Interview: Tarik Zaharna, T.ZED Architects

Tarik-Zaharna

Marina Mrdjen-Petrovic talks to Tarik Zaharna, Founder of T.ZED Architects, about his passion for developing new and dynamic Middle Eastern contemporary architecture.

Developing what could become a new and dynamic architectural movement in the Middle East, Tarik Zaharna, founder and director of Dubai-based studio T.ZED Architects, has a genuine passion for developing design language, which goes beyond a simple reproduction of past environments.

Of Palestinian origin, Zaharna grew up in Luxembourg before moving to London and earning his degree from the Bartlett School of Architecture. After he graduated, he worked for design firms Urban A&O in New York and Bolles+Wilson in Münster, Germany. With projects across Europe, North America and the Middle East under his belt, Zaharna further honed his design skills. In September 2013, he co-founded Dubai-based studio Anarchitect with Jonathan Ashmore. A year ago he set up his own architecture and design practice, T.ZED Architects, delivering contextually relevant private as well as commercial, projects.

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“There really isn’t a modern Arabic architecture style. There are lots of replications, but they are very gimmicky and shallow and don’t have any substance to them,” says Zaharna. “This is something that we are constantly exploring and investigating.

“One of the things that really defines the architecture of the region is to pay close attention to the social aspects of peoples’ behaviour, what is the traditional way of engaging with people and seeing how it has evolved through time.”

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For Zaharna, architecture is a craft that responds to programme and context, which is, according to him, the second most important element of contemporary Arabic design, as it gives clients a sense of belonging and a sense of depth.

“The development of architecture in the region has come to an abrupt halt,” he says. “I don’t have all the answers, but I’m enjoying the process of trying to figure them out. We take traditional building methods and formulae and we push them to what they would look like in 2016 and beyond, using new materials, new construction methods and detailing.”

Zaharna says that traditional regional architecture, whether it is from the Levant or the GCC, truly pays homage to the local environment.

“Sun path directions affect the position of corridors and hallways, and openings are determined by direction of the wind. For me, these are the components that make up a larger puzzle. Construction contributes to 25% CO2 emissions in the world. As architects we have to be conscious of that and the region is still catching up in terms of efficient building methods. We still pour concrete for towers instead of using steel structures, we don’t really think about passive cooling as much, and water usage is not something that we pay attention to. And these are the things we need to adhere to and study a lot more.”

Referring to the philosophy of Austrian architect Adolf Loos, one of the pioneers of the modern movement in architecture, Zaharna prefers to be called an architect, rather than a designer.

“Although he was an architect, Loos was always designing his buildings from the inside-out. We are designing for human beings most of the time, so we are applying architectural thinking to interior spaces. We don’t just come in and say let’s specify this material, this fabric, this chair, but we also have to think about the wider context, such as who is using the space and what do we want them to feel. These are all architectural formulae that we are applying to both architecture and interior spaces so they don’t feel disconnected and both feed into each other.”

He has been running his business for a year now and commenting on the challenges of being on his own, he says he wants to keep it small and personal.

“I worked for big firms in New York and Germany and I quickly realised that I’d like to be more hands-on. We have a tight setup and I don’t have to think about 30 people or take on 20 projects a year to sustain the company. For that reason, we can be very selective about the projects we do take on. Also, big clients today want the work and the quality from the large offices, but they also want the one-on-one relationship.”

To build up such a relationship, he says it can take up to eight weeks between meeting a potential client and signing a contract. During that time another challenge is how much of the design to reveal before the client finally commits.

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“We worked out a good strategy,” says Zaharna. “We are very cautious about what we give out. We don’t give out a lot of information for someone to take our design and replicate it poorly and build it for a fraction of the price and in the wrong way. But, we provide enough information to get clients excited. Engaging them in a design process, showing them the strategy, some early sketches, and a portfolio of our past projects is usually enough for them to commit. We would charge for pre-concepts, but it goes back to that one-on-one engagement.”

When it comes to commercial projects in the GCC region, Zaharna says that the time frame is shorter while demand is a lot higher. Among his current projects are a residential development in Qatar, food and beverage outlets in Kuwait and two mixed-used blocks in Dubai.

“Our clients are very well travelled and their references are always quite interesting. We shouldn’t design glass boxes and white walls, it just doesn’t work in the region. They want to feel more contextual and relevant and that gives us an opportunity to really investigate what modern regional architecture is.”

One of the recent projects Zaharna worked on while he was at his previous firm, is the Cocktail Kitchen, a new restaurant and bar concept in Dubai’s Jumeirah Lake Towers (JLT).

“For this project the client had a really good vision, fusing food culture with the craftsmanship that goes into making cocktails. We spent about year discussing different locations and JLT was the right place as it is becoming a new location in terms of food and beverage,” he says.

Zaharna says, as an interior architect, the best he can do is to design for longevity, but at the end, it is the client who dictates the success or failure of the project and its future.

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“We are designing for the client’s vision as well as our own vision, but when we hand over the project it is up to them. Initially, space has a huge amount to do with success, but later on, it is really up to the client as to how to run it.”

Design in the region’s hospitality sector is different and fast evolving.

He says: “In places such as Vienna, you have bars that haven’t been touched since the 1950’s, but people still go there. As they become an establishment, people feel that they belong there.”

Zaharna says boutique hotels are something the design industry is focusing on as the luxury market is fully catered for.

The way he sees it, there is a new trend for travellers who want to get more engaged in the city and not just stay in a 5-star hotel.

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