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01/29/2014

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

 
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    Jeffrey Ornstein, principal, J/Brice Design International, notes the stark contrast between the remote desert town of 1990 (shown) and the soaring city of today.
    Photograph courtesy of Safwannish/Reddit View larger

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    Jeffrey Ornstein, principal, J/Brice Design International, notes the stark contrast between the remote desert town of 1990 and the soaring city of today (shown).
    Photograph courtesy of Safwannish/Reddit View larger

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    Egyptian American Medical Center, designed by Gresham Smith & Partners View larger

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    Egyptian American Medical Center, designed by Gresham Smith & Partners View larger

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    The Royal Tulip Hotel in Alexandria was completed with the help of 200 Egyptian soldiers in a military-led push to improve tourism to the region.
    Photography courtesy of J/Brice Design International View larger

  • /Portals/3/images/magazine/2014/0214/I_0214_Web_FtrWorld_7.jpg

    The Royal Tulip Hotel in Alexandria was completed with the help of 200 Egyptian soldiers in a military-led push to improve tourism to the region.
    Photography courtesy of J/Brice Design International View larger

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.”


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