February 29, 2012
by Lisa Delgado

nARCHITECTS, ABC Department Store, 2012, Beirut, Lebanon


Event: Change in the Middle East: Preserving the Past, Inventing the Future
Location: Center for Architecture, 02.25.12
Introduced by: Jill Lerner, FAIA – Principal, Kohn Pedersen Fox
Speakers: Suad Amiry – Founder, Riwaq; Khaldun Bshara – Acting Executive Director, Riwaq; Yiannis Avramides – Program Assistant, World Monuments Fund; Pedro Azara – Curator, “City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952-1982;” Mohamed Al Assam – Chairman/Managing Director, Dewan Architects & Engineers; Shams Eldien Naga – Principal, NAGA; Anthony Fieldman, AIA, LEED AP – Design Principal, Perkins+Will; Brian Wait – Partner, Ateliers Jean Nouvel
Moderator: Michael Luongo – Journalist & Adjunct Travel Writing Professor, NYU
Organizer: Center for Architecture
Benefactor: A Estéban & Company
Lead Sponsor: Buro Happold
Sponsors: Eytan Kaufman Design and Development; FXFOWLE
Supporters: Arup; Columbia University, Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; Dewan Architects & Engineers; GAD; HDR; Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates; NAGA Architects; Ramla Benaissa Architects; RBSD Architects; Skidmore, Owings & Merrill; World Monuments Fund; Zardman

The Middle East has long been a source of fascination (and often frustration) for prominent architects, ranging from Le Corbusier and Gropius to avant-garde designers of today, such as Zaha Hadid and Jean Nouvel. “Even in the ‘50s, this region was really interested in developing very visionary approaches to architecture,” observed Jill Lerner, FAIA, president-elect of the AIANY, as she introduced last week’s symposium at the Center for Architecture on design and engineering in the region. But due to economic and political tumult, architects’ schemes in places like Iraq and Dubai have sometimes proven tricky or impossible to execute.

The symposium, titled “Change in the Middle East: Preserving the Past, Inventing the Future,” explored the myriad challenges and successes that architects and preservationists are currently experiencing in the region. The program was one in a series of events tied in to three new exhibitions: CHANGE: Architecture and Engineering in the Middle East, 2000-Present; City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952-1982; and LIVE FEED: Middle East Collaborations, 2005-2012, Columbia University GSAPP+CUMERC.

NAGA Principal Shams Eldien Naga and other speakers commented on Dubai as the site of many of the Middle East’s greatest excesses, in terms of flamboyant designs that, due to the economic downturn, were often never built. He criticized the local tendency to embrace designs that are massive and “iconic,” meaning that they must be unique and reject historical architectural conventions.

Naga and Anthony Fieldman, AIA, LEED AP, of Perkins+Will emphasized that their firms’ designs in the Middle East instead combine a modern aesthetic and traditional elements. Fieldman also discussed his firm’s efforts to make buildings such as the College of Education in Kuwait University City sustainable despite climatic extremes. Currently under construction, the building features a self-shading curtain wall that cuts solar gain by 85%, he noted.

Brian Wait of Ateliers Jean Nouvel presented his firm’s design for the National Museum of Qatar, one burdened by ideological constraints. “The oil boom was to be portrayed as a natural and normal step in democratization of the country, instead of as a tidal wave that wiped out a traditional [Bedouin] culture,” he said. He also expressed concern over the headlong pace of development in Qatar and elsewhere in the region. Qatar’s capital, Doha, is “proliferating out in the desert like some kind of padded, air-conditioned bubble monster,” he remarked.

Other speakers discussed efforts to preserve historic architecture and to improve public spaces in the Middle East, not an easy task in war-torn places such as Palestine, Iraq, and Syria. Pedro Azara, curator of “City of Mirages: Baghdad, 1952-1982,” remarked that one obstacle to rehabilitation in Baghdad is the city’s troubled history. Some local architects feel guilty that they were forced to do presidential projects while Saddam Hussein was in power. To engage in rehabilitation means “to confront with the past, and the past is an ugly past,” Azara said. Many local architects prefer to embrace a tabula rasa instead, “to forget about a past no one wants to confront.”

Suad Amiry and Khaldun Bshara of Palestinian NGO Riwaq said that their organization has adopted a strategy of tying architectural preservation to the creation of new jobs in the area. “Heritage can be a mode of life and a mode of work . . . and it’s a medium for decolonization,” Bshara said. In that way, the region’s rich architectural heritage might turn out to be the key to a brighter future.

Lisa Delgado is a freelance journalist who has written for Oculus, The Architect’s Newspaper, Architectural Record, Blueprint, and Wired, among other publications.