As architects flock to both Qatar and Saudi Arabia seeking lucrative contracts and a plethora of opportunities to realise new buildings and cities, it is prudent for clients and their advisers to consider a few things.
They would be wise to bear in mind the experiences of the UAE, as well as analysing the appropriateness of the project for the context along with its sustainable attributes.
As Dubai and Abu Dhabi led the development of international style projects in the region – pinning a place for themselves on the world map as centres of real estate developments and leading architectural projects – they both demonstrated that design can be home-brewed in the MENA region.
It is pressing, however, that clients and their advisers in Qatar and KSA heed the lessons learned by focusing on proper planning, rather than succumbing to the glitzy and flashy architecture, just because it can be realised. This is crucial for ensuring that projects do not stand as empty monuments in the sand.
Large scale developments that look more suited to other leading cities like New York, London or Tokyo, should stay there. More appropriate responses to the harsh climate and regional cultural contexts should be planned, not in the vein of historicists copying from the past, but more as a modern interpretation and application of the concepts that have proved successful over the years. Needless to say, blindly copying projects in completely different contexts is equally inappropriate.
Cities and clients, as with children growing up, make the same mistakes until they mature in their thinking and develop a sophisticated view of their world.
It is crucial to take heed of mistakes made by neighbours, as well as possessing pride and appreciation of a country’s legacy of real estate, and developing a keen understanding of the environmental context, in order to develop responsible architecture and planning responses.
The ingredients for success are all there: well-funded clients in several countries in the MENA region, international design talent, and the need for developments in some contexts. What may lack is the appropriate vision for good planning and the type of projects to be developed.
To be sure, there are visions drafted and being implemented. A reassessment of these ‘vision documents’ is perhaps in order, as well as a more rigorous review of the planning and approval process for new projects.
So what lies ahead? As professionals in the design service industry, we are often not in a position to direct the project vision. But, we bear the responsibility to provide appropriate advice that befits the context.
The burden of responsibility, however, is collective – one that requires clients, their advisers and their design professionals to join hands to develop the region responsibly. It is not too late yet.
Hisham Youssef AIA, is project director at Gensler and a founding board member of the American Institute of Architects’ Middle East Chapter.