Learning from the past for the future

A conversation with Ahmed Al-Ali, co-founder of Dubai-based X-Architects, about urban life and residential architecture in the Gulf region

Mr. Al-Ali, you work on architectural projects as well as on city masterplans. What are the main challenges in regard to urban living and urban spaces in the Gulf region?
One of the issues has to do with the short modern history of cities in this region. A big part of the population here used to be nomads. Following the discovery of oil, the leaders of all Gulf countries believed in developing modern cities. This was a first step to build a national state. As a start, these cities were very successful, as an attractor and a place of stability. These seeds have grown to what we see today, with all positive and negative aspects. Positive, because the cities – following models taken over from Europe and the U.S. – immediately reconnected with the rest of the global world. Negative, because these models were based on functional division and on cars and fossile fuels. Today we leave an enormous carbon footprint.

How far are these cities adapted to the lifestyle of the people living here?
There are two aspects to this. The locals are mainly living in the suburbs, while the centre, in terms of residential functions, is rather home to ex-pats. The modern system created a problem especially in the suburbs. The typology there does not really match the cultural concerns, the needs of privacy, and does not respect the inherent social structure. And it is not sustainable anymore. The positive side is that the downtown areas have proven to be very successful. They are globally competitive and they attract people from all over the world. You can live there in a way very similar to any global city . At the same time, local people come there to hang out as well. It's the place where people mix. This attractiveness makes the economy work, locally and globally.

In which way does local residential architecture differ from Western typologies?
It is very different, to be honest. The gender separation is one important aspect, which doesn't exist in Western typologies. The Majlis (a certain room to welcome guests) is a men's territory. The family living areas have mixed parts, but mainly belong to women. Men come from one side, women come from another side, entering other spaces. Zoning is very strict, based on gender and, as a second aspect, on a division between the family and the public. In Western architecture you might have a fusion, expressed by openness or a free plan. This doesn't exist in the Arab housing model.

Does this also concern the furniture? If spaces are less open or concepts of representation differ, the interior probably follows other criteria, too.
Let's put it that way: in big luxury villas, people like the Western model of open spaces, of a representative kitchen – because they can afford to have two completely different zones. One zone has all these elements, including a 'show kitchen'. Then there is another area which has another kitchen – the private one, where the real day-to-day functions happen. If people cannot afford two zones, the separation becomes very obvious. They need one kitchen, and that one has to be private. Also, the furniture definitely matters. We often invite a lot of people. So, if the interior has to be efficient, the furniture may not be 'show pieces' but suitable to accommodate 15 or 20 persons. There are a lot of subtle differences like these.

Do you expect a further global assimilation of the cities or a revival of regional cultures?
The Asian and Western influence on our cities is very obvious and culture will change definitely. Having said that, there are certain ideals or requirements that are specific for this region and they will maintain somehow. I don't think there will be some kind of 'back to the roots'; it will rather be about learning from the past – how sustainable the cities were, how respectful in terms of their environment, social needs etc. There is really something we have to learn from for the future.

Ahmed Al-Ali graduated from the American University of Sharjah, UAE. In 2003, together with Farid Esmaeil he founded X-Architects, a leading architecture and urban design practice in Dubai. X-Architects' work has gained continuous recognition and has been exhibited in international reputed venues like Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in London in 2011 and Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Copenhagen in 2014. Ahmed Al-Ali and Farid Esmaeil have lectured in various universities and institutions worldwide and have contributed to various international publications.


Source: Koelnmesse, reprint free of charge.