Q&A with La Casa’s principal designer Ihab Nayal

“Born in England, raised in Syria and educated in the U.S.” is Ihab Nayal’s short story. The long story involves a career of movement and drive. Though he worked for various companies in the UAE, racking up a strong architecture portfolio, it wasn’t until the RISD-graduate was approached by long-time acquaintance Emad Jaber to head La Casa’s concept team that he would seem to find his work home. “When things picked up rapidly, that’s when I got nervous,” he said light-heartedly. “Those were the boom years.” During a sit-down with MEA, Nayal discusses his triumphs and shares a wise word or two for industry new comers.

How was it when La Casa was just starting?
It was really nice, actually. The team had just started working, and though Emad rented an office in Burjuman, it wasn’t ready yet, so we were all working in this warehouse in Deira. We were a team of maybe four or five people at the time. It was very cosy in a way. So that’s where we started, but then it
grew rapidly.

How have your responsibilities changed over the last decade?
Well, I started as a designer, and the idea was that I would be one of several key designers and for some reason it ended up that I became the head designer there. So, I started running the department and was in charge of growing and managing the team. Plus, I design my own projects as well.

I come from a very RISD, academic background, but Emad, who I’ve been working with now for 11 years, has really helped shape me as an architect. He comes from the other side of architecture – he’s a civil engineer by profession and he looks at it very mathematically. It was a challenge sometimes to meet halfway. But in time, we grew on each other. The artistic side grew on Emad and the mathematic side grew on me. After a while I began appreciating starting a project from a very functional point of view that meets the client’s demands quickly, but at the same time allows me to mix in my artistic visions. I learned very quickly that architecture is there to serve the client, it’s not there just to serve my own ego.

Is that something you’d tell young architects?
Yes, definitely. Try to put your ego aside and learn from others. What you learn in college is important, but a huge part of architecture is learned outside of those classrooms. The client comes first – which doesn’t mean they’re always right – but they’re always there and they’ll always be a part of the reality. You just have to deal with it. How smart and tactical you are will enable you to bring the right things to the table.

You’ve delivered two high-calibre projects: Dubai Wharf and GV11 in DIFC. How was it to work on those?
They were both special projects for me but for different reasons. Dubai Wharf was special firstly because of the size. Size doesn’t always matter, but when you get a project that gives you a lot of creative freedom and that’s also really big, then that’s amazing. It was also unique because it’s in the cultural district and it was a series of several buildings. We broke up the buildings and designed them with their own identities, but made sure they still went together. GV11, on the other hand, was quite small in size but very complex. There were a lot of challenges and requirements we had to meet, but in the end it was a success.

What are you working on now?
We’re working on a building in Business Bay for Gemini Developers, and a lot of residential projects for Al Ghurair. We’re also working on residential projects near Dubai Wharf, so we’re kind of continuing that territory’s development.

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