Finding Cultural Insight For Architectural Megaprojects

How do foreign architects seek inspiration in a culture that is for the most part private?

The New York Time’s Nicolai Ouroussoff has interviewed four architects (Frank Gehry, Jean Nouvel, Norman Foster, and I.M. Pei), collecting insight on the pros and cons of construction projects in the Gulf; as well as where architects go to seek inspiration in a culture that is for the most part private, a landscape that is more or less barren, and an urban history that is predominantly oral. In this post, we look at some of the more and less obvious factors that govern architectural and  construction trends in the Arabian Gulf.

The interactive feature, titled ‘Blueprints of the Mideast‘, is coupled with a lengthy article, both of which shed light on the role of architecture–of museums especially, in reshaping cultural identity and creating a much-desired cosmopolitanism. The projects highlighted are located in Doha, the capital of Qatar, and Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates.

Understanding A Private Culture

Architects on assignments in the Gulf typically have almost no contact with its private spaces. Frank Gehry commented that, “the realization that this was a very private culture, [and that] they weren’t going to invite me home for dinner necessarily, [made it] hard to figure them out…I feel myself like a blind man feeling his way into this culture.” Most architects will reflect on public space, literature, and visual stimuli to inspire their designs. Therefore, there are two distinct opportunities for local development in a culture where these sources of inspiration are more difficult to access: the region can become more reliant on its homegrown creativity for these mega-projects and/or research companies can step up their role by providing foreign companies with consulting, and trends research that provides an insider’s perspective to fortify the architect’s vision.

Innovating Cooling And Shading Methods

Building in inhospitable desert conditions creates a rare challenge for architects. Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi demonstrates an innovation in shading techniques through its perforated dome whose design produces similar shadows to those that filter down through the boarded roofs of street markets (or souks). The extensive shaded area creates “a public place beyond the museum building itself.” Norman Foster’s National Musem of Abu Dhabi uses cutting-edge cooling technology being piloted in sustainability projects where deep drilling taps into hot water sources far underground and transports that liquid to the surface. Foster then employs geothermal cooling technology to moderate the building’s temperature, a much more efficient and cost effective method.

Turning To Nature For Inspiration

Most nations in the Gulf have a short modern history, while their ancient history is buried in an oral tradition and nomadic culture which leaves foreign architects in the dark, who then turn to nature for inspiration instead. I.M Pei compares designing Qatar’s museum (which is located on an artificial island) to working on the Louvre in Paris–a building that has an irreplaceable role in French history–as a completely opposite experience: “Doha doesn’t have much of a history… you can make your own site, which is something you cannot do in Rome or Egypt.” Jean Nouvel instead, turns to the geometry of crystals and sand roses in a focused design that seeks to reveal Qatari identity.

“The Qatari were nomads. The challenge is to translate the beauty of their origins. These nomads who stopped at the edge of the water found unsuspected resources in the desert that led them to a harsh modernity because the natural gas, oil, and industrial riches are expressed in ways opposite of Qatar’s origins.”

All four architects demonstrate strategies for understanding a culture and then building for it. Despite the various natural, cultural, and technical challenges, they engage in these large-scale projects with great confidence, curiosity, and tactful precision.

NY Times: Building Museums and a Fresh Arab Identity

The National: Norman Foster: Building An Oasis

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