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The Architectural Review in the Gulf.

The Architectural Review staged a well attended conference on Sustainable Architecture and Construction in the Middle East at Abu Dhabi on 30 and 31 March. We asked some of the most eminent designers in the Middle East to analyse the area's problems and suggest remedies.

Sustainable design, dealing with efficient use of energy, water treatment and waste management while utilising the latest smart construction techniques, is now an essential ingredient of any new development. Architecture and planning are crucial. Construction as a whole uses more of the world's energy and material resources than any other activity. Perhaps nowhere is sustainability more problematic than in the Middle East, where an abundance of wealth and energy, with few of the restraints found in other regions such as Europe, has resulted in an urban environment that relies almost entirely on artificial support, with little reference to past life-styles which were so well adapted to natural phenomena.

With this in mind, AR organized a conference on Sustainable Architecture and Construction for the Middle East at Abu Dhabi a month ago. Its purpose was to discuss kinds of architecture and building that are economically, culturally and climatically relevant to the region, and to explore appropriate models of development. The conference attracted award-winning architects, designers and technical experts from many parts of the world.

John Gummer, environmentalist and former British Secretary of State for the Environment emphasized that 'buildings of low quality cannot provide the ingredients of sustainability'. In addition to technology, other mechanisms need to be found to use energy efficiently. His view is that sustainability is not an extra cost but a way of improving opportunities.

Suha Ozkan, Secretary General of the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, spoke eloquently on the region's cultural background and contemporary evolution. He concluded that there are examples of architecture conversant with the values of Islam, and that the region has been fertile ground for the development of some of the finest expressions of contemporary architecture.

Learning from the past

In the past the natural world was the guiding design principle in the Arabian Peninsula. Examples survive of comfortable living environments answering human, social, cultural and climatic needs. Decorative and design features were concerned with privacy, security and temperature control. Courtyards and colonnades were both important, the former providing shelter from sun and wind, the latter ventilation and indirect light to living areas; and both offering security and all-important privacy. Doors, columns, capitals, roof parapets, shutters, windows, screens and wind-towers became the motifs of regional architecture.

Vernacular building was based on a simple pattern of life which oil revenues and international trade have altered beyond recognition. In the transition 'from mud village to Manhattan', few traditional buildings have survived except those kept for their historical interest. The vast majority of buildings are around 30 years old.

Khaled Asfour gave the conference what he called 'the dark side of the equation'. He attacked the way in which 'cutting and pasting' has been used in the Arab world - imposing Western building types without considering their impact on the local culture and environment. He also Believed that 'direct copying of the past is as absurd as copying from the West'. His message is that long-term education and research can assist architects to create an appropriate environment for the future tAR March 1998, p52).

The concept for planning Abu Dhabi, according to Abdel Rahan Makhlouf (appointed director of town planning in the 1960s) was to create a modern city based on plans prepared by international consultants, to take on the role of capital of the United Arab Emirates. Today, however, some 95 per cent of plots in Abu Dhabi range between approximately 25m x 15m and 30m x 30m. For multi-storey buildings with an average height of 20 floors, such plots, according to Abdel Al-Radi, a practising architect and town planner in Abu Dhabi, leave very little room for architectural manoeuvre. The result is a stereotyped repetition of building after building with no sense of urbanism. In fact, there is no Islamic high-rise tradition (barring the unique Yemeni examples, which are up to 10 storeys high but not a concept directly applicable to modern high-rise buildings).

Essence of Islamic architecture

Demands for housing have resulted in rapidly built tower blocks, providing maximum profits per unit area for Abu Dhabi citizens (only they are permitted to own land in their Emirate). This has led to poor buildings with a high turnover of tenants, as there is little incentive to sell a house or apartment. In short, the architecture reflects the power of money in a period of frantic development. Under these conditions, consultants from outside the region are the rule, rather than the exception, where 85 per cent of construction is awarded to foreign companies. Inevitably, there is a large number of tower blocks, superficially Islamicized by arches and exaggerated motifs.

Nevertheless, cities such as Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh, Jedda and Kuwait are the sites of some of the world's most flashy buildings, constructed by international architects alas famous for their design ability rather than their understanding of Islamic culture.

On the other hand, more and more Arab architects are being recognized for their approach to design, producing buildings which combine an understanding of traditional architecture with a knowledge of modern technology.

Rasem Badran, who received international acclaim for the Qassr al Kokm Justice Palace and Mosque complex in Riyadh (AR November 1995) spoke on the Poetics of Place, using examples of his work. He has developed an innovative approach to evoke local culture, without slavishly copying past forms of regional styles. His work is based on contemporary design within a framework of precedents, but avoids making a personal imprint on a place or creating an individualistic style.

For Badran, architecture is concerned with culture, society and economics as well as the surrounding environment. The interaction of all these aspects is vital in defining the characteristics of a place. The essence of Islamic architecture for Badran is that it is 'human', answering the needs of the community without neglecting the individual.

Greening the desert

Ali Shuaibi added his voice for a culturally sensitive architecture, showing Al-Kiudi Plaza in his native Riyadh, which expresses Najdi regional forms in contemporary materials. Similarly, the landscaping of the new diplomatic quarter in Riyadh by Richard Bodeker is a landmark in environmental planning (AR November 1989). He spoke enthusiastically of 'turning desert cities into green cities'. In Saudi Arabia, the water used by one person can be recycled to sustain six trees. He was able to reintroduce locally extinct plant species which had resisted dramatic changes and escaped camel overgrazing. This was achieved by sieving the desert sand and incubating the fine dust. Seeds and spores collected in this way from beyond the camel grazing areas were germinated, nurtured and planted in extensive areas of non-irrigated land. In this way radically new yet genuinely self-sustaining ecological systems were created.

Nadar Ardalan embraces the philosophy and mysticism of Sufi traditions and strives to convey a 'simultaneous perplexity', a hidden order by which Islamic architecture is determined. He spoke of the traditional Islamic world-view as 'a unified perception of existence, where there is no separation between the material and the spiritual'.

Abdelhalim Ibrahim Abdelhalim dealt with community architecture, linking the vibrant hut poor community of Sayeda Zeiuab in Cairo to a major landscape project (AR October 1992). The task was to engage the local community in the conception and regeneration of the environment. The design of the park took its inspiration from the geometry of the nearby Ibn Tulun mosque and its minaret. The plan works on two levels: the formal layout, based on the main axis of geometry; and the ceremonial process through the active participation of the community. The main issue for Abdelhalim became how to 'transform the community from passive observers to active participants in the design and construction of the park'. The park is an experiment in retaining the link between the conception and execution of the design to allow the community's identity to emerge. The ideas and images that resulted would not have emerged in the sterile environment of the architect's office.

The role of enlightened clients is equally significant. Patrons of architecture are now better informed of development requirements and show more interest in sustainability than speed of construction. They look for the best expertise in the world, and encourage freedom of innovation and expression.

In this respect, Ken Yeang, a world expert on energy-saying tall buildings, has undertaken many experiments with high-rise structures, using permeable skins that permit natural ventilation and passive cooling.

Tall buildings, by virtue of their size, consume large amounts of energy and materials. However, Yeang believes that a decentralized form of built environment requires even higher energy consumption. His studies show that the greater the intensity of urban population, the lower the energy consumption per capita. There is also a proportional reduction of energy consumption in other areas, notably transportation. Moreover, he pointed out that 'regardless of whether we are for or against the skyscraper, this is a building type that will not simply go away'.

Rethinking urban design

Frank Duffy, on the other hand, told the conference that conventional office organisations are rapidly changing, with consequences not only for the office layout at every scale, hut also for the landscape of whole cities. He advocates rethinking the way offices work. He sees office buildings as bringing people together in new ways which he regards as 'street buildings' or 'office villages': the skyscraper city is virtually obsolete. The design devices that facilitate the way organisations work are clearly expressed in his headquarters of the Arab Petroleum Investments Corporation in Al Khobar, Saudi Arabia.

Obviously lacking in the Arabian Peninsula (and in other parts of the Middle East) is urban design on an extensive scale. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, it is the norm to stand and look at one building complex, without being aware of any link with another. Urban design is tackled at the level of the individual complex, but ill-considered on a city-wide scale. This message clearly emerged from the conference.

In tackling problems of environmental engineering in the region, Tony McLaughlin, partner in Buro Happold, wondered whether it was likely that any building with integrated renewable energy systems would ever see the light of day in the Middle East, because of the region's unique energy situation. 'It is up to us as architects and engineers,' he said, 'to keep putting the opportunities in front of our clients.'

People throughout the region have expressed a strong desire to break links with their impoverished past. They want new buildings designed to international standards, but in accordance with traditional Islamic values. This demand and the rapid pace of development are proving a tremendous challenge to clients and architects alike at the dawn of the twenty-first century.
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Title Annotation:conference on Sustainable Architecture and Construction in the Middle East, Mar. 30-31, 1998
Author:Antoniou, Jim
Publication:The Architectural Review
Date:May 1, 1998
Words:1806
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