Contemplating platonic solids

Culture, spirituality and philosophy with Raj Patel, senior principal designer at KEO International Consultants.
Contemplating platonic solids
By Administrator
Thu 24 Jan 2008 07:02 PM

Culture, spirituality and philosophy with Raj Patel, senior principal designer at KEO International Consultants.

Where are the majority of your recent projects located?

I've designed projects in Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman and Bahrain. I think it's important to get around the region. Architects should avoid being stuck or linked to one particular city.

In your opinion, what is the basis of architecture?

Architecture is more than just function. It's about more than buildings that serve a need. There is a difference between building and architecture. The former is about function; the latter is about spirit. It's about trying to capture the essence of a culture or place or material.

The two things that always nag at you in the profession are theory and practice. Those opposing forces still exist today.

The theory is what you're trying to replicate in terms of space, image and idea. Then there is the practice element that says you have to get that built, and when you get it built, you wonder if you lost anything from the original concept.

Is it satisfying to watch your designs become part of a cityscape?

To a certain extent, when a building is finished, it's a bit anticlimactic for me. It's a low period for me because at that point, everything has been captured.

The moment it's built, it ceases to be theory and becomes practice. That first sketch, idea or rendering is what we struggle with; as architects we just hope that they're as consistent as they can be.

Plato says that ‘perfect' spheres or squares or circles belong to the heavens, they don't belong to us. We try to replicate them, but the moment you achieve it, something is lost. I feel that's true in architecture as well.

The conceptual stage is about thoughts, feelings and ideas. Once it's built, it's a commodity. There is a difference between commodity and art.

Do you find that too few buildings in this region have been designed to capture that essence?

As architects, we're no different than artists. Our work tends to be subjective. What interests me, doesn't necessarily have to interest other architects.

A lot of architects try to replicate past buildings or past styles or sometimes futuristic things. If that's what you really believe in, architecturally, that's fine. If you can sell it, congratulations, there's nothing wrong with that.

However, I see a lot of shallow thinking reflected in our cities. You cannot really find a meaningful idea behind some of the buildings here.

It's not about having just one type of architecture, there are many styles that fit here. But I think architects carry the responsibility of not being shallow in their thinking.

If you're not shallow, it won't reflect in your work; if you are, it's going to show. Throughout the Middle East, unfortunately, a lot of these cities are starting to show.

What is the importance of culture in architecture?

If you want a building that belongs, that will withstand the test of time, you have to go back to that cultural essence.

The Kuwait Investment Authority (KIA) incorporated some fundamental principles that will last 20, 30 or 40 years. The notion of a courtyard is one of those. When you're in a Western office building, floors are separated and there is no relationship to other floors. That might work in the West but in this part of the world there is a social value to the culture. There is an importance to belonging to a greater and larger good.

If these cultural details have existed for many years and people respond to them, then they'll continue to respond to them 40 years from now. A lot of the inspiration for my concepts comes from the past. That's one thing that I love about this region; there is so much to draw from.

Because of the rich history in this region, is it easier to work here than in a country with less of a history like the US?

Absolutely. At the same time, however, America offers a history of building type. You can trace the history of skyscrapers back 100 years to the first 12-storey buildings, which were load-bearing and had really thick walls at their base, to the steel buildings of today.

In the Middle East, architects have compressed that 100 years into 10 years. It's very exciting. We're progressing. We're taking the lessons we've learned there and applying them here. Now it's time to add that next layer of responsibility, design, attention and care. We know how skyscrapers work here; now let's think about what they look like.

Has the idea of form following function become outdated here?

No. I agree with it. A lot of architects agree with it. I think a lot of clients don't understand that.

If you give clients a function-driven form, they'll think it's dull or uninteresting. Clients will discount the theory because the form of the building may not be giving them an image that they like.

As architects, there are some credos in which we all seem to agree and ‘form following function' is one of them. It's just up to us to interpret them and add that next layer that is relevant to today.

You have created several award-winning designs. What do the awards mean to you?

When I heard we won the International Design Competition for KIA, I didn't feel my heart skip a beat. We work on a lot of projects and sometimes when you feel like you really nailed a design, you find out you didn't get it.

And it's more frustrating when you find you who did get it and you don't understand their concept. If you are going to become overly excited about winning something then that means that you will also become overly dejected when you don't win; you can't let that sort of thinking control how you practise as an architect.

How much do you care about actually winning?

My belief on this is that as an architect, you should do what you feel is right in your heart. If you do that, you've achieved an inner peace. If you win, you win; if you don't, you don't win. But you've reached that inner peace.
It's not about winning; it's about fulfilling what you thought was important. The awards do mean, however, that someone is starting to share your values. Sometimes that feels very good.

On the KIA building, when we'd found out we won, they told us that we presented the most comprehensive philosophy of the project. They searched deeper to find out how that philosophy led to the product. That's important to me. I don't want to put out a product that I can't understand myself. The best part of winning the awards is that somebody shares the values that we're trying to present.

Is success about achieving inner peace, monetary gain, winning awards or recognition?

I don't know how someone could sustain themselves in a career like architecture if they're just grabbing what they see as the ‘style of today'. As an architect, I don't want to go down that path.

The process is sometimes painful and time consuming but you really need to believe in the work you're putting out there. It's rewarding because I think that has proven true. If I stay true to my vision and values, it will get recognised.

From where do you derive your inspiration?

Travelling is a great thing for architects. When you travel, your mind has the ability to breathe a bit. I often get inspired when I travel because my mind isn't bogged down with one city. If you stay in one city, you're always comparing your work with what you see in that city.

For example, when we were designing Rakan Tower in Kuwait, it was such a narrow building [18 metre-wide façade] but it had to be 30 storeys tall. We were faced with a really difficult question of what to do with that curtain wall.

I was flying into Dubai and as the plane banked to land, I was fascinated by the way the morning sun hit the sand dunes. My eyes froze on it. There was something really incredibly beautiful about that pattern. To me, it looked like one surface but I knew there was more depth to it.

I started thinking that glass is made of silica, and silica is made of sand, so imagine those sand dunes coming into a city and extending up the façade of a building. [In Rakan Tower] We didn't try to mimic the sand dunes; we tried to convey that within a single plane, one can create depth.

Are geometric shapes a theme you try to incorporate into all your project designs?

Yes. The thing about Islamic patterns, and the reason I like drawing on the history of this region, is because unadorned painted walls don't register well with the cultural sensibilities. Islamic art is all about geometry and breaking down a plain surface into pieces that are more intricate, but thoughtfully derived.

The fundamental things that interest me are programme, forms and materials. Understanding the programme leads you to a form, which then leads you to material selection. Forms are very important because there are only a handful of shapes.

I wouldn't call my designs overly ‘modern', I would call them ‘contemporary'. I draw on past values as well as modern techniques and technology. I try to create buildings that belong in this context at this moment in time. To me that's the difference between modern and contemporary.

What is the importance of choosing the right materials?

I'm always trying to build a foundation to my designs. That way, if a client wants to make a change, the whole project doesn't come crashing down.

I want materials to reinforce the design process as much as possible. If materials drive the process and someone wants to take something out or change a certain material, where does that leave you?

Architecturally speaking, what works in this region and what doesn't?

Quite honestly, anything is possible here. Buildings with 45-50% efficiency are possible. In other words, if someone wants a 40-storey tower on a smaller plot where most of the floor plate is core, it's possible. I see all the architectural possibilities in the world possible here.

Things I haven't seen done very well here are subterranean projects. Going below ground makes people, especially women, feel unsafe. Whether they're parking or living, there is a feeling of isolation or claustrophobia attached to these kinds of projects.

Also, one of the most difficult challenges in the Middle East is dealing with the sun, U-values and shading coefficients. The sun is not very forgiving and obviously you cannot use clear glass, and architects love to use clear glass.

Are many of your clients moving away from single-building projects to large scale mixed-use developments?

I definitely see that happening. As travelling becomes more and more difficult, people are beginning to think more about convenience.

If you can't easily go from a residential area to a commercial business district, people are going to want to start mixing them. Cities that are growing this quickly need to offer convenient options for residents or they'll lose them as clients.

On the other hand, because of these large developments, I think the region is opening up to a new type of programmatic relationship that has never really existed here.

Where do the worlds of interior design and architecture meet?

I like the notion of collaboration. I believe that if you have a good architect and you bring in a good landscape architect and a good interior designer, not only will they make your building more complete, but they'll bring a dimension that just an architect will probably never reach alone.

In the KIA building, for example, we did all the renderings and designs for the interior spaces as well. It was so driven by geometry that we couldn't separate the interior with the exterior.

To a certain extent, as in the case of KIA, architects have to control what the interiors look like.

Do you agree with the idea that building ‘glass refrigerators' in the desert is an architectural challenge?

I would tend to agree, but I have to say that I'm very impressed with the glass industry in this region. Over the last six years the developments that have come from that industry are simply amazing.

To sit in an office, in the Middle East, in the middle of the day with the lights on, completely contradicts green architecture. If that's the case, we might as well be in a warehouse somewhere.

In this part of the world, you need to get light in your space. Whether that's through a courtyard or glass façade, human beings need sunlight, both physically and psychologically.

In some parts of the world, the sun is a luxury. The sun in the Middle East is a necessity. As scorching as it is sometimes, it's up to us to figure out ways to dampen its effects.

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