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Survey of “Competence” in the Built Environment

United Kingdom Architecture News - Oct 28, 2013 - 00:18   1717 views

Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism in the Middle East by Mohamad al-Asad University Press Florida, 320 pp., $50 (hard) 


Architect and scholar Mohammad al-Asad opens the book Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism in the Middle East by recounting his failed attempt in the late 1970s to study contemporary architects of the Middle East at an American university. Al-Asad had proposed to research the work of Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy (1900-1989), but the instructor of the seminar advised otherwise. The professor did not deem Fathy, or any other Arab architect for that matter, worthy of scholarly attention. But the tables have turned since the 1970s, and architects around the globe view Fathy as a visionary who contributed to the establishment of a modern vernacular architecture. For instance, Fathy’s project New Gurna, a mud brick housing community commissioned by the Egyptian government in 1946 in Luxor, has since achieved international critical acclaim. Al-Asad’s latest book, published nearly thirty years after his university years, is a celebration of Arab architecture and reflects the contexts that he would have liked to research as a student.

Contemporary Architecture features over 100 projects in the Middle East, grouped together in fourteen sections. The volume begins by tracing the reverberations of the two major construction booms that coincided with spikes in the demand and price of oil, the first in the 1970s and the second in the early 2000s. It offers a visual history of architecture in the period of the latter building boom (1999-2009) and also privileges the most resource-heavy building projects in the Middle East. Al-Asad is cognizant that architecture is not restricted to buildings alone and incorporates sections devoted to urbanism into his survey, focusing on public squares, transportation projects, urban master plans, and new cities.

Al-Asad points out that nearly every “starchitect” (winner of a Pritzker Architecture Prize) has designed or built projects in the Middle East: Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, I. M. Pei, Rem Koolhaas, Frank Gehry, and Jean Nouvel. The last three sections of Contemporary Architecture contain the most famous projects by starchitects: the Porsche Design Towers in Dubai by the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) spearheaded by Koolhaas; the master plan for Dubai’s Waterfront City also by OMA and various international architectural firms; and Foster’s Masdar City in Abu Dhabi. The social and cultural value of this architecture is, however, often questionable. Elites in the region, al-Asad argues, have been all too eager to host these architects to illustrate their integration into the global economy. “What a number of such architects often end up producing under such conditions of celebrity status are half-baked solutions that seem to come out of an assembly-line process,” says al-Asad.

Contemporary Architecture illustrates that, under the shadows of the starchitect projects, a new generation of architects working in and from the region are producing structures distinguished by original design and cultural resonance. Beginning at the level of small-scale residential projects, the book progresses incrementally to end with designs for whole cities. In privileging smaller-scale architecture, al-Asad foregrounds the important work of local architects. In contradistinction to other visual histories of architecture in the region, such as Architecture in the Emirates by Philip Jodidio, al-Asad’s book makes a concerted effort to draw attention away from projects by starchitects without excluding their prolific contributions. Al-Asad contends that local architects have been unabashedly forward-looking in their designs, but at the same time, and in contrast to the work of the celebrities, they explore “local contemporary practices in the building industry and adapts them to develop new building techniques and forms, as well as new architectural vocabularies.”

The first chapter presents low-scale housing projects and the work of Hani Imam Hussaini from Jordan and Simone Kosremelli of Lebanon. The two projects by Hussaini and Kosremelli represent how some contemporary architects are continuing the vernacular modernist approaches of Hasan Fathy and Jordanian architect Rasem Badran (b. 1945). Both projects embrace the constructional and visual potential of stone, a historical and locally sourced building material. The renderings and photography in the book illustrate the aesthetic quality of the projects.

In stark contrast to the regionalist approach of Hussani and Kosremelli is Hashim Sarkis’s Housing for the Fishermen of Tyre, Lebanon. The project utilizes the architectural vocabulary of the modern movement and sensitively accommodates the sense of community among the fishermen. The scheme has a defensive design that establishes a protective edge of a four-storey, seven-meter thick building, which wraps around the site. To ensure that this protective edge does not become “an imposing monolithic mass, it is broken into a series of smaller buildings separated by gaps that are used for public circulation,” al-Asad writes. It is noteworthy that Sarkis’s project is placed in the low-scale residential project chapter of the book, for it is in fact lost in the space between low-scale residential projects and high-rise residential projects, which form the second chapter. Indeed, al-Asad stresses the importance of Sarkis’s project and the dire need for more projects that seek to address architectural solutions for low-income housing.

As the book progresses, al-Asad frequently returns, not to the epicentre of the building boom in the Arab Gulf, but to the Levant. Beirut and Amman dominate the opening ten chapters until the book switches to the mega-projects located predominately in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. This is, no doubt, in part due to the inability of local architects to establish a visible presence in the oil rich capitals as the starchitects have done. Indeed, large international architectural firms have dominated all of the resource-heavy projects in the Gulf in recent decades. Local architects that work on signature projects tend to do so as junior partners. Contemporary Architecture presents a strong argument that the quality of architecture produced by local architects should result in an end to the relegation of these firms to junior partners.

The critique of how starchitects have been utilized in the region is as far as al-Asad pursues architectural criticism in the book. Contemporary Architecture guides the reader around the form of contemporary architecture and urbanism of the region but not the content. In a rather awkward sentence, al-Asad says, “I believe that all the works featured here at least reflect an acceptable level of competence in architectural and urban design.” He even makes explicit that he does not want to critique the projects but “inform the reader about them.”

The lack of architectural criticism in the book is particularly perplexing given that al-Asad is a noted architectural critic and even an editor of the 2007 volume Architectural Criticism and Journalism: Global Perspectives. As Indonesian architect Budi Sukada comments in al-Asad’s edited volume, architectural criticism remains taboo in the Middle East. The text that accompanies each project in the book refuses to engage in the messy, difficult, and subjective quagmire of architectural criticism. Furthermore, Contemporary Architecture is missing a satisfactory explanation of what architecture and urbanism actually mean. The great American architectural critic Lewis Mumford (1895-1990) saw architecture not simply as the art of building but the lens through which we can understand our culture and ourselves. Al-Asad is aware that architecture is more than the building but does not reflect on the broader significance of the individual projects that he presents. In short, there is no politics and little history.

Architecture in the region is rarely discussed beyond the fundamentals of economics. While the internet provokes some discussion of built form (the Cairobserver blog being a notable example), none of the major media outlets in the region, in English or Arabic, have a dedicated architectural critic on their pay role or even feature a sustained conversation about the built environment. The lack of criticism in al-Asad’s book does not facilitate the reader’s understanding of the forces that have determined architecture and urbanism. The book is not written for those with a nuanced knowledge of the Middle East. Defensiveness is implicit in the book as it seeks not only to promote under recognized local architects but to also counter the international media’s coverage of the Middle East that often emphasizes “political instability and brewing problems,” according to the author. The book is targeted at readers that are interested in the region’s architecture and urbanism but who may not be familiar with the region’s built environment beyond the work of the starchitects and images disseminated by media outlets, such as CNN.

Contemporary Architecture provides a starting point to gain a basic grasp of the most architecturally prominent built and un-built projects in the region. Through this book, al-Asad has laid the platform for students of architecture around the world to further engage with contemporary architecture and urbanism in the Middle East. It posits that, although architects in the region may not be getting many of the grandiose projects that capture international media attention, they are producing a new architectural language through their work on predominately small-scale residential projects. Illuminated by al-Asad’s book, the reader is given a clear indication of how the region’s built environment could shift to a more environmentally conscious, contextually responsive, and harmonious built environment.

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