Brain gain: a return of the region’s architectural intellects

Mohamed Makiya, Pierre el-Khoury and Hassan Fathy all have one thing in common: they’re all Arab modernist architects who contributed to the development of the Middle East and North Africa between the 1950s and the 70s.

The mid-20th century was a time of intellectual growth in the region, which coincided with an urban development that was on par with what was happening around the world. Young country leaders were commissioning masterplan projects to megastar architects like Frank Lloyd Right and Le Corbusier, and Arab architects themselves were coming back to the Middle East after their studies, and applying modernist thinking to residential complexes, mosques and general infrastructure.

Regional architects more often than not chose to revive traditional materials and restore old buildings. Lebanese architect Pierre el-Khoury restored several houses in Aley and Aramoun, with his largest footprint perhaps being the basilica at Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, which overlooks the Mediterranean Sea and Jounieh Bay. Alexandria-born Hassan Fathy worked to re-establish the use of adobe, or building material made of earth and organic matter. His artistic vision, which saw the importance of traditional building design as opposed to western layouts, led to his recognition for the Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 1980. And Iraqi architect Mohamed Makiya, known for his extension to Baghdad’s Khulafa Mosque, was considered a master of incorporating traditional styles into modern architecture.

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It’s hard to know when exactly the region’s brain drain started though. Wars, sanctions and resulting poverty and economic distress since the 1990s have had disastrous effects not only on the quality of life and built landscape from Lebanon to Yemen, but they’ve also caused the region’s brightest to establish new roots elsewhere, like Europe and America.

“A recent study done by the Arab League (The Middle East 9/2008) stated that the immigration of Arab college graduates to other countries are causing a ‘brain drain’ in the Arab world,” wrote Dr. Hani Fakhouri, from the University of Michigan in 2009. “It has been increasing dramatically in the past few years. Seventy thousand college graduates immigrate to western countries every year. This number is almost equal to a fourth of all college graduates, which has been estimated at 300,000 per year.” Tides began to change, though, following the Arab Spring. Perhaps spurred by low economic growth in western countries or by pure nostalgia, the brain drain so often associated with the Middle East and North Africa has shown sign of reverse, transforming into a brain gain.

“The Arab Spring was an opportunity for politically active Arabs raised in the West to take part in their countries’ historic transitions,” reported Al-Monitor in 2012. “Sarah Mousa, an Egyptian-American raised in upstate New York, moved to Egypt after graduating from Princeton University in 2010.”

And while architecture isn’t the only sector where the brain gain might be visible, it makes sense that it’s noticeable within an industry so closely linked to urban and social development. The rise of architectural intellects, from Palestine to Egypt, in the last decade has led to research initiatives that look at restoring traditional housing techniques, for example, or architectural projects aimed at preserving derelict buildings that stand as symbols of the great 1970s.

My first issue of Middle East Architect has offered me numerous opportunities to explore the growing group of individuals contributing to the built future of the region. As Manar Moursi, founder of interdisciplinary design and architect firm Studio Meem (whose profile you can read on page 20) put it, the recent years have been a time of great hope for the future. “I graduated from Princeton in 2008,” she said. “I returned to Cairo reluctantly at first, but then embraced my presence here wholeheartedly. I knew Cairo was my pivot no matter how short or long my absences would be.”

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