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Sat 10 Jan 2009 04:00 AM

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Chasing the trio

Hani Imam Hussaini speaks to Sandra Hiari about architectural education, egos, building booms and economic recession.

Hani Imam Hussaini speaks to Sandra Hiari about architectural education, egos, building booms and economic recession.

What encouraged you to pursue architecture as a career?

Some professions have this habit of running in families. In my family, it has been architecture. One of the earliest practices set up in the Emirates was started by my father who was responsible for some of the oldest modern buildings in Abu Dhabi including the Grand Mosque.

We should not think of the slowdown as necessarily something negative. The frantic rush to build has created a lot of excesses, and resulted in many mistakes, which we will spend many years paying for.

My paternal grandfather was one of the first Arabs to earn a degree in architecture or engineering. He studied under the late Ottoman architect Kamal Uddin at the beginning of the last century and worked with him on the renovations of the Al-Aqsa [Mosque] and the Dome of the Rock.

As funny as it sounds, I declared my intention to become an architect when I was five!

As a practicing architect, what do you consider your inspirations?

Architectural history is a river that never runs dry. Victorian London, Mamluk Cairo, twelfth century Venice, Suleiman the Great's Istanbul, and Haussmann's Paris are wonderful examples of human achievement.

These examples all maintain their potency centuries after their builders have disappeared. However, what inspires me most is not so much the form that monuments take, rather the logic and the rationale that lies behind them.

Each one is a pinnacle of architectural and civic achievement, which cannot be separated from the associated cultural, scientific, and economic developments.

Each monument maintains a high level of integrity because it specifically belongs to its own time and place and cannot be divorced from it. These drive me to seek an architecture that is ‘at home' in its environment both spatially and chronologically.

Which three adjectives best describe you as an architect?

The ones that affect my work most are a very inquisitive nature and a strong streak of idealism that is tempered by a dose of realism.

After eight continuous years in the British educational system, what are the most important lessons you've learned?

Doing my first essay in the first semester of my first year, I recall standing in front of the library tower at Cambridge University and tracing its profile as it rose into the sky.

I stood there thinking to myself that a person would need a hundred lives to go through half of the books that it contained. As obvious as it is, it was quite an earthmoving revelation.

In this age of information, the amount of data to which we all have access is limitless. What counts is not what we are able to commit to memory, but our ability to ask the right questions.Once we've done that, we can then apply the appropriate mental processes to find the right answer in this information jungle-or, alternatively-come up with a new one.

You started practicing architecture in London, before moving to Amman. How did that transition affect you professionally?

The eight years I practiced in the UK were at least as valuable to me as my degrees. I was fortunate to have been involved in several high calibre projects that attracted a lot of publicity and won national awards.

Throughout that, I started to understand how the construction industry worked, and appreciate the great levels of efficiency and sophistication that it had reached. You can see that at almost any level: organisational, technological, skills, legislative, etc.

The UK is a post industrialised society. The industrialisation process did not only affect the products they produced, it impacted every aspect of society, the way people think, interact and organise themselves.

The cars, machines and even the aesthetics that we import are merely by-products. The great buildings to which we are exposed-whether they are by Foster, Gehry, or even the Iraqi born Hadid-are not possible had they not had industrialisation behind them.

In Jordan, the first thing I realised was that much of what I had learnt and practiced in London was quite irrelevant in the new context. The Arab world is trying hard to move from a traditional craft-based to an industrialised form of production.

The construction industry, and hence architecture, are in the middle of it all.

The first commissions I received were small-scale residential projects. Through them I asked a lot of basic questions, and tried to come up with some answers that can feed back into the design process.

Understanding and coming to terms with the new context was the major challenge. I was really back in school again.

It was all very exciting, and intellectually very stimulating. It lead me to join a group of colleagues to create The Centre for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE) as a not-for-profit research institution dedicated to providing us with some of those answers.

Unless we do that for ourselves, we will continue to copy and paste from the Western World-and will continue to do so badly.

In the transition, I was concerned that my work is not a Western ‘ready to wear' product transplanted in Arabia, but rather one that aspires to be a genetically modified seed that is allowed to grow in its habitat.

Rarely do we see talented architects join with larger architecture firms in the Jordanian architectural scene since they want to stand out separately. How did you overcome ego issues?

Most large practices are engineering firms with architecture playing a secondary role. This makes it difficult for architects to fit in. In contrast, Omrania has always been architecturally led.Basem Shihabi, our founding partner and managing director, is a talented architect himself who thoroughly understands and remains involved in the design process. That has made it all much easier to blend in and allow me to extend my definition of ego so that it is more inclusive.

Omrania sets its mission to integrate its buildings within their contexts. With offices in KSA, Bahrain, and Jordan how does it respect the locale while maintaining a set architectural calibre?

Respect for context begins with a particular attitude. There is no necessary correlation between that and the city for which one designs. If one understands the specificity of the site and the cultural context, then half the battle is already won.

A recent international award identified a university building in Milan, which was designed by an Irish firm, as the best building in the world. The winning rationale cited its relationship to the city as a particular success.

So why not design across the Arab world if you take the trouble to understand and come to terms with the particularity of each locale? One of my favourite projects for its contextualism is Tuwaiq Palace, which received the Aga Khan Award a few years ago, and was designed in our former London offices.

The Middle East has been witnessing a building boom in the past decade. Now with global recession in the air, what affect will the economic crisis have on the building industry in the region?

There is no question that the Middle East will be affected. I expect that the recession will be gentlest on Abu Dhabi, Qatar and Saudi Arabia which will remain on an upward trend because much of the boom is fuelled by the price of oil and the needs to invest in infrastructure projects.

Countries that were dependent on the availability of cheap and easy credit as well as speculative developments will unfortunately suffer most.

We should not think of the slowdown as necessarily something negative. The frantic rush to build has created a lot of excesses, and resulted in many mistakes, which we will spend many years paying for.

The slowdown should give us the time and space to regroup, reassess, and rethink. The boom exposed a huge qualitative and quantitative problem with our human infrastructure with many doing jobs they were quite unqualified for. We really need to slow down a bit to rebuild them.

Name three things that matter to you most in designing a building.

Firmness, utility and delight were identified by Vitruvius 2,000 years ago. They still hold true. I would just subject them to the filter of integrity because you can achieve the infamous trio and yet have a building that is not ‘at home' in its time and place.

Omrania started sponsoring an architectural award for fresh undergraduates along with the Centre for the Study of the Built Environment (CSBE). What are the implications of being affiliated with this award?

A lot of hard work by students and studio instructors goes into a graduation project. This work has generally remained confined to architectural schools. Omrania and CSBE, both having strong interests in architecture and education, initiated this award.It is an opportunity to recognise and celebrate a well done project. The exhibition that follows is an opportunity to tease projects out into the light and put them on display for all to see: students, architects, and the public alike.

It is a bit too early to expect to see any significant implications from this award. If it has shed a light on education and caused some to reflect upon the process, then that is positive.

If it encourages some students to work a little harder on their projects, to be a bit more disciplined in their creative process, or even to present them a little more clearly, then that too will be positive. We should probably give it a few years and ask ourselves that question again.

Architectural education is stirring attention and, through a competition like this, is being scrutinised by various entities outside academia whose students graduate to join as colleagues. What do you think of this education?

I have heard many prominent architects recall the 1980s as a golden era of architectural education in Jordan when there was a lot cross-fertilisation taking place between schools of architecture and practice.

I did not experience this personally, but a rift has evidently taken place over the last few years and any meaningful cross-fertilisation has all but ceased.

This is dangerous, as each needs the other and cannot survive without it. Architectural practices need the specialised knowledge of academics in the same way that the latter need the practical skills of the former.

It is common practice in the Western world that architects, whether practicing or teaching, span both worlds. Some concentrate on teaching while practicing part time, while others do the reverse.

This ensures that practitioners remain engaged in the academic world of research which provides opportunities for their professional growth, while academics remain connected to the world of practice and its real world problems.

This symbiotic relationship ensures that the skills being developed and honed by students remain relevant to the world of practice.

If chefs were architects in disguise, what would you cook?

It would have to be a sorbet...probably lemon. Although an old recipe from our part of the world, it has a particularly fresh minimalist structure with sensual, almost poetic, flavours.

Sandra Hiari is an urban designer and freelance journalist based in Amman. A graduate of the City College of New York, she has contributed to the Rolex Arts Initiative, the Aga Khan Award for Architecture, the CSBE and the Khalid Shoman Foundation.

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