Middle Ground

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.

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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.”

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