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Mon 20 Dec 2010 12:00 AM

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Old school

It is fair to say that development has not been kind to the traditional architecture of many GCC cities, but in the wake of the financial crisis there seems to be an even more pronounced focus both on restoring the buildings of the past, and making sure that the architects of the future learn from traditional design. Middle East Architect sat down with Rashad Mohammed Bukhash, director of architectural heritage at Dubai Municipality, to discuss where Gulf architecture is going, and where it has been.

Old school

Rashad Bukhash sits in his Dubai office on the first floor of Dubai Municipality’s Architectural Heritage Department, a sizable trophy cabinet adorning the wall behind his chair. On the shelves are dozens of books, pamphlets and flyers, featuring pictures of wind towers, museums, art galleries and historic buildings.

Outside, it is a hot October afternoon, and the air conditioning provides a welcome respite, especially since Middle East Architect had spent the last ten minutes wandering the narrow streets and courtyards of Bastakiya. Lost, as usual, among the coffee shops, museums and restaurants of Dubai’s newest-oldest historic district.

It is fitting, since Bukhash is talking about climate, and the way in which the historic houses of Bastakiya are better able to cope with the heat and humidity than many of Dubai’s more modern buildings. The air conditioning may be needed on a hot autumn afternoon, but the thick walls and small windows of Bukhash’s office means it isn’t required all year round.

“It is important that with all that we call green architecture and sustainable architecture, that buildings should be suitable for the climate,” he says. “Look outside, we have sun 365 days a year so we should be exploring solar and natural lighting, and six months of the year we can use natural ventilation. We don’t need just to make glass blocks and towers and that’s it.”

He points to the walls, ceiling and windows of the room in which we are sitting. “This architecture that you see now was not developed in a few years. Over time they were thinking should I put a screen there or here? They were experimenting with things such as putting a small hole in the wall so the hot air will go out and new air will come in. They were thinking about the size of the wind tower, the height. A lot of it was trial and error,” he says.

Not that it was only the architects of the past that experimented with new ways of dealing with the climate; contemporary designers too are making some headway. The best of these projects, however, are those where scientists, engineers, architects and other experts work together to come up with real green solutions.

“I think Abu Dhabi is doing a lot of work with Masdar and so on with sustainable architecture. Many buildings in Dubai are coming up too. Madinat Jumeirah, some of the resorts like the Banyan Tree in Ras Al Khaimah, or Qasr Al Sarab in Liwa,” he says.

“These are taking both, considering both the traditional architecture and modern needs. A lot of architects are working on developing suitable architecture for the Gulf region. It will take a few years to develop, you never finish, but imagination and creativity are always there.”

Most of Dubai Municipality’s efforts have of course been in restoring buildings like the one in which Bukhash now has his office. Indeed, the former engineer grew up just a few streets away in a demolished part of the Bastakiya district that is now part of Dubai Ruler’s Court. Over the past 19 years the department has restored some 150 buildings, including forts, houses, Ajman Fort, Fujeirah and also financed projects in Syria and Marrakech, Morocco.

“In the 1970s people felt that if something was old we had to demolish it and get rid of it,” Bukhash says. “I think awareness started in the 1980s and now in the 2000s it is huge,” he says.

“Our work and the municipality’s actually increased after the financial crisis. Our budget is around 10 million dirhams per year for 15 to 20 houses; it is not costly. Now we are doing much more even, doing some mosques here and there, doing some public facilities.”

Bukhash is firmly on record on his feelings about some of the contemporary architecture of the Gulf, and particularly in Dubai. But just as the Municipality’s work has increased since the financial crisis, so too has awareness and quality amongst architects working in the UAE.

“A lot of the architecture that you see is cut and paste from the architecture magazines, from the internet, for the boom time. The clients wanted the design within a couple of months and build the building within one year and that’s it,” he says.

“Now there is more concentration, more design, more analysis, more thinking about design. This is both about the tall towers, as it is about the villas and houses. A lot of locals now, they are looking to introduce the courtyards, natural ventilation, I think it is better and nicer.

“When the architect is a good architect he can bring a lot of things, but in some cases the level of the architects is not that high. They just come in from different countries and have their own ideas and just apply them without analysing the climate, the architecture, the culture of the people who are living here. In time things will grow better.”

The question remains, however, of how to strike a balance between respecting the past and embracing modernity. Madinat Jumeirah may be an attractive development, but few would want every new development in the UAE to be a pastiche of wind towers, dhows and waterways. We may like to spend time walking the narrow streets of Bastakiya, but most of us choose to return to our modern, high-rise apartments at the end of a busy day.

“But it’s not just making buildings look like the past. We don’t want to imitate completely,” Bukhash quickly replies. “If there is no need for a wind tower we don’t need to put in a wind tower. Nowadays we have air conditioning, so maybe we don’t need it. But, that said, if we can develop the wind tower to bring the air a few months a year and allow us to not use the air conditioning that’s something good.”

The old concepts and initiatives can also be adapted to the modern age, Bukhash explains, so instead of using coral stone and gypsum to build a contemporary wind tower, architects can experiment with aluminium or glass. The modern wind tower at Masdar City, which sucks air into the Masdar Institute’s courtyard, is a good example of this – while the courtyard, another important element of Middle Eastern design, is itself an important attribute.

“The courtyard adds to both lighting and air ventilation. One of the things I like in Medina Jumeirah is the corridor that they have next to the courtyards They open it in the winter and in summer they just close the doors and the whole building will be air conditioned. Things like that are using both modern and historical techniques,” he says.

But aside from historic-looking projects like the Madinat, MEA hazards the question, are there any modern buildings in Dubai that Bukhash likes? What is his favourite?

“My favourite, I have not yet seen in Dubai,” he says, resolutely.

But what about the Burj Khalifa?

“Yes, ok, the Burj Khalifa, because it is iconic but it’s taken again from the traditional architecture – the shape of the desert flower. The Burj Al Arab too was taken from the local architecture, being based on the boat and the sails,” he says

“Also you can find a few buildings here and there. Some villas, that have used the idea of the courtyard in a very modern way, using the glass to get a nice view towards the garden and the pool. When you look at it maybe you don’t feel that it is very traditional, but it is something that is using the climate of the place and getting the best use of the place itself. A lot of these villas can be found in Dubai and Jumeirah.”

As for the rest of the modern towers that define Dubai for most of the world, Bukhash is not impressed. Few, he says, say anything about Dubai or its history, and many were erected hastily during the almost ongoing boom that culminated in the events of 2008.

“When you come Dubai you should feel that this is Dubai, and if you go to Jeddah you should feel that it is Jeddah, if you go to London, you should feel that this is London, and so on,” he explains.

“There is French architecture, British architecture, American architecture, but there is no global architecture. I feel it should always have identity, the same as our dress, our cooking, our language, it is always this identity one should be proud of. It is something that belongs to me and belongs to the land in which I am living.”

It’s an obvious avenue, therefore, for young Emirati designers, particularly since the financial crisis has driven many of the international competitors that flooded to the UAE in the mid-2000s back to their home countries. Indeed, much of the work that the municipality does is to preserve areas like Bastakiya for young locals.

Bukhash used to sit on the board of the American University of Sharjah, which has produced some of the most famous of Emirati designers in recent years. He says that while there an estimated 200 young Emirati architects, only 30 or 40 of them are working as designers, and a further six or seven have developed an international reputation.

“The challenge is great for them because they are Emiratis, so their knowledge and studies should be on a very high level, wherever they choose to study. They need to seek much more knowledge both in the field of architecture and engineering,” he says.

That said, Bukhash does not believe that it is only Emirati, or indeed Arab architects that can push contemporary Middle Eastern design forward. On the contrary, he feels it is possible for anyone who is open to studying the place in which they work.

“We do have a lot of good architects whether they come from within the country or from outside. They studied architecture and they come up with good designs. A good architect can work anywhere. He studies the architecture of the place, he studies the place itself, he designs a building that is suitable for that place,” he says.

“The challenge is to bring forward the identity of Emirati architecture, that is suitable for a climate and our culture. And I think it is coming.”

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