Saudi’s Neom is dystopia portrayed as Utopia

The writer is the FT’s architecture and design critic

The first renderings of the new Saudi city of Neom were released last week, depicting a gleaming, mirrored, trillion-dollar channel slicing through the Tabuk desert. Intended to house 9mn residents over a length of 170km, according to the website, no one could accuse it of a lack of ambition.

In 1969, a radical group of Italian architects proposed a plan for a continuous city. It was drawn as a white gridded wall cutting through the Arizona desert, a self-sufficient city conceived as a line a mile wide. The similarities are irresistible. The thing is, Superstudio’s design was a provocation, not a proposition. It was architectural satire on modernism’s lack of a relationship with context. But, like Stanley Kubrick’s interiors in 2001: A Space Odyssey or the eerie, alien-rendered artificial nature of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (both rough contemporaries), the images were so visually seductive they passed effortlessly into the cultural imagination, their dystopian origins transformed into a utopian fetish.

Neom is the ultimate contemporary manifestation of this phenomenon. A city defined as a wall, driven through an uninhabitable desert, hermetically sealed and reliant solely on technology to make it liveable. It wears its mirror walls like the Aviators of a highway cop, impenetrable, expressionless, sinister. It purports to reflect the beauty of the landscape. The ultimate architectural cop-out — a dereliction of duty by designers unwilling to take responsibility for the aesthetics of a megacity.

The inside is, of course, rendered as a bucolic techno-utopia, a valley of trees and foliage, the new Babylon. This is the great contemporary cliché. No matter how huge the building, how hideous the ethics, everything can be concealed by a bit of greenery.

You might suggest this is what our future looks like. We are busying ourselves making our planet unlivable and the mega-rich are already dreaming of colonising outer space. This is a practice run, making an extreme environment safe for humans.

The line, as Neon is also known, wears its mirror walls like the Aviators of a highway cop, impenetrable, expressionless, sinister © NEOM/AFP/Getty Images

Insane as it looks, there is interesting stuff too. I like the old joke about the traveller lost in the countryside who asks a farmer the way to the city. After a pause, the farmer replies that, well, he wouldn’t start from here. Neom is that answer on a planetary scale. If you wanted to build a city of the future, you wouldn’t start in a desert. But as an experiment to address a ruined world (if we can ignore, for a moment, its enormous carbon footprint during its construction), it has its value.

Some aspects are radical. This is to be a city without cars; a train will whisk passengers rapidly from end to end. Will the wealthy Saudis really give up their cars, to sit on a train beside the migrant workers who will keep the city running? Of course not. Volocopters, delivery drones and robot servants are planned — tech-toys for the boys.

The scale of Neom is hard to compute. The walls are 500m high — it is actually an extruded vertical city. So far the visuals are seductively sketchy, designs reportedly by Los Angeles architects Morphosis whose futuristic architecture once looked radical but which now resembles upmarket malls in third-tier Chinese cities. Flitting between the kind of imagery that evokes a dystopian Death Star evil empire, the apartheid architecture of a post-apocalyptic security-city and a rendering of a glamorised and unlikely central business district seeking gullible investors, Neom carries a dizzying dash of techno-optimism.

Despite claiming to be a solution to environmental crises, it assumes the endless free energy of the Saudi oil glut and disregards the consequences. The biggest question though is who, exactly, is it for? Who is clamouring for this city?

Neom might stand with Donald Trump’s wall against Mexico, Buckminster Fuller’s glass dome over Manhattan and Superstudio’s dystopian renderings as the unrealised totems of late modernity — or it might be realised, in part at least. It’s difficult to think of anything more emblematic of our age than a sliver of mirrored desert city crumbling back into the sands, solar-powered drones still darting about its long-deserted ruins purposefully, trying to clean the windows.