The Mastaba project, a 150-meter-tall monument made of painted oil barrels
The Mastaba project, a 150-meter-tall monument made of painted oil barrels

The era of the megaproject is not over; indeed, it may just be beginning. In a time when new skyscraper proposals seem to proliferate daily, one can't help but be reminded of Daniel Burnham's instructions to architects: "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably themselves will not be realized." 

But not all recent big projects are conventional tall buildings. One in particular, Christo and Jeanne-Claude's proposal for the United Arab Emirates called "Mastaba", is striking in its direct allusion to—and departure from—one of the most significant architectural icons of all time. Originally proposed in 1977, the Mastaba is a truncated pyramid (really a wedge-shaped mass) that will be taller than the Great Pyramid of Giza. Most surprising is the Mastaba's materiality: rather than Egyptian blocks of limestone, it will be made of 410,000 stacked oil barrels. The barrels are to be painted by a German automotive color company in multiple yellow and red hues that will sparkle in the sunlight. "When the sun rises, the vertical wall will become almost full of gold," Christo told the Observer

In this proposal, which has recently taken the initial steps toward realization, the artist famous for wrapping historic monuments will also become known for aping them—insofar as it is difficult to consider the Mastaba without recalling the pyramids. Moreover, although Christo claims that the piece makes no political or economic statement, it will be impossible for witnesses to view the project without political or economic bias. It is easy to imagine, for example, that some critics will regard the work as a testament to the petro-dictatorships of the Middle East. Others will see a spruced-up trash heap that records our civilization's unquenchable thirst for oil. (Incredibly, the U.S. consumes 46 times the volume of barrels proposed for the Mastaba every day!) Yet others will question the environmental responsibility of the work. 

If built, Christo's Mastaba will likely convey a different meaning than the relatively innocent "tribute to Islamic architecture" that the artist claims. This isn't necessarily a downside, though. The world's largest permanent sculpture will inspire just the kind of bold wake-up call we need: a visceral reminder of modern society's insatiable addiction to fossil fuels, gilded in the superficial hues of Mercedes-Benz and BMW body paint.

Blaine Brownell is a regularly featured columnist whose stories appear on this website each week. His views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.