October 19. 2012
Earlier this week, I ran a piece on Lumbini’s cultural and
historical integrity once again being under fire – this time with the united
forces of Chinese businessmen and a UK theme park developer. Billed as an
“international peace city”, the dubious Chinese government-connected Asia
Pacific Exchange and Cooperation Foundation (APECF) and the uber-commercial
Britain-based Vertical Theme Park (VTP) Group signed an agreement to aggrandize
the birthplace of Buddha, transforming the quiet dignity of Lumbini into an
international tourist junket destination, replete with a colossal “Cloud
Tower”. (For photos and article CLICK HERE.)
Next Consideration: Who is behind the design of this over-the-top theme park?
Eric R. Kuhne is an architect and civic planner, but neither description does justice to the massive scale on which he works. A Texan by birth, his London-based firm, CivicArts, famous for having designed Bluewater, the largest and most financially successful mall in Europe, is today building entire cities from scratch that include: Madinat Al Hareer (City of Silk), a 750,000-person port city in Kuwait; Mohammed Bin Rashid Gardens, a 200,000-person canal city to be built on 88 sq km of desert adjacent to Dubailand; and a not-yet-announced city somewhere in Bahrain. In Dubai, he is overseeing the International Financial Center’s expansion into a massive enclosed “urban village” where over 60,000 people will live and work. In Kazakhstan, he is erecting 14 casinos and a presidential retreat around a lake, destroying square miles of lakeshore in the process.
Kuhne is often criticized for his megalomaniacal constructions – mall cities, really – that include designated zones for media, sports, culture, health and business, residences, hotels and retail facilities.
He is fond of describing his vision of super-sized civic spaces as a “marketplace of ideas”. Detrators anoint his projects as “self-indulgent”, “monstrous” and “environmental catastrophes”.
The Independent, in analyzing Kuhne’s love affair with the vulgar idea that “bigger is better”, commented that, “Eric Kuhne is more like a movie mogul than an architect.”
In Peter C. Baker’s interview with Kuhne for The National’s May 2008 issue, Baker observed:
Tell a British person that you’re meeting with the man who masterminded Bluewater, and they look at you like you’re talking to the devil. Many well-educated Britons, particularly Londoners, love to hate Bluewater, a 1.68 million sq ft megamall at the bottom of an abandoned chalk quarry in Kent…
Ralph Rugoff, writing in Frieze, called Bluewater, “a diuretic slurry of pumped-up historical and decorative emblems”.
Hugh Pearman in the Sunday Times was more emphatic: “Citizens of England!” We do not need these places!”
Contemplating Kuhne’s 20,000-person village that would eventually adjoin the Bluewater mall, Jonathan Glancey of The Guardian described it as “a city with no gods other than Prada, Gucci and Starbucks, with no cathedral and temple beyond the naves and domes of the mall itself, and with no ultimate purpose beyond stupefying consumption.”
Another just-completed Kuhne project in Belfast, Ireland staked, its claim to questionable taste with the definitively named Titanic -- a bold new visitor attraction entirely devoted to the sunken ship and its story. It’s been compared to the Guggenheim and the Sydney Opera House, but, according to the Guardian Unlimited, it looks “like a cross between an iceberg and Daniel Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin -- neither of which are ideal reference points.”
The most common criticisms leveled against Kuhne are that his "vision" is subsumed by commercialism and that his "taste" is gauche and shamelessly crass.
This is the man who would dictate how we experience the Birthplace of Buddha. The question is are we going to allow him to have his way?
Kuhne is not a man to mince words, especially when it comes to his own sense of grandiosity. In an interview with Reuters (quoted in World Architectural News), Kuhne boasted that the more money thrown at a project, the more glorious the outcome. Referring to his project Madinat al-Hareer, or City of Silk, a colossal development-in-planning with an expanse of 250 sq km costing 132 billion dollars, Kuhne said:
"We're thinking on a different plane, because we cannot afford to think like everyone else. We're thinking about something that might seem unimaginable…We're going to out-maneuver everybody who is going to remain in the old mode of thinking about economic prospects."
The centerpiece of City of Silk will be Burj Mubarak al-Kabir, a 1001 meter tall tower, almost 200 meters taller than the Burj Dubai -- almost twice the height of Taipei 101.
But perhaps the most disturbing thing about Kuhne is his conviction that ONLY his vision is the acceptable one. In fact, when it comes to architecture, his ironclad dictatorship of a development project is essential. There is no room in Kuhne’s world for outside input. In his interview with Baker he glorifies history’s ruthless tyrants:
“Let me say this bluntly. Democracy has a pretty poor track record of building great cities, and a terrible track record of building great civic spaces in cities. Democracy deals with the triumph of everyone within their own property line, not with generosity beyond that line. And the great cities of the world that we travel to see were built by, you know, leaders of armies, emperors, tsars, leaders of churches. They were built by benevolent despots, visionary leaders one and all, who decided that the pageantry of civil life was an essential part of sustaining the genius of their civilization.”
This is the kind of man who wants to put his imprint on one of the most holy pilgrimages in the world...a spiritual center for which Kuhne illustrates no understanding. Forget any chance of sensitivity applied to the Buddhist experience because he has none. This doesn't seem to hinder Mr. Kuhne however. Afterall, he is convinced that knows what is best for us.