Which piece of architecture do you admire the most in the Arab world?
Reda Sejini, Chief architect for Jeddah-based Urbanphenomena: Design and Research: The Sultan Hasan Mosque in Cairo. It was an evolution for architecture in the region, synthesizing new ideas with old ones and presenting a solution that was contemporary for the time. It did not copy, but rather, it evolved and redefined architectural elements and vocabulary.
Imran Afzal, Principal architect for Dubai-based Archcorp Architectural Engineering, answers: The Arab world is amazingly rich with brilliant works of built environment. The range is as wide and varied as the history and the culture. Thus to identify one piece is difficult. I think that the old houses of Yemen are timeless, but more recently there is Badran’s Justice Palace in Riyadh and the Pei’s Museum of Islamic Art in Doha which are outstanding in their relevance to culture and context.
What do you dislike about some architecture that you see in the region?
Reda Sejini: A lack of sensitivity on aspects that relate to the architectural process. Sensitivity towards the environment, socio-cultural considerations, building material constraints and what building users deserve. This is especially vivid in the way we handle our urban environment. Cities in the Arab world suffer from a severe case of urban apathy.
Imran Afzal: Dislike is a strong word. Architecture is reflective of the creative calibre of the architect and aspirations of the client. It’s a serious business because it’s a permanent feature of the urban landscape and costs a lot of money. Yet, some buildings make you think- what an opportunity lost! Also the indiscriminate import of exotic themes in some recent developments was very irrelevant to the region.
How can the region’s architecture improve?
Reda Sejini: In the Arab world we say, “Give each bread to its baker”, which means having the right person for the right job. Once we can clarify the current blur between engineer and architect, the region’s architecture will most certainly improve. This means limiting engineering offices to do only engineering, and not architecture design.
Imran Afzal: We should look beyond the façade. The region has a lot of potential for growth. It’s important that the governments provide comprehensive guidelines to developers and architects, consistent with needs of the end users and sustainable future, without curbing creativity. Cultivating the region’s native architects is an important step.
Will the financial crisis limit architectural aspirations?
Reda Sejini: What financial crisis? We’re in Saudi Arabia, remember? The positive side is that we can break for a while, take a deep breath, and re-think our priorities. It will be a good chance to develop a new vision and ideology of what local architecture should be and what it should achieve. It’s time to develop from within.
Imran Afzal: The slowdown has perhaps given us all an opportunity to reflect on what an architect’s role should be. Restrictions in funds will seed new ideas to achieve desired objectives. Hopefully, we will continue to design even more advanced buildings than he did and find our solutions to the emerging problems. But a limited palate cannot limit creative genius.