Middle Ground

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

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.”

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