Brian Oxspring, director of Oman's Oxspring Associates, speaks candidly about build quality, client agendas and the influence of 'starchitects'.How did you develop an interest in architecture?
I was born in a small coal mining community in northern England. My interest in architecture developed at a very early age. I was fascinated by the pre-fabricated houses built in our community after World War II that replaced the destroyed houses.
I remember the fitted kitchens with built-in appliances that even included gas fired refrigerators. Moreover, the bathroom and separate W.C. at the time was very advanced.
There were double electrical sockets in all the right places, years before appliances were available to stick in them!
Years later the British Government introduced the first modern design guide in 1961 called Parker Morris Standard, which set a minimum criteria for good housing construction, design & facilities.
Those early prefabricated houses fulfilled the criteria adopted in the Parker Morris Report. I took these rather revolutionary standards as a normal requirement in a house.
I have always been drawn to politics and architecture and the idea of using my skills to create places that can influence someone's surrounding for the better. I've always found that very rewarding. How did a British architect come to live and work in Oman?
My first stint in Oman came in 1979, briefly working for Huckle & Partners and Roy Lancaster Associates. I returned to London in 1983 after a two month trip, which was basically a world tour of architecture for me.
Then, while working for the American consultants, Architects International, I returned to Oman in 1990, before starting my own practice, Oxspring Associates, in 1996.
God willing, I hope the future will be good for Oman and I sincerely hope to continue living and working here.
Describe some of the challenges for smaller practices in the region.
In Oman, the municipality and local authorities are more conservative with the architecture they'll accept. That's the reality, but it is changing. There's a slow move toward contemporary architecture, which even a few years ago, wouldn't be accepted.
Invariably, clients and client representatives have their own vision, which is not necessarily the architect's vision. What drives clients are not always the same things that drive architects.Throughout my career, I've seen this happen but it tends to happen more in the Middle East because, all too often, clients don't listen to architects. It's not that clients have their own agendas but they do have a different idea of what constitutes good architecture.
Having said that, it is incredibly frustrating when external forces prevent the vision being realised, but that's life.
As the owner of the business, is your focus more administration or architecture?
We have a small office and I am fully involved in all aspects of design. Clients expect me to personally design their projects and this is what I enjoy the most. I'm not an administrator.
We do a lot of housing, particularly luxury villas, although we are involved with tourism and hotel concepts for international clients, which I really enjoy as well.
What is most exciting about working in this field in this region?
The most exciting aspect of working in architecture in the Middle East today, especially Oman, is in the new willingness to accept fresh ideas.
Oman has always been very conservative, which isn't altogether a bad thing-it's prevented some of the horrors of the UAE from tarnishing its soil-but we do have our share of lost opportunities and mistakes in Oman.
Some of the new developments are really exciting and at the same time humane and low scale. Give me an example of successful architecture in Oman?
The Chedi Hotel, by Jean Michel Gathy, has undoubtedly been very influential and has put Oman on the map.
It's a fusion of Eastern and Arabic influences, without resorting to the usual Disneyesque. It is extremely inspiring. It has had a tremendous impact on me and the work I do. The Chedi Hotel is like a breath of fresh air. In fact, little in the rest of the Gulf comes close to it.
Also, there is a major mixed-use development called 'Blue City' being done by Foster+Partners.
I believe it was designed by a Kuwaiti practice but it's very clear that Foster+Partners did its research before taking over the project. It is an excellent example of a massive project in which the architects familiarised themselves with the history and culture of the region.
What are your views on regional architecture?
The direction of regional architecture has to be towards sustainability. I know it's the new buzz word and most are paying lip service to it, but there are some very exciting ideas and projects on the horizon which, one hopes, will be influential.It is not architecture in the narrow sense of building, but involves lots of other important disciplines like water management, waste management, power, transport and agriculture. Governments here need to do much more to legislate in this direction.
Would you endorse an Omani Green Building Council?
Absolutely. A lot of the European practices share the same concern. The standard of construction practiced in other parts of the world is, generally speaking, much higher than what is normally seen in Oman.
Even local government legislation is far lower than I would accept on my projects. National legislation really needs to move toward more effective solutions for water, waste and power conservation.
Your opinion on 'starchitects' building Middle Eastern cities?
Particularly in Dubai, there is a tendency to commission star international architects to design iconic buildings.
When they're done well, they are influential and have undoubtedly put Dubai at centre stage. The problem is, however, that 'hey, look at me' architecture is not often a serene neighbour.
What are the advantages for clients using local architects?
The majority of architecture is more modest. It is designed by small practices locally based, who have a much better knowledge of the climate, the culture, local materials and craft skills.
Both private and corporate clients benefit immensely from local knowledge and a local presence. Is there a particular design ethos to which you adhere?
I recently travelled to Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand, and I think there is a lot to be learned from those cultures. I can see us moving in that direction in this part of the world.
Actually, the architecture of the Far East is probably a more appropriate model for this region than the Western models we're currently using. The way in which those cultures respond to climate, manage the environment and landscaping is more of what we need here.
Also, the connection between indoor and outdoor spaces is similar to that in Muslim architecture and is something that could potentially influence what is done in this region.
What is the future for Oxspring Associates?
I am optimistic about our future. It is increasingly difficult to attract the right staff in a small practice so we have to search far and wide. Our design direction is constantly evolving and this excites me, particularly if clients share our ideas.
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