Squat they stand, huddled with backs turned to the ebbing lash of the waves, that lick and slap and tickle their way up and down the basalt sides. Honeycombed protrusions that rise and fall in undulation, a petrified sea that mimics its neighbor. This is no assault, but an eternal battle of resistance against the pressures of the world; pressures that are about to move from sea onto land.
The Giant’s Causeway is one of the UK’s most coveted and special sites. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for 27 years and a National Nature Reserve for 26. Of course, these monikers provide mixed blessings. The benefit of financial backing and provision allows spaces to establish boundaries and conservation to prevent erosion and pollution. However, the celebrity status of these spaces means that popularity soars, and the visitors come pouring in. This not only leads to more fierce protection, but also generates pressure to create sub-sites, providing somewhere for visitors to rest a weary behind and something sweet and hot for bored young minds to fix upon, rather that the piles of rocks they have been dragged to see.
As you may have heard, last year a Mr. Donald Trump opened a links golf course on the Aberdeenshire coastline. The sand dunes there are one of the largest systems in Britain, and consequently a site of specific interest for many. The course was created amid a huge fanfare from the press, the Scottish government, and the local residents, most of whom decided that a golf course in Scotland was as necessary as a sand pit in the desert. The documentary on the subject, You’ve Been Trumped, by director Anthony Baxter, is well worth watching. I found the issue particularly distressing due to the fact that my family have a small fishing cottage in one of the villages nearby. To see this glorious tract of land homogenized and synthesized into a purely recreational and highly artificial creation was rather disturbing. Not because I hate golf, but because it represented something far more sinister than a transformation of space: it represented the destruction of sanctified and special areas, and the jeopardising of their transcendent capacity.
Professor Leonardo Boff states that transcendence ‘means to be independent of, not limited by, and to be free(d) from, not constrained by, exigencies of the moment such as financial pressures, oppressive structures, or authoritarian people. It is to be engaged with and in and within, but not limited by, current social and corporeal reality.’
To build next to areas of natural beauty is rarely an act of necessity—generally it occurs due to outside pressure from companies and figures intent on profiteering from the said transcendent areas, attempting to wring money from places that are not designed or conceptualised, nor ever have been, to create wealth or generate material. Not only this, but – according to Boff’s definition of transcendence – it actively begins to destroy the most important quality of that which it is intending to profit from.
Next in the pipeline is the Bushmills links golf course, plans for which have been passed in Northern Ireland in the last few months. The course will lie a mile away from the Giant’s Causeway, a safe distance you may think. But again, it is not the actual course itself which is the offense.
Rather than the object signifying the problem it is the periphrastic nature of the discourse surrounding the object that provides us with the warning signs. The usual calls to the crumbling economy, the promise of many jobs, the creation of quangos and bodies set up to provide safety measures against the environment provide the buffer against the speculation and analysis of such projects.
These are the hallmarks of a rhetoric that covers the reality that our sanctified spaces are being steadily encroached upon by business interests. The Bushmills golf course, just as the Trump course, is being bankrolled by a US based consortium that, one can only presume, will jet in for intermittent consultation and check ups. As was Trump, they are far removed from the local surroundings, culture and history, and in this disconnection there is the sense of a profound misunderstanding.
The most obvious example of the transformation of holy space at the moment is the construction (almost complete) of the gigantic Abraj Al Bait Towers at the site of Mecca. From aerial perspective these titans look rather funnily like the Giants Causeway: a projection of dramatic erections all cropped together in an otherwise softly rippling landscape. A full description and portrait from Oliver Wainwright and Riaat Butt can be found here. The statistics astound, such is the sheer scale of the project.
But most troubling is the perversity of their proximity. It takes one several moments to let the eye find the Kaaba, the black cuboid at the centre of the Masjid al- Haram. This is the most sacred site in Islam and one of the most visited places in the world, attracting millions every year. To build the second tallest structure in the world exactly next to it is so strange and criminal, in its replacement of the absolute in internal experience and spirituality with the most concrete and brutal materiality. The tower is not helped by the fact that it bears striking resemblance to Big Ben.
Maybe this all sounds slightly tirade-ish, the words from a tetchy and bristling old man stuck in the body of a youth. However, I feel that if I go to a church, or to a mosque, or for a stroll along the beach, I don’t want someone yelling ‘FOUR!’—just as I don’t want someone removing me from bliss to usher me into a slick and shiny palace of ‘progress.’ The environmental impact of the Abraj Al Bait Towers will, just like the golf courses, be revealed in due course, but one can only imagine that irrigation and sewerage will prove a huge problem in the future. And this structure indeed will become an emblem of our time—a time when Muhammed, the unrepresentable, can be represented by the symbol of a skyscraping hotel and our experience of space, once so beautifully introvert, can be rendered objective.