arch-peace editorials

17 May 2009

Cultural Identity Manifested in Visual Voices and the Public Face of Architecture

While scholars in architecture as an academic and professional discipline may criticize the interest and tendency to place emphasis on discussing building images and facades, I adopt the principle that since architecture is created for the public then examining the public face of architecture is integral to the understanding of the juxtaposition of those images and what they convey and represent. This editorial interrogates a number of discourses on ways in which cultural identity is manifested by debating selected interventions developed within the Arab world. Still, the discussion on whether building images are created as visual voices that attempt to react to the tidal wave of cultural globalization is open-ended. So, there is no claim here that there is a resolution, but an articulation of identity debate as it is manifested in the public face of architecture.

Arab architects are in a continuous process of criticizing their own versions of modern and post modern architecture and the prevailing contemporary practices. Within their criticism, discourses always suggest the recycling of traditional architecture and its elements as a way of establishing and imposing a distinguished character in the contemporary city. Typically, this takes the form of either refurbishing old palaces and public buildings, or establishing visual references—borrowed from the past—and utilized in contemporary/modern buildings. Adopted by governments and officials, there are a considerable number of examples of projects that advocated traditional imaging to impress the society by their origin while boasting the profile of capital and major cities, especially in Egypt and the Arabian Gulf Region. In generic terms, similar to the worldwide tendency, societies in the Arab world tend to re-evaluate the meaning and desirability of building images rapidly. The search for an architectural identity, the rise and fall of ISMS (movements and tendencies), and the continuous debate on symbolism and character issues in architecture are derived from this fact (1,2).

Identity Discourse
In the Arab region, issues that pertain to identity, character, and architectural trends have been in debate for over three decades, more so because of this region’s cultural uniqueness and plurality. However, it is this cultural uniqueness that has made it a tough pursuit and has – in many cases—culminated in a type of symbolism that is painful to behold or comprehend. Some scholars pose the question of the necessity to refer to cultural or religious symbolism in architecture to reflect a specific identity. Others argue for the fact that Arab architecture should embody the collective aspirations of societies in this region. As well, there are many who have questioned the need to debate architectural identity at all, claiming that it merely displays a lack of “self-confidence” as a region or as a group of nations. Reviewing recent practices and debates reveals that we still seem to be at odds with the issue of identity. Images and image making processes do not often address the issue of meaning in relation to the public. This mandates looking at the built environment as a two-way mirror. One way can be seen in the sense that it conveys and transmits non-verbal messages that reflect inner life, activities, and social conceptions of those who live and use the environment. The other way is seen in terms of how it is actually perceived and comprehended by a certain society at a certain time.

Entrances, Concrete Whimsies, and the Conundrum of Context / Content
Can Buildings speak? I argue, yes, they convey silent, non verbal messages, they tell us about themselves almost as if they are speaking. They tell us about what is happening and what ought to happen in them. They may symbolically represent an attitude about what is taking place inside. Building entrances are no exception; they have certain qualities that can evoke a strong image in an observer; they can be inviting or repelling, they really talk but using a different type of language and a different type of grammar. Entrances have the capacity to unleash feelings, trigger emotional reactions, feed the memory, and stimulate the imagination of the public. Thus, the image of the entrance allows the public to anticipate the interior world. In a country like Egypt, there has been a surge in the construction of tourist facilities along the Northern Coast, the Red Sea, and Sinai Peninsula. These facilities are shaping the skyline and waterfront of these areas and examining the characteristics of their entrances is thus paramount.

While the aesthetic qualities of entrances are to be respected, for a complete appreciation one must go beyond the visual appearance and examine meaning and content. The inherent meaning of entrances can stand for the representation of place and/or the representation of the people occupying it. However, entrances of tourist villages have more than that to offer. They have physical variables that carry symbolic meanings that can impart information and enhance legibility in a sense that is not confusing, easy to read, and allows visitors to know their whereabouts (2).

In the entrances examined one can find multiple yet puzzling visual voices within the efforts of their designers to metaphorically reflect certain images or symbols. Some of them simulate the Egyptian culture by reinterpreting the elements of heritage architecture, Pharonic, Arabic, and Islamic, in order to attract tourists. Others simulate classical architecture or introduce images that pertain to the surrounding natural environment. Here, I argue that the designers of these entrances try to use metaphors, identifying relationships between the present and the past, or between the natural and the man-made worlds. These relationships are abstract in nature rather than literal. However, this does not mean they have been successful in addressing the issue of meaning, but they are just offering attempts toward introducing specific visual content for the purpose of tourism.

Traditionalist Approaches
Attempts to translate cultural identity into building images are evident in selected examples in Qatar and Kuwait, where a conservative approach toward the use of traditional imaging is employed. Suq Sharq-Kuwait, as an example of this approach, is a mixed-use development extending 2.4 km along the waterfront, and comprises an entertainment complex, restaurants, a retail complex, speciality arcades, and a new marina (4). An earlier example to establish a local architectural identity against modernism and post modernism was Qatar University campus designed by the late, Paris based Egyptian architect-Ahmed El Kafrawi. The campus is located on an elevated site 7 km north of Doha and 2 km from the Gulf shore. Based on an octagonal unit design idea wind-tower structures are designed to provide cool air and reduce humidity. Towers of light are also introduced and are intended to control the harsh sunlight, and abundant use of mashrabiyas (traditional screened windows) and stained glass. Open and partially covered courtyards, planted and often with fountains, are plentiful throughout the site. The architect placed strong emphasis on natural ventilation, one of the many links in which he relates to traditional architecture of the region. As specific models he used the few still existing wind-tower houses in Doha and modernized the basic principle (5).

Responsive Re-Interpretation of Traditional Images
As the discourse continues on the dialectic relationships between tradition and modernity, the contemporary and the historic, and the high-tech and the environmentally friendly, here I select two important buildings—from the Qatar Education City—that represent physical and intellectual statements: the Liberal Arts and Science Complex designed by Arata Isozaki and the Texas A & M University Engineering College designed by Ricardo Legoretta.

Arata Isozaki is well known for his innovative interventions over the past 30 years and for his deep interpretation of the contexts in which his designs are developed. He designed the Liberal Arts and Sciences building (LAS) which is a focal point for all students in the Education City. Occupying an area of approximately 22000 m2 and developed over a period of 21 months the building is introduced to accommodate the Academic Bridge Program; a preparatory program for enhancing the academic background and experience of high school graduates from Qatar and other countries in the Gulf region. The ABP addresses the universal problem of student academic and cultural transition from high school to the university, but has been designed to specifically address the needs of students in the Gulf region. As a visually striking and architecturally stunning intervention, the building is designed around a theme developed from traditional Arabic mosaics that are evocative of the crystalline structure of sand. This was based on intensive studies to abstract the essential characteristics of the context while introducing new interpretations of geometric patterns derived from widely applied traditional motives (6).

The second statement is by the AIA Gold Medal award winning Ricardo Legoretta who continues in his design of the Engineering College of Texas A & M University to root his work in the application of regional Mexican architecture to a wider global context. Typically, his work is recognizable for its bright colors and the sustained attempts to amalgamate local traditions and contemporary needs. Legorreta uses elements of Mexican regional architecture in his work including bright colors, plays of light and shadow, central patios, courtyards and porticos as well as solid volumes. Over a construction period of 19 months and on an area of 53000 m2 the College was opened in 2007 with a total capacity of 600 users including students, faculty members, and teaching staff. The concept is based on introducing two independent but adjoining masses linked by large atrium; these are named the Academic Quadrangle and the Research Building. The overall expression of the building demonstrates masterful integration of solid geometry and a skillful use of color and tone values.

While these two buildings represent conscious endeavors of two prominent architects toward creating responsive educational environments that meet the aspirations of the founders of the education city and their society, it remains to be seen how the new buildings that are being designed by the two architects in the same campus will fit in harmony—visually, spatially, and functionally—with those already discussed and with the overall master plan of the education city. As well, it remains to be seen how the designs of other world and local architects would contribute to the continuing discourse on global architecture versus the emerging attempts of a culture of resistance (6).

Glocalism Demystified
Another important approach in attempting to reflect cultural identity is in the Center for Environment and Development for Arab Region and Europe, CEDARE, Heliopolis, Cairo. It was established as a non profit institution in 1992, and funded mainly by Arab and European governments. It aims at building the capacity of governments to foster management of environmental resources, and to envision sustainable development policies and strategies.

When looking at the new Headquarters of CEDARE, one can see the practice Glocalism in the sense that it embodies the concepts of global and local and by logic, incorporates a time element, which the two concepts tend to ignore. The design resists immersion in global trends while simultaneously refusing the license to copy and paste from the past. This is clearly reflected in the building image where the façade conveys a message encompassing the positive co-existence of the Arab Region and Europe. This concept is carefully translated as a metaphor into all facades of the building. Two layers of culture exist, the first is the layer of brick that reflects the Arabic culture, and the second is the glass curtain wall that acts as a shell which engulfs the first layer expressing the modern technology of Europe. Notably, the selection of materials defines the possible pattern of relationship between the intended concept and the final building image. The tapestry of interlocking traditional brick layering with glazed blue steel cylinders and the glass curtain wall represents the intersection between traditional/local and modern/global values.

According to CEDARE designers, Ahmed Fahim and Hisham Bahgat, we—Egyptians generally and Caierene particularly—possess multi-architectural heritage that ranges from Pharonic, Coptic-Christian, and Islamic, to the post colonial, socialist, and modern.”(7). Thus, a critical question can be posed here: How to introduce a relatively new functional office environment in the area of Heliopolis that possesses a historic residential urban environment? Would the answer be borrowing and copying from these multi-layers of Heliopolis or Cairo Heritage? Or imitating European architectural trends? Their response to these questions was articulated where the merge of the underlying values of cultures are manifested. This goes along the statement of Charles Correa—which I recall from his speech at the American University of Beirut in 1999 – who warned the architects of the developing world “Do NOT COPY YOUR PAST and DO NOT COPY THE PRESENT OF OTHERS (8).

A Concluding Verbal Voice
Contemporary architecture in the Arab world seems to be a collection of architectural positions that attempt to reflect cultural identity. There are positions that correspond to the history and economy of different localities within the region while many are confused on how to manifest identity in building images. Although there are some honest attempts to tame the urban development process, the overall built environment within this region is increasingly mismanaged. There is hope, found in a few designs, that a solid architectural direction can be created. But I must say that in addition to attempting to establish an identity based on the unique peculiarities of the region in terms of traditional images, it is critical that cultural identity should also emerge and evolve from environmental and socio-economic concerns.


1) Salama, A. M. (2005). Architectural Identity in the Middle East: Hidden Assumptions and Philosophical Perspectives. In D. Mazzoleni et al (eds.), Shores of the Mediterranean: Architecture as a Language of Peace. Intra Moenia, Napoli, Italy. PP. 77-85. ISBN# 88-7421-054X

2) Salama, A. M. (2007). Mediterranean Visual Messages: The Conundrum of Identity, ISMS, and Meaning in Contemporary Egyptian Architecture. Archnet-IJAR- International Journal of Architectural Research, Volume 1, Issue 1, Archnet @ MIT School of Architecture and Planning, Cambridge, Massachusetts, United States, PP. 86-104. ISSN # 1994-6961

3) Salama, A. M. (2006). Symbolism and Identity in the Eyes of Arabia’s Budding Professionals. Layer Magazine, LAYERMAG, New York, United States.

4) Al Sharq Waterfront

5) Salama, A. M. (2009). Design Intentions and Users Responses: Assessing Outdoor Spaces of Qatar University Campus. Open House International, Volume 34, Issue 1, Urban International Press, United Kingdom, PP. 82-93. ISSN # 0160-2601

6) Salama, A. M. (2008). Doha: Between Making an Instant City and Skirmishing Globalization. Special Edition of Viewpoints, Middle East Institute, American University, Washington, DC. United States, PP. 40-44.

7) Salama, A. M. (2001). CEDARE Headquarters: Glocalism and the Architecture of Resistance (English and Arabic). Medina Magazine, Issue 17, Medina Publishing, British Virgin Islands, PP. 32-37.

8) Correa, Charles. Lecture. 2004. In Architecture Re-introduced: New Projects in Societies in Change. Jamal Abed (ed). Geneva: The Aga Khan Award for Architecture, based on a regional seminar at the American University of Beirut.

More in-depth discussion about cultural identity and the built environment are outlined in the following publications:

Abel, C. (1997- 2000). Architecture and Identity, Architectural Press, Boston, Mass, USA.

Antoniou, J. (2000). Tradition and Technology, Architectural Review, Middle East, Issue 4, pp. 23-44.

Baker, P. (2004). Architecture and Polyphony: Building in the Islamic World Today, Thames & Hudson, London, United Kingdom.

Frampton, K. (1983). Prospects for a Critical Regionalism, Perspecta, Issue 20, pp. 148-162

Tzonis, A. & Lefaivre, L. (2003): Critical Regionalism: Architecture and Identity in a Globalized World, Prestel, New York, USA.

Ashraf M. Salama
Architects for Peace, May 2009


beatriz said...

By focusing on the “public face” of architecture, this editorial poses a confronting, profound and very sensitive question. And, if architecture is more than façades and styles, then I agree that the issue goes deeper than architecture.

Can regionalism continue to develop, finding “clever” solutions in accord to its conditions? You have presented us with some interesting examples that would confirm that this is possible, but as you well suggest, this process requires self-confidence. How can architecture achieve self-confidence when societal self-confidence eroded, I don’t know. The warning by Charles Correa is most telling, not only is asking us not to copy, he is also asserting that most of us are NOT the designers of our present. Not a very uplifting note, but something to creatively think about.

Great piece, thanks Ashraf.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Beatriz for your comment. Sure it goes beyond architecture and involves international politics and post colonialism or globalization. I like your reflection on the fact that "most of us are not the designers of our present" and relate to a set of critical questions made by Salingaros and Masden "How can anyone believe that a “Dutch Design Demigod” could know more about a place than the very people who were born and raised there? How can these starchitects espouse to know what is best for the rest of the world? More importantly, how do we combat the aesthetic authority that such individuals now exert over our place in the world?" For full article, please see IJAR, vol. 1- Issue 1: Restructuring 21st Century Architecture Through Human Intelligence.
My best, Ashraf Salama

Anonymous said...

marvelous to read all your thoughts.

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