Middle East public space debated at London’s RIBA

From the launch of Dubai Metro to the recent mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square,  public and civic space is playing an increasingly important role in the Arab world.

The region’s public space was the subject of a recent debate held at the London headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), which brought together six experts from around the world.

The discussion was part of a London-wide event called ‘Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture’ presented by the Mayor of London, and Middle East Architect was in the capital to attend the talk.

Opening up the RIBA-backed discussion, moderator Edwin Heathcote, architecture and design critic for The Financial Times, said: “We are right in the middle of extraordinary uses of public spaces in the Arab World. We are seeing a diverse use of space, from protest to celebration to public execution. The public space is at the heart of everything that has happened in the Arab Spring.”

Speaking as an expert on developments in the Gulf, Nadim Khattar, design director at Austin-Smith:Lord Arts & Culture, added that retail is a crucial consideration for any space in the region.

Khattar said: “The problem with creating a cultural space in the Middle East is it’s hard to find out what that culture is. It’s not well documented. But retail is part of the culture – you have to include it in a public space.”

He remarked that he could not think of any spaces in the Middle East that served a civic function and stressed that a large portion of public space in the region is provided by huge shopping malls, such as Dubai Mall.

However, the mall model was dismissed by Murray Fraser, Professor of Architecture and Global Culture, at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. “Moving forward, the shopping mall is not the model to follow. My money is on the open street,” he retorted.

Khattar pointed out that animated streetlife does exist in Abu Dhabi, and warned that some of this character could be affected by the  grid system that is favoured by Abu Dhabi 2030. He said: ” If you go out in Abu Dhabi at night, there some street corners that seem like places in India, where everything  is happening in one place. The plan for Abu Dhabi makes everything formalised.”

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