complicated middle ground in circumstances such as these. I won't rehash the argument—but certainly in my own professional experience, it is often much less clear where to draw the line once details are understood, small cracks within a largely corrupt system seem to be opening, and the possibility for positive change from within reveals itself. I can't pretend to know the specifics of this case, so my comments are meant as more of a general indictment against the tempting blanketing assumptions that force an in-or-out, with me-or-against me mentality, and ultimately prevent more good (if incremental) work being done than they might intend. 

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