Missing cultural roots

By Romi Sebastian

AECOM’s assistant project manager for the Doha Port project, Romi Sebastian, asks why traditional architecture is ignored today


Over the last decade, the architecture in the Middle East if carefully observed somehow seems to make do without any character. The cities are getting choked in a jungle of concrete, steel and glass.

Architecture here is needlessly influenced by concepts predominantly from the West. One of the more difficult problems for expatriates in understanding the cities of the Middle East is their relative lack of a public realm.

Globalisation has given form to buildings that resemble objects, have match-box designs with unfortunate functional separations. Designs are built burdened by unnecessary stylistic demands.

There seems to be this inherent copy-paste mindset among designers. This advocates methods of tweaking ideas from one cultural context and illogically pasting them onto another. As an architect, I often wonder why there is a perception that any element of the Middle East heritage – be it cultural or spiritual – is identified with the past and backwardness.

Why is Glass considered to be a material that symbolises ‘progress’ in the Middle East whereas traditional and practical materials like mud, clay, limestone are often related to concepts of backwardness and poverty? This process of disassociating with one’s own heritage is a very harmful one.

Designing personality

Being the tallest, biggest and longest does not lend personality to the architecture of a place. In recent years, the idea of building ‘green’ has been imported. I see these as being temporary trends set up to support marketing of related fields of construction activity.

Sophisticated and expensive intelligent service systems are still marketed, sold and applied. The ‘green’ term is certainly abused and misunderstood by most of the engineering empire. Architects now depend much on intelligent service systems to make up for their neglect in the basic building design. If well designed, a building’s skin should be able to breathe when needed, to shade when required and be responsive to the conditions inside and outside it.

One would not require so called ‘Green’ or ‘intelligent’ engineering methods to supplement for a sluggish design process.
Targeting maximum LEED points especially in GCC countries requires more common sense and deeper understanding of the effect. I also urge clients/developers to be open minded pertaining to their LEED vision.

Inappropriate implementation of add-on techniques has more often than not led to cumbersome processes. Advocating bicycle tracks or trying to invest in a rain-water harvesting system in the Middle East are some instances. Inexperienced individuals do not realise that considering these in GCC countries is a waste of wealth, effort and energy considering the facts that lay before us.

For example, the average rate of annual rainfall in the Middle East is significantly less, although ocassionally of higer intensity, but this is not a strong criterion.

By trying to harvest rain in the Middle East, one does not actually collect water. It turns into a scenario of collecting mud, dirt, contaminated water. This water then requires additional  treatment for reuse –  simply meaning one needs to use adequate chemicals and systems to treat it; one requires to spend money for this treatment system; more water is essential just to backwash the filters;  electricity is required to operate pumps and trained manpower to maintain the tanks.

In short, there’s no benefit for this idea but an endless and incessant burden.

While it may fetch you extra points in the LEED ratings, the whole initiative if analysed is a wasteful one.

Common sense

I do agree to the vision of LEED and the benefit of this to people and the environment. However, professionals must realise the appropriate implementation of this is in the right place and at the right time. There is no point in accommodating ample green ideas and techniques and ultimately land up with a building that’s not comfortable to live or work in.

Common sense is the key. Traditional Islamic architecture included many innovative, functional and ecological design principles but none of them have been perpetuated by the new generation architects. As architects, we have to convince the Middle East’s elites and ourselves that the optimistic concept of importing ideas of ’progress’ will only kill the character of a place and its public realm.

The future of architecture desperately lies in logical design, controlled urban growth and in the acceptance of one’s own cultural roots.

Let us then, go back to these roots.

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