GRM 2010 GRM 2011

Abstract Details

Family Name:
von Richthofen
First Name:
Title of Paper:
The urban form as ornament – mass-culture and the politics of the continuous (sub-)urbanisation in Oman.
Paper Proposal Text :
The paper examines the recent urban development of Muscat Capital Area as a continuous urban form. This urban form is at the same time the 'result' of demographic and economic constraints, as it is the cultural 'product' of careful negotiation and aesthetic politics. The urban form, manifested in an expensive urban sprawl, radically and irreversibly changes the environment in which the majority of the Omanis live and work, hence conditions the visual culture.
The politics of aesthetic behind this phenomena are far from coincidental, and yet distinctively Omani, as they set themselves apart from the flashy development in other GCC countries. Less exhibitionist in nature than in the neighboring Emirates, Oman's urban form is nonetheless developing at an alarming rate. At a population of merely 2 million inhabitants, more than 130.000 new applications have been filed for plots in Oman in 2009 alone. Most applications aspire to the principle of the free-standing villa, or palace on the plot, a building type that stand diametrically opposed to social habits, environmental and climatic responsibility and, ultimately traditional Omani culture. This new (sub-) urban form represents a continuous urban-landscape, turning the individual houses into exchangeable pieces of a nation-wide ornament.
The paper borrows from Siegfried Krakauer's thesis of 'The Mass Ornament' developed in Weimar Germany, transposes it from a general cultural critique of literature, theater and movies to urbanism and applies it to contemporary Muscat Capital Area. The concept of the mass ornament postulates that individual contributions (the performance of the actor for Krakauer, the house in Muscat Capital Area) to a larger whole (the development of culture for Krakauer, the urban expansion in Muscat Capital Area) no longer has any impact on the direction of the development itself, if the constraining mechanisms of this development, given its endless multiplication by technology, can no longer be addressed critically. Krakauer's thesis is further underpinned by the works of Walter Benjamin (Illuminations) and Theodor Adorno (Minima Moralia). The 'reading' of urban fabric necessitates a short record of the concept of physiognomy developped by Lavater and the seminal work on the relations of monuments, open spaces and the urban fabric as a play of figure ground by Camilo Sitte.
This process, engendered by the state, exploited by the financial frameworks, broadcasted by the media and imposed without alternative to a generation of Omani citizens can be understood as a passive act of violence. Starting from the built environment, the sublimated subject is permanently conditioned to 'fulfill' his or her role as consumer. Without moral judgment, these aesthetic regimes aim to create a modern Omani citizen. The specificities of the mechanisms at stake in Oman literally redistribute a previously tribal population across the Sultanate. On the cultural level this process creates a generic condition that is at the same time overwhelmed by (Western) visual imports. In Muscat Capital Area architecture and urbanism facilitate the urban form as mass ornament.