By Eirin Gjørv
I was spending time with Snøhetta in Oslo, Norway, working on a different project with them when the invitation arrived from HH Sheikh Saud. The architects were asked whether they would be interested in presenting their unique vision for a gigantic new project – a new city in the middle of the desert. I could hardly believe what I heard. Inspired by the firm’s ability to generate extraordinary and creative designs, I decided to follow them on this new adventure.
I had many questions: What kind of state builds a brand new city? What is the idea behind the city? Where is the money to build the city coming from? Is it even possible to build a new city that people will want to live in? Why did Sheikh Saud want Norwegian architects to design his new city?
The architects warned me that the Sheikh’s invitation didn’t mean they would stay in the competition for long. There was a risk we would max out our credits cards by embarking on this film project and no guarantee that a film would come out of it. But both producers at Lightsource Film Productions, Finn and Arne, agreed that we should take the chance.
Our first trip to Ras al-Khaimah was in July 2006. The architects decided to start with a day on location in the desert. That’s when they developed the idea of a salt-water canal through the desert as a framework for the new city. It was a challenging idea, but perhaps the right kind of proposal for a place with such grandiose ambitions.
We all wondered what the Sheikh’s expectations were. Would he really allow a film team to follow the proceedings of this deal? Nothing worked out as we expected. In the first meeting with Dr. Khater Massaad, special advisor to HH Sheikh Saud, everything shifted. The architects were told to return to Oslo and design the signature building, but not the master plan. The Sheikh’s openness to our presence was surprising. Coming from a country with its own king, we know how difficult it is to gain access, and we had no expectations that things in Ras al-Khaimah would be any different. But all the palace doors were open to us. We were even asked what we wanted to shoot and on the fourth day of shooting we were invited to an exclusive interview with HH Sheikh Saud.
But what kind of a documentary film was this going to be? Now that Snihetta was no longer competing for the chance to design the master plan for the new city could they realistically come up with a building proposal that would be considered an icon? How long would this process take?
Four trips and one year of shooting produced “The Sand Castle.” We had the exclusive opportunity to follow some of the most outstanding architects of our time as they work with the progressive and powerful men of Ras al-Khaimah, working to create change at a speed we rarely have seen before. Though the main characters in the film have very different cultural backgrounds, they all share a creative desire that builds bridges despite cultural differences. This joint creativity made it possible for our small film team to get close to the characters throughout the year as we documented a process that reflects the entrepreneurship found in this Middle Eastern corner of the world.