Sitting at his desk, adorned with a few files packed with information, Nadim Khattar looks up with an air of confidence and, without prompting, starts talking. “We’re involved with the Abu Dhabi Urban Planning Council, and we’re working on creative industries and venues for arts and culture,” he says. As well as being the design director of Middle East projects for Austin-Smith:Lord in London, Khattar is also heading up the Abu Dhabi office of the 62-year-old architectural firm. A new International Arts & Culture sector led by Khattar has been created in Abu Dhabi to cover galleries, museums, libraries, theatres and buildings for cultural businesses.
The firm is now working with the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (ADACH) to restore the Qasr Al Hosn fort in the Cultural Quarter of Abu Dhabi and create an arts and culture centre for the public. “In the 1990s and 2000s, most of our completed projects were in northwest UK. What I bring to this project in Abu Dhabi is the translation of that experience to the Middle East context,” says Khattar.
He says that, over the course of four years, the 16-person Abu Dhabi team and 60-person London team has amassed a compendium of all the intricate details about the Qasr Al Hosn fort in Abu Dhabi, and essentially treated the project like a forensic study. “The negative effect that oil urbanisation had on the heritage of the UAE is a really weighty conservation topic that we have to deal with, because it brings up the issue of the vernacular. Quite a lot of heritage of the UAE was thoroughly changed in the 1980s in a hurry,” adds Khattar.
Khattar pauses and, with a sense of determination, adds: “What’s important is that we have to reinstate Qasr Al Hosn. Not refurbish, but reinstate it to the importance that it has seen in the city and that’s no mean task.” Most of the project is confidential, but Khattar says a cultural facility is being developed in the grounds of the old cultural quarter. He advocates the importance of thorough and rigorous research in completing this project, scheduled for late 2014/early 2015.
Khattar gestures to indicate the models surrounding him in the airy office and passionately stresses the importance of model-making. “We use physical model-making and we illustrate how the design evolved at every stage of the process. A lot of people think computers have replaced models, but we believe the empirical approach to the design can’t be replaced by anything else,” remarks Khattar.
He also says the firm retains all the design models that didn’t make the final cut, with the aim of keeping the design process open. “We get to our final model through a painstaking process,” he adds. Khattar is also adamant on how local culture needs to be absorbed into the architecture. Instead of importing international architects, he believes that developers should look at local firms such as X-Architects, the UAE-based practice featured in last month’s interview.
“It takes a very long time for a western architect to realise that UAE has nothing to do with Ottoman art, and things should not be based on those references,” he says. Continuing on the theme of art and culture in the Middle East, he adds: “The difficulty in producing art and culture in the UAE is that all the archetypes are western. The difficulty is in translating them into a regional or Emirati context.”
He emphasises how Austin-Smith:Lord spent four years trying to make a western archetype palatable to the Middle Eastern context, even though it was admittedly a challenge. “You can cut and paste things, but how do you adapt it to the culture that exists here?” he asks. Since there was very little in-depth study of Emirati culture, the practice has been working with archaeologists, anthropologists, historians, and even musicologists to “learn about music in relation to pearl divers”.
“If you go and design something that’s unbuildable here, that’s stupid. Our aim is to expose Emirati and Arabic culture,” remarks Khattar. He says that the Qasr Al Hosn project will contain a permanent exhibition of some kind and adds: “It’s trying to keep a modern building with a reference to the Areesh or Barashti panels that we build around the fort.” The site currently contains a temporary visitor’s centre providing some of the normal facilities that the ADACH would normally provide.
According to Khattar, a conservation management plan is extremely important and services such as air-conditioning should fit the guidelines set by UNESCO or Iccrom (International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property). He states that Dubai’s commercial art and culture came first and institutions followed, and points to the Traffic Gallery and the Sharjah Biennale.
“When you are designing cultural buildings, as an architect, you are giving the hardware to the client and the software is the programming - the events the client puts on. Sustainability as a word is bandied around quite a bit. In an arts and culture building, sustainability is proven when a building has longevity,” says Khattar. He adds: “Cultural buildings are chronic. If they fail, or succeed, they affect the city. I call this the Bilbao effect.
Although creative industries in the Middle East are in a nascent stage, Khattar believes the market is there. When it comes to zoning a city, he says that a portion has to be dedicated towards cultural industries. “Policies have to be developed to nurture creative industries. You can’t build an iconic cultural development and then leave. Cultural projects are wider reaching than commercial ones, and you have to think about how the project has been absorbed by the city. Eventually this has to lead to a creative industry policy at national level,” he concludes emphatically.