The world’s design critics have noticed that plans for a new stadium in Qatar—built to host the 2022 World Cup—look a lot like what late night comedians call “lady parts.” The undulating folds of the roof that covers the playing field, combined with an almond-shaped opening to the sky above, gives the stadium, designed by AECOM, in association with Zaha Hadid Architects, a uniquely voluptuous profile. It isn’t a radical departure for Hadid, the Iraqi-born architect who was the first woman to receive the prestigious Pritzker Prize. Several of her recent high-profile projects are particularly sinuous in form, like organic material that has been caught up in a wind tunnel. But this time the usual associations that her work elicits—space-age, modernist, otherworldly, techno-futurist—have gravitated decidedly downwards to something more earthy and physical.
This is an awkward moment for Qatar, and everyone involved in the World Cup will assuredly be praying that the label doesn’t stick. Architects who pursue “iconic” sculptural shapes have created for themselves a dilemma: The public will ultimately be the interpreter of those shapes, no matter what the architectural intention is. If you plan a building to be instantly “readable,” like a sign, then you have to be very clear about what that sign says. The idea that this stadium is meant to look like the sails of a dhow—a boat that has for centuries plied the commercial routes that connect the Arabian peninsula with the wider world—may sound good to a design committee. But the world won’t hear your presentation or intuit your thinking; it will take one quick look and render a verdict.
We’ve seen it before with the design for a pair of skyscrapers in Seoul, South Korea. When the Dutch firm MVRDV released renderings of these oddly deconstructed towers, the immediate reaction was that they were a tasteless and sensationalist reference to the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 in New York City. A recent controversy over a church that, from the air, looks decidedly phallic in an almost-graffiti sort of way, is another example of the phenomenon.
And yet the architects have–accidentally perhaps–managed to put forth a design that underscores the larger, and awkward cultural position of Qatar, which wants First World credibility when it comes to design, art, sport, entertainment and infrastructure, but is still deeply tied to a conservative and insular social and religious background. A recent Washington Post story examined how the country treats its guest works, who live in brutal and degrading conditions and yet are the essential backbone for the major building boom that makes Qatar so fashionable. As plans go forward for the World Cup, Qatar has also faced questions over whether alcohol will be allowed, and what will happen to gay and lesbian visitors in a deeply homophobic country.
Hiding in plain sight is an essential cultural compensation mechanism for countries in this region, where the 21st-century has fully taken root, including contemporary sexual mores and consumerist excess. But these things–especially sexual matters–can’t be openly acknowledged, and are sometimes subject to brutal repression. Meanwhile elites from the conservative Arab world are entirely transnational, and have become virtuosos at living different lives in the many worlds they inhabit.
Hadid’s design symbolizes the contradictions of a male-dominated society that wants affirmation from the wider, Western world, where women enjoy substantially greater equality. Myth is one way to bridge the contradictions, with narratives and images of a powerful feminity that predates and encompasses the larger male-dominated world. And in that sense, this stadium feels like a mythic gesture: A challenge for people in Qatar to see yet suppress acknowledgement of the overarching power of women on this planet. As men inside slug it on the playing field, enacting the old bravado of battle and celebrating sport as a proxy for violence, they will be safely enfolded in a protective womb-like space that winks out at the world through its curiously labial roof. And no one will notice, at least not too much.