A bridge on the river Jordan

This is the last part of a review of my recent trip to Amman. It also wraps up my fieldwork here in the Levant for now. Connecting to the post “Amman, a Global City?”, the article discusses three urban development projects in Amman´s west, as well as the trip back to Israel across Allenby/King Hussein Bridge.

bridge on the river kwai - title

Source: http://www.imdb.com/video/imdb/vi1900740633/

The bottom of the wadi in the old downtown of Amman is basically separated by two main roads on the left and right hand sides that meet at some points, forming ‘urban islands’. One such a patch starts with the Roman Theatre, reaching eastwards to the Mahatta Bus Station, discussed in the last post. The second is central downtown with the Husseini Mosque and the market. Representing a labyrinth of small shops in a souk-like atmosphere, this market-area stretches almost from the Roman Theatre in the east to the municipality building in the west on the land between King Talal Street and Quraysh Street. In addition to traditional stalls selling fruits, vegetables, bread, meat, spices and so forth, there are all sorts of specialised sections, selling clothes, carpets, or furniture, some in open air areas. The third stretch is the area of the National Museum, the Greater Amman Municipality (GAM), Al Hussein Cultural Centre, a water facility, and a park. At the end of this zone, where the two streets meet again and near Wadi Sir Bus Station, there is the site of the project “King Abdullah II House of Culture and Art”, designed by Zaha Hadid. (Austrian Delugan & Meissl Architects shared the first prize in the competition back in 2008).

hadid 01

Rendering House of Culture and Art, Amman – (Source: Zaha Hadid Architects)

See an interview and video on the project here:

There has been no groundbreaking so far and the plot is surrounded by a wall and empty (see photo below). Apparently the delay is because of financial problems.

site - house of culture and art - le royal in the background

Future location House of Culture and Art – Le Royal in the background – Source: Author

Model Downtown Amman

City model – Downtown Amman – Source: Author

Walking up from the western wadi towards Zahran and the similarly named street, one reaches the third circle. At this third circle the then (2003) tallest building in Amman, “Le Royal” has been built and still represents a landmark structure, defining the urban landscape of Amman. The project was highly controversial and the development faced wide scale opposition. Samer Abu-Gazalah (2006, p 150) states there is a law, saying that any building that does not meet the necessary requirements or regulations can still be built, if the constructors pay an adequate fine. In the case of Le Royal, this fine summed up to 1.5 million US$. Located in the posh, classy Zahran quarter, the building is completely out of the scale of the neighbourhood. Abu-Gazalah mainly criticises the small size of the plot where the five-star hotel sits, and related problems. He argues that other than in the Abdali-area, the urban fabric of Zahran cannot accommodate high risers, due to its residential oriented layout, with narrow streets and irregular patterns. After ten years of existence and major other changes in Amman, the Le Royal still seems not well considered, but is certainly not the biggest problem – one is tempted to say architectural crime – of the city. Although visible from all over the city, it appears harmless from far away, but reveals its real, huge dimensions when getting closer. However, there are not only many other projects that are even less reasonable, but also critical general urban development policies, like the ones discussed in the previous post.

le royal

le royal

Le Royal Hotel – Source: Author

The third project I would like to briefly introduce is the “Jordan Gate” in the west of the city, near the sixth circle. Construction works started in 2005, with investment firms from Bahrain and Kuwait and in cooperation with GAM (Greater Amman Municipality). A wider geopolitical background of projects like the Jordan Gate and many others in the region is the 9/11 attacks. As Steffen Hertog (2007) reports, 9/11 and the parallel liberalisation and privatisation in Arab/Islamic countries rendered ‘underdeveloped’ countries in the region attractive to investments from the Gulf. Hence, large scale urban development projects such as in Beirut or Amman are at least partly related to the reorientation of Arab capital after the attacks in the USA. Arab investors feared losing their money if they stay invested in ‘the west’.

One of these projects is the the twin towers of ‘Jordan Gate’, which faced severe problems almost from the beginning. First there was a fire on the construction site, then three stories collapsed, killing some workers, and later on a crane collapsed. However, the story of the site is quite similar to what Abu-Gazaleh complained about Le Royal. The plot is far too small and the dimensions of the towers completely out of context. There are narrow lanes and small scale houses around the site, with no space whatsoever for increasing their capacity. The question therefore is, how to accommodate thousands of additional people on a daily basis, who are supposed to be working in the towers. Moreover, the site is also not suitable infrastructure-wise. There will be severe problems with the supply of water or waste disposal for the future complex. Mean while, according to the Amman Voice Blog GAM (Greater Amman Municipality) withdrew from the project and sold its share. Since there seem to be severe financial difficulties, the project is on hold now. The cranes are rusting and the first glass panels from the facade start falling down.

jordan gate

Jordan Gate Towers – Credit: Author

The three projects reflect current insanity in urban development and architecture. While only a couple of minutes car ride away tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees live in despair and hardship in the overcrowded houses of Wahdat and Hussein refugee camps, one of the so-called star architects designs another icon of contemporary architecture for the pleasure of rich elites. “King Abdullah II House of Culture and Art” mirrors the King´s neoliberal development policy, striving for a world-class city while wide parts of the population live in poverty.

Telling the same story, the case of Le Royal shows that developers can do whatever they want as long as they make enough money with the project so that they can pay a ‘fine’, which of course translates to bribery. Such a policy questions the existence of building regulations as well as of development strategies and plans as such. The damage done to a quarter and the whole city is irreparable.

And finally the Jordan Gate, where an out of context project is being realised. It looks like it is ending in a disaster, not only for the local population but also, again, for the whole city. While a wholesale blame on neoliberal policies is as incomplete as it does not get us far, attached mechanisms also dominate urban transformation. In light of the Jordan Gate, one hope is that such projects  are so absurd and so poorly planned and made that they won`t last long, or, as in this case, start crumbling before even in use. Neoliberal development overtaking itself. Sometimes I feel, politicians, investors, developers, architects and so forth should be forced to do their projects in the virtual world. Since large parts of international capital is detached from ‘real’ products anyway and taking place in the virtual world, planning and building these urban monstrosities and parasites (taxpayers have to bail out if things go wrong) could be located there as well. Then billions can be invested and gambled away in ‘neoliberalopolis’ without physically destroying our cities and environments.

Although not wanting to sound too pessimistic, according to what I have come across in Amman (and Tel Aviv-Jaffa) so far, there seems to be limited leverage for initiatives dedicated to a more reasonable, meaningful, and after all human mode of redevelopment. (I am deliberately no longer using ‘sustainable’, because the concept has been hollowed out, used by people and organisations who do the absolute opposite, and it therefore became worthless.) The absurdity of some urban projects and policies are leaving not much space for optimism regarding the respective urban futures. Together with more general thoughts about the topic of my research and the region, these projects and my travel back to Tel Aviv-Jaffa from Amman prompted the following.

“Madness! … Madness!” are the last words in the film “A bridge on the river Kwai” from 1957, a classic in cinematic history. A group of British soldiers, led by Lt. Colonel Nicholson, played by Sir Alec Guinness, is caught by the Japanese during World War II. The task for the Japanese in charge of the British soldiers is to build a bridge, which is part of an important infrastructure route to them. The British prisoners of war are expected to help building it. Following some power games with the Japanese, the British more or less take over and Nicholson orders to show British craftsmanship and build a decent bridge within the required period. Meanwhile a commando of other British soldiers is sent to blow up the bridge before it can be used, since it is for the benefit of their enemies. Ending in an inferno, the bridge is destroyed, the train running over it crashes, and most of the people around are being killed. See a trailer here.

The film´s absurd story of war, destruction, military discipline, pride, national patriotism, ego, and led astray (male) honour could easily be attributed to many other events in history until today. Crossing Allenby- or King Hussein Bridge made me think about the absurdity this conflict has brought with it for decades now. Its intractability goes hand in hand with politicians guided by the very attributes above, and peoples that are lulled, used and betrayed for reasons that serve nebulous ‘interests’ and moreover only those of a few. So from micro-levels of urban development projects to geopolitical mechanisms, it looks like we – humankind – are losing the ability of living together in a way that is acceptable for most of us. Out of scale and context urban development projects as much as domestic and foreign policies signify we do not have the foresight to see the universal in the particular and the particular in the universal. In light of the recently restarted “peace talks” between the Israelis and the Palestinians in the frame of the “peace process” – a term that completely disregard reality -, and its likely outcome, there is not much left to say than “Madness! … Madness!”

Bibliography

Abu Ghazalah, S. (2006). “Le Royal in Amman: A new architectural symbol for the 21st century.” Cities 23(2): 149-159.

Hertog, S. (2007). “The GCC and Arab economic integration: a new paradigm.” Middle East Policy, 14 (1): 52-68.

© All rights reserved – Sigi Atteneder, 2013

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