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Sat 20 Nov 2010 12:00 AM

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New blood

Young Architect of the year Ignacio Gomez talks to Middle East Architect.

New blood

Ignacio Gomez is sitting in a break out room in Godwin Austen Johnson’s busy Dubai office, as Middle East Architect’s photographer tries her hardest to get him to smile. “My mother tells me I look too serious in my pictures,” he laughs, as the lens snaps shut and the flash lights up the room. “Nope, still too serious. Again,” says the photographer, shaking her head.

It is fitting, really, because Gomez comes across as a serious kind of guy. He has had an enviable career given his 34-years, having worked with Pritzker prize-winner Jean Nouvel and David Chipperfield, and designed projects from Barcelona to Egypt with firms including Aedas and now GAJ. A father of two, Gomez talks about everything, Dubai, his family, his work with the same kind of intensity – punctuated only by apologies for his English, which he speaks well but which he feels sometimes doesn’t allow him to say exactly what he means.

“In architecture, you begin to reap interesting rewards when you look beyond the obvious, direct answers, which are almost always worthless,” Gomez explains. “When we start a new design project, we are also embarking on a kind of desert crossing, where very often we don’t know what to expect.”

It’s a useful analogy for an architect with a growing body of work in this part of the world. Gomez recently designed a 22 million m2 residential community in Egypt, a development which won Best Residential Project at the Middle East Architect Awards and helped net him the award for Young Architect of the Year. The project will eventually include 72,000 homes, 60 hotels and a marina on the coast of Sharm El Sheikh, and may not be completed until 2020.

The Egypt project allowed Gomez to explore two concepts in which he strongly believes. First, that architects in the Middle East should be more aware of the environment in which they are working, and second, that when designing a building  it is important to look beyond the style and needs of 2010. It is necessary to consider how people will live and work in 2020, 2025 and beyond.

“Our job as architects is to suggest ideas and solutions that represent a significant change in the way we live and develop in this part of the world,” he says. “The figure of the architect seems blurred by the ever-increasing complexity of projects and the amount of multidisciplinary teams involved in the development of a project. But something that we should re-establish is the ability of our projects to become part of the social and cultural fabric of wherever they are implemented.

“It’s in our hands, and that’s one of my priorities in my work,” he adds. “I would not want to look back several years from now and think of this place in terms of lost opportunities.

In this sense, Gomez feels that he has found an obvious home at Godwin Austen Johnson, the Dubai headquartered firm which he joined almost two years ago. Gomez has worked on a number of  projects with GAJ, most recently a competition to design a mosque for the International Design as Reform competition held in Dubai. His proposal, developed with Cesar Bustos, a senior architect at GAJ, was a finalist among the proposals from over 36 countries and was exhibited at the Traffic gallery in Dubai.

“Our concept was simple and went back to basics as a value. A building in which the protagonist was the faith and not the architecture. Architecture as an invisible system, an imperceptible container of an experience without resorting to any artificial, sometimes ridiculous, kind of structural stress,” he said. “Our research was focused on the actual search for what a mosque meant and its importance in the social fabric of Islam. We proposed a building that is hardly noticed, which gets back to the basics.”

Such designs are a far cry from what Gomez was doing in the heyday of Dubai’s construction boom, when, as a young designer at Aedas, he was expected to produce weird and wonderful designs out of a hat. Gomez joined Aedas soon after moving to Dubai with his wife, who was offered a job in the UAE.

“I joined Aedas right at the peak of the boom, and was designing new projects almost every month. I think in less than 18 months I designed 12 projects. It was a crazy time, flying to India to present to a client and then working on the plane back to Dubai to present another design without any sleep,” he said.

But it was a baptism of fire that Gomez doesn’t regret for an instant, and it has filled him with a love for Dubai that the slowdown has done nothing to diminish. He believes strongly that the UAE needs architects now more than ever, and is committed to staying in the country until the job is done.

“The battle of Dubai is to design a twenty-first century metropolis with all the climatic and cultural conditions of this region, just as Manhattan established the archetype for understanding life in the global city of the late twentieth century.”

“The slowdown of Dubai, and by extension the Middle East, has been taken by the western media as a great defeat, but in my opinion the contrary is true. Think about the successive crises that New York has suffered. It got so bad there that the Empire State Building was named the Empty State Building for decades.”

At this point, Middle East Architect’s photographer motions that she’s all done, and Gomez serious demeanor finally shifts as he stands up and says thanks. As we prepare to leave, I ask him about the future. The GCC may be a tabula rasa, the opportunities may be coming back after the financial crisis, but in this place, at this time, how can a young architect ensure that they are doing their bit?

“Work makes the difference,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Work, work, work. Almost everything can be improved upon. To make things happen and to get ahead you need stringent self-discipline.”

Auditorium Dubai Studio City

Location: Dubai, UAE, Year: 2008, Company: Aedas, Project: This auditorium was designed to be inspiring both close-up and from a distance. The main auditorium seats 7,500 and is a venue for musical or dramatic performances. Outside the auditorium is an extensive public foyer, which can be used for exhibitions and public events.

Mosque, Dubai

Location: Dubai, Year: 2010, Company: Own Project with Cesar Bustos, Project: This 5000 m2 mosque, which includes a library and community center, was the finalist in an international competition held in Dubai in 2010.

Doha Marina Club

Location: Doha, Qatar, Year: 2007, Company: Aedas, Project: This 38.000m2 boutique hotel in Doha includes a marina clubhouse, spa and banqueting hall.

Red Sea Riviera

Location: Soma Bay, Egypt, Year: 2010, Company: Godwin Austen Johnson, Project: The Citystars project is a massive 22 million m2 master plan which includes a 12 million m2 zone, including up to 72,000 residential units and 60 branded hotels. The development also includes a marina - which will cater to cruise liners - two golf courses and a wide range of facilities. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2020.

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