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Middle Ground

A look at how American architects and designers are helping to spur a new wave of innovation in the Middle East

By Erika Templeton and AnnMarie Martin

A look at how American architects and designers are helping to spur a new wave of innovation in the Middle East.

The Middle East is a complex region with incredibly diverse people, systems of government, and cultural norms. To understand and address the nuanced needs of the 400 million people who call this part of the world home has not always been easy. International political conflicts have been hard fought and rarely won, and deep-rooted mistrust lingers on both sides of the fence. But our industry offers another side to the story—one of collaboration, cultural integration, and compromise.

a+d ambassadors
Despite popular perception, the Middle East has been a welcoming region for U.S. architects and designers for years.

“They love Americans,” said Jeffrey Ornstein, principal of J/Brice Design International, a Boston-based firm that has been involved with hospitality work in the region for almost two decades. “They want the best, they know they can afford it, and they consider Americans the best.”

The rapid growth of the American Institute of Architects’ Middle East chapter (AIAME) paints a clear picture of just how strong this relationship has become. Established in 2010, AIAME is now the second largest international AIA chapter, and has just wrapped up its inaugural regional conference and design awards.

Indeed, in the years since AIAME was created, as well as in the 20 years prior, we have seen incredible projects emerge from the Middle East, reshaping the landscape at a stunning pace and scale.

Not every country has developed so rapidly, of course. There is a clear distinction in the Middle East between the net oil exporters, like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and net oil importers, like Egypt and Jordan. The Arabian Peninsula, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) they comprise (with the exception of Yemen), claims the most regional wealth, and the most stunning building development.

It was here on the Arabian Peninsula where the modern construction boom found its spark in the dusty desert town of Dubai.

“The Dubai you see now didn’t exist. My first clients in Dubai grew up without running water and air conditioning, and they were major sheiks,” Ornstein said, recalling a city of one-lane roads and a handful of traffic lights. “Now you never leave the urban sprawl from the airport to the hotel [referring to the Ritz Carlton]—and that’s down an alleyway behind 35 skyscrapers.”

Gresham Smith & Partners (GS&P) Senior Design Principal Gregory J. Wieland, AIA, and Senior Healthcare Planner Frank Swaans, AIA, EDAC, ACHA, FHFI, LEED AP, are still in the development stages of their Egyptian American Medical Center project, and paint a scene from that site which sounds much like Dubai in its early stages. “Right now it’s a new area, one that isn’t built up at all. There’s a highway and dirt,” Wieland said of this southern Cairo suburb. “Other facilities have grown up in the neighborhood but it’s not very tightly packed. It’s all sand, very little vegetation if any.”

Through the rapid expansion, there has been a strong aesthetic shift in the buildings, as well as the landscape.

“When I first started going there, the Arabian aesthetic was to mimic European antiquities, badly,” said Ornstein, noting that classic French and British interiors—holdovers from the area’s colonial history—were similarly popular cultural touchpoints. “They also love really slick contemporary. It was very cartoonish and tacky.”

In the early days of development, U.S. designers focused on the slick contemporary side of the spectrum, often to a fault. “Glass boxes” based on American models of design sprang up from the desert faster than designers could stop to analyze the needs of an entirely unique region and populace.

“Look at some of those buildings in Dubai and it could be anywhere, it could be Dallas—wherever,” Ornstein said. But once Dubai established its permanence as an economic force, “there was an awakening.”

“They realized, ‘we have a rich culture of art and antiquities,’ so they started incorporating Arabian art and architecture into their design and it’s gorgeous,” he explained. “Now, instead of building some crappy modern glass block that’s going to look out of date in five years, they’re building things that reflect this beautiful Arabic culture.” PageBreak

social roots
This new sense of cultural ownership did not occur within a vacuum. Just as the skyscrapers rose above the desert and an elevated sense of design emerged, so came a rising tide of individual expression in the socio-political realm.

It is impossible to understand Middle Eastern design without placing it within the context of the cultural upheavals that have taken place in the region—culminating, of course, in the Arab Spring, which began in late 2010.

It was a watershed moment for the Middle East. While prior conflicts were marked by nationalistic clashes against outside forces (the same ones whose aesthetics they had been replicating), the Arab Spring saw the region look inward, and face oppressors from their own governments.

Now, more than ever, Arab citizens are demanding accountability from their leadership and reevaluating how the state should be run. It has been messy. Instability is rampant. Totalitarian regimes are toppling and now the equally messy struggle for democracy is shifting the culture in immeasurable ways—seen particularly through changes in the region’s social infrastructure.

a new season
Three years later the dust is beginning to settle (in some countries more than others), and Middle Eastern nations have been eager to rebuild. Emerging ideas about how to create a more sustainable economy are focusing on previously unconsidered private healthcare options, record-breaking investments in education, and a litany of new hotels and tourist attractions.

According to an annual report from the GCC, which boasts the region’s most stable areas of growth, “after the slowdown neared completion, fresh projects have been awarded at a faster pace as each country vies with the other to attract and retain foreign investors and tourists in a bid to achieve higher rates of sustainable growth.” Newly-awarded building projects topped $65.5 billion in 2013, and are expected to reach $75 billion in 2014.

Developers are now turning to the U.S. to ensure the strategy’s success, and architects and designers are proving to be valuable partners, particularly in the healthcare sector.

“When it comes to healthcare, the U.S. still sets the golden standard in most of these countries,” said Swaans. “Most Middle Eastern countries want their hospitals designed against our healthcare design standards: JCI 2010, NFPA. In that sense it’s kind of easy for us to work in that region because we design their buildings mostly the way we design them here.”

This is allowing American designers to lead the charge from a technological and planning standpoint. The process is giving designers the opportunity to come up with innovative engineering solutions as they deal with the Middle East’s often sweltering climates.

“One of the things that’s most interesting is to try to find a way from an energy standpoint to change at least some of [their existing] notions,” said Weiland. “Some haven’t paid much attention to issues with the climate or trying to protect the buildings from it.”

In developing the Egyptian American Medical Center, for instance, Swaans’ and Weiland’s team researched and modeled various solar shading techniques in order to assess their physical appearance, and their ability to shade outdoor and indoor spaces from the desert sun.

“The result of our research is an integrated solar shade that acts like a supersized, energy-saving umbrella that is completely separate and extends over the entire complex,” said Wieland. “We also elevated the entire structure above the desert floor to enable shaded parking below, and to create a stronger profile image as seen from the highway.”

The Middle East has been a hotbed of innovation in the hospitality sector as well. The region’s developers place a great amount of trust in their American partners, and projects there are marked by an incredible amount of creative freedom to explore and innovate.

“The good thing is there is no follow-up,” Ornstein said. “’You do what you think is best,’ they’ll tell you—totally different from working with flagships in the United States, thanks to brand standards. ‘This is what we like, but you can do what you want.’ That is worth its weight in gold.”

“Never do they say, ‘just do your basic design,’ whatever that is. They want us to stand out,” said Wieland. “Every time we go out and do a project the design expectation is very high, which is exciting for designers. And there’s a compelling reason to go and do it.” PageBreak

the culture of design
That’s not to say these jaw-dropping projects don’t have their critics. As cultures continue to collide in the built environment, some industry analysts have accused American designers of shallow cultural appropriation. Like the “put a bird on it” syndrome found in the consumer décor market, architects and designers, they claim, are covering up the homogenous glass boxes of yore with stereotypical Islamic and Arabic ornamentation.

In an article bluntly titled “Hey Middle East: Enough With the Regional Architectural Clichés Already,” Yale School of Architecture student and Atlantic Cities writer A.J. Artemel cites nearly two dozen projects inspired by sand dunes, Bedouin tents, desert oases, and the like.

“Though many of these new buildings are exciting, innovative, sustainable, and awe-inspiring,” he says, “whether because of the lack of existing context or a pesky contextuality clause in a competition brief, their architects feel the need to resort to clichéd references in order to assure clients and future inhabitants that the buildings relate to their sites.”

But, as was pointed out nearly 20 years ago by Islamic cultural and architectural analyst Kadri M.G. el-Araby in an enlightening essay on the state of so-called neo-Islamic design, this is nothing new.

The fundamental values of Islamic design were first systematized between 965 and 1021 A.D. by Al-Hassan Ibn Al-Haytham, an Arab philosopher, architect, and engineer. The amount of change that has occurred in the region in the 1,000-plus years since would be hard for any one person to grasp. “Thus,” wrote el-Araby, “a persistent dichotomy for Islamic designers has been between preserving and upholding tradition and identity and changing and developing as new materials and construction methods have become available.”

The Islamic aesthetic value, as it turns out, is one of adaptive evolution, and what we are seeing today is just the latest chapter.

Perhaps the critics are correct when they complain about gratuitous ornamentation and replication, but what we are seeing in the Middle East today is part of a much larger story. The buildings represent a conversation between the East and the West, places where the two cultures are able to collide and interact without the need for violence or political unrest.

When we embrace the collaborative process of design between these two regions, that process creates a culture all its own: the Culture of Design, with a capital D. And even critics like Artemel see the value in this development. “So much of the fabric of these gulf cities is new that it forms its own context,” he says. “When so many prestigious and formally adventurous buildings are placed side-by-side, they start to become a new vernacular, a coherent gestalt.”

Already this Design Culture is taking fewer cues from existing cultural histories (American, European, Middle Eastern, or otherwise), by tackling never-before-seen development challenges with previously unheard of cross-cultural teams, and bringing urban infrastructure to soaring new heights in what was once a barren, desert landscape.

These feats are not the result of a single cultural history, but rather a sign of the lessons we are able to teach each other. And while the design community is already applying new lessons to the latest round of development in the Middle East, we can expect the cultural influence of Design to circle back home as well.

“Ultimately what is happening is a kickback, where the U.S. looks at these foreign countries and says, ‘Look at what they’re doing. Maybe we can get some of our own talent to do that work in our own country,’” said Swaans. “We set the standards very high, but in other countries. Hopefully we can start to live up to their standards in the U.S. as well.”