Monday, February 21, 2005

Petra's new entrance...

Raiders of the Lost City

Petra is one of the strangest, most beautiful places in the world. Does it really need a tourist centre?

Jonathan Glancey

Guardian February 21, 2005

Raiders of the Lost City Petra is one of the strangest, most beautiful places in the world. Does it really need a tourist centre? Jonathan GlanceyGuardian February 21, 2005
It was 13 years ago that Edward Cullinan Architects won a competition to design a new visitors' centre at Stonehenge. Yet the centre - since the subject of a further design competition, won by Denton Corker Marshall - has still to be built, and the debate over exactly what it should offer visitors thunders on. Who is it for? How "accessible" should it be? Will it simply encourage ever more visitors to this besieged site? Why not just forget the whole thing, close all visitor "facilities" at Stonehenge, remove all mention of the standing stones from tourist "literature" and leave this special place alone for people to discover it as if for the first time?
Because the tourist industry is an invaluable revenue earner, that's why. And because certain historic monuments are etched into our pilgrim mindscape: Stonehenge is one of those sites that has to be visited, a kind of secular Mecca.
Petra is another: the ancient Nabatean trading city carved into the rose-red rocks of what, today, in southern Jordan is one of the world's best-known and most alluring tourist sites. Like Stonehenge, it remains a truly magical place. Like Stonehenge, it can be overwhelmed with visitors. And, like Stonehenge, this Unesco world heritage site is to be fronted by a new £3m visitor and interpretation centre, in this case sponsored by the Jordanian ministry of tourism and antiquities, funded by the World Bank, and designed by Edward Cullinan Architects, winners of an international competition held last year. Now the designs - in association with Bitar Consultants, a local multi-disciplinary design practice, and the British exhibition designers, Land Design - have been completed. Construction is due to begin in early 2006.
The architect in charge of the project is Roddy Langmuir, a High lander educated at Edinburgh and architect of the Archaeolink visitor centre, Aberdeen, and the gateway building to the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. He also worked for eight years on the Cullinan scheme for Stonehenge.
"Of course the project has been controversial," says Langmuir. "But the Jordanian government needs both the charisma and revenue Petra offers. What we've tried to do, as I hope you can see in the drawing [shown above right], is make sure that the visitor centre is tucked into the landscape. You could describe it as landscape architecture: it follows the contours of the site; it is faced, and to an extent built from, local stone. The building won't dominate the entrance to Petra - far from it - but will lead visitors gently in and out of the site without in any way damaging it. We're looking to maintain the aura of Petra as a lost city, a place to be discovered. It needs to reveal its secrets almost reluctantly to the visitor to keep the vital dramatic element of surprise."
The entrance to Petra, hidden deep inside a canyon, is through a famous cleft in the rocks, the Siq. It is best seen just before dawn, not simply to avoid the air-conditioned coach parties that turn up after hotel breakfast time, but to catch the first rays of sun to touch the almost surreally beautiful facade of the 2,000-year-old treasury building as they paint it rose red in front of your unbelieving eyes. And yet the true entrance to Petra is really the encampment town of Wadi Musa, a sprawl of pizza parlours, burger joints, internet cafes, shops selling traditional Nabatean trainers and Bedouin baseball caps, and brassy hotels with endless copies of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, filmed at Petra.
Wadi Musa is a bit of a mess. In an ideal world, the whole joint would be pulled down and replaced by a compact new town built in local stone. In this way, the approaches to Petra would be all but virginal, the city's magic restored. All new development would merge into the mesmerising landscape of this great rift valley.
For a visitor centre to work here, it needs more Petra and less Wadi Musa. The ancient city revels in truly dramatic contrasts between shadow and intense light, between compression and release, as the Siq, in places as narrow as a Venetian alley, opens up into spaces where horses can canter past pedestrians. It needs, as well, to capture something of the reason Petra was here, a defensive location eventually captured by Roman legions but, equally importantly, a secure international marketplace and a source of prized incense that had once made the city rich. It also needs to tell the story of how, in 1812, Johann Burckhardt, a Swiss explorer disguised as a Muslim pilgrim, became the first European in centuries to visit Petra, changing it for ever. Afterwards, Petra gradually became one of the most magnetic of all tourist destinations.
When Petra was made a world heritage site in 1985, Bedouins whose families had lived there for centuries, many in caves, were pushed into new villages that you can see if you climb up the narrow paths threading up from the ancient tombs, temples, colonnades and an 8,000-seat amphitheatre.
All visitors to Petra will need to pass through the new gateway. This begins with a ticket office and leads through five galleries, which can be bypassed by visitors in a hurry to get to Petra itself, given over to various displays and interpretations of the site. The first, adorned with huge reproductions of David Roberts' cinematic watercolours of Petra, will deal with "discovery" - from a largely European perspective. The second, Origins, will be an explanation of why Petra was built in such an exotic location; the third, Living City, will be devoted to displays of how people lived their daily lives in such an unusual place. The fourth, Disappearance, will explain why Petra only ever truly flourished for 400 or so years; while the fifth, Story Tellers, will allow today's archaeologists to show how new discoveries are still being made on site.
Visitors are then free to meet the guides swarming outside by the old Petra gate leading to the Siq. On their return, they climb up a ramp back into the new building, and pass into a drum-shaped tower at the centre of a courtyard garden. Here they will be able to look down on an interactive model of Petra to piece together in their minds the things they have just seen for real. The amphitheatre at the heart of the complex will be used for evening shows and performances, while the long stone wing projecting from it will house offices for the Petra site staff, and archeaologists.
Cullinans will surely give shape to a special and gently beautiful building at Petra. It is what the Jordanian government wants, and who can can blame it? In a world as dreamy as Petra, we might well abandon visitor centres everywhere and leave historic sites for visitors to stumble across. This, though, in a world of 850-seat Airbuses, is not going to happen. The visitor centre at Petra remains, as at Stonehenge, a perplexing challenge for architects worldwide.


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