arch-peace editorials

20 April 2016


Ashraf M. Salama
Professor and Chair of Architecture
University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, United Kingdom

April 2016

What is now the rapidly emerging global region was a series of oases settlements or fishing hamlets and later small port settlements just a few decades ago.  The relationship between the ruler and ruled have changed to asymmetric power affiliation. From a tribal tradition of people making their decisions about their own environment under a tribal leadership, the ‘Modern State’ became an organizing body and a legal authority that represents the will of its people. It gave itself the right to intervene and make decisions about people’s most aspects of life (1). Guided by the principles of the ‘Modern State,’ the region is in a continuous process of repositioning itself on the map of international architecture and urbanism with different types of expression of its qualities in terms of economy, environment, culture, and global outlook. 

Based on my recent work on Urban Traditions, which is published in TDSR (2), in this article, I reflect on urbanity on the Arabian Peninsula and on some of these aspects with reference to classical and recent discussions on the notion of tradition. The concerned and concerted reactions to the global condition in the form of economic diversification have become an integral component of most national development strategies and consequently led to reshaping the notion of tradition in such a rapidly growing context.

The multiplicity of views, interpretations, and definitions of ‘tradition,’ as a concept, which were critiqued by Nazar AlSayyad in his latest book Traditions: The "Real", the Hyper, and the Virtual in the Built Environment as well as his earlier writings (3), reveal deeper insights into the understanding of urban traditions in the peninsula. The traditionality of the process and that of the product proposed by Rapoport offer insights in this context (4). The outcomes of cultural norms and practices both in the past and the present of the Peninsula involve processes, tribal affiliations, contemporary decision-making capacities, ruling and social systems, and family structures that form integral parts of a process by which the built environment is produced (5). Therefore, the analysis of governance models and social orders and agents within a society become critical when debating urban tradition (6).

Urban tradition is not necessarily representing what is ‘authentic.’ Current practices suggest that tradition could be imagined, manufactured, and packaged, and sold (7), where debates of academics and intellectuals always suggest the recycling of elements of traditional architecture as a way of perpetrating character upon the city. Old palaces or souqs were refurbished to become cultural enterprises and potentially visual references for future practices. This is clearly palpable in the rise of the reconstruction of historical buildings, real or imagined, such as Bastakiya district in Dubai and Souq Waqif in Doha (Figure 1), or commercial and cultural projects developed around historic cores or on waterfront developments such Kasr Al Hokm in Riyadh or Souq Sharq in Kuwait (Figure 2).  These are examples of interventions that utilize traditional imaging at various scales to impress local societies by their roots and at the same time vaunt the marketing profile of the city. More recent examples of urban regeneration that utilize elements from traditional settlements attempt to depict a real or imagined past such as Msheireb urban regeneration project in the heart of Doha (Figure 3). The project was instigated, and is being supported, by the ruling family to create a contemporary national urban image.

Fig 1: Commercial or cultural projects developed around historic cores or on waterfront developments

Fig.2: The recycling of elements of traditional architecture as a way of perpetrating character upon the city

Fig.3: Msheireb urban regeneration: Creating a contemporary national urban image in Doha

Throughout the history of the Peninsula it is evident that most of architecture and urban traditions were shaped by common people without the help of professionals. However, there were series of key incidents that reveal important roots toward understanding the what, who, why, and how of urban traditions in recent years. Since World War I, the peninsula has been witnessing continuous transformations with varied paces of development relevant to the intensity, value, and impact of key socio-political, cultural, or socio-economic incidents. A mapping of these and their relevancy to shaping urban tradition was undertaken (8). While such a mapping may delineate that impact of socio-political structures, it conveys the continuous impact of political, economical, organizational events on shaping the urban environment. Thus, the role of governments and rulers should be underscored.

In the western Arabian Peninsula, along the coast of the Red Sea, the fishing town of Jeddah and its nearby settlements and hamlets developed into a major harbor city. Jeddah was the ancient arrival point for many devout Muslim pilgrims heading to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. Although the western part of the peninsula from Jerusalem to Sana’a was under the control and administration of the Ottoman caliphate from the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century, the influence of the Ottoman rulers on the built environment was rather minimal apart from the importation of certain building materials and construction techniques. The most important cities in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula were Mecca and Medina because of their religious significance and therefore decisive political and religious role. Many smaller settlements were founded in the western highlands and the central plateau, including the fortified hamlet of Riyadh. Riyadh was a traditional crossroads for two important caravan routes, one of which was connected to the coasts of the Gulf, while the other led to more established settlements along the Red Sea; as a result of its strategic location and importance, Riyadh soon developed into a flourishing oasis town.

In the context of their history and the geopolitical location of Gulf cities, astute regional rulers recognized the potential to develop them into viable trading hubs between Asia, Europe and Africa. On the other side of the Peninsula and along the Gulf coast, a number of deep-water harbors have been built in order to increase capacities for global trade. In addition to harbors, international airports have been eventually established then expanded and new airports launched in order to create air cargo and passenger hubs. The development of trade as an essential part of a future economy has been accelerated through the introduction of the concept of ‘free trade zones’ (FTZ) in the Gulf by the Emirate of Dubai. In 1985, the first FTZ was established in Jebel Ali, this attracted many companies because of minimal or no taxation and modern, sophisticated infrastructure. Reduced bureaucratic requirements and less restrictive labor legislation have attracted the interest of international entrepreneurs and investors in establishing businesses in Dubai. Similarly, over the following decade, several FTZs were founded in the Emirate Kuwait, the Kingdom of Bahrain and, most particularly in other emirates in the UAE. The size of FTZs, which have generally been located near airports or harbors, varies large industrial areas such as Jebel Ali Free Trade Zone in Dubai or Science Parks such as Qatar Science and Technology Park (QSTP) in Doha.

One of the unique aspects of contemporary urbanism in the Gulf is the new generation of desert and coastal cities supplied with state-of-the-art infrastructure, partially designed to attract global investment and well-trained expatriate residents that will help transform these newly built shells into vibrant and desirable hubs. As a result, urban governance in Gulf cities has been the initiator and facilitator of space for evolving economic interaction and transnational practices, as for example, recent public investment in the development of infrastructure and the promotion of attractive marketing and branding strategies and perks to attract international attention. This has resulted in the cities themselves becoming brands for investment; today’s regional rulers have found themselves in the role of CEOs managing urban development as a ‘business idea.’(9)
The majority of knowledge-economies that initially relocated to the Gulf in connection with the execution of these ‘business ideas’ have mostly been investment banks and construction-related companies as well as international branch campuses.

Fig. 4: New Mixed Use and Residential Districts in Dubai (top) and Doha (bottom)

As a direct consequence of the growing role of the private sector in urban development, major developers have started to operate as managers of large-scale developments and blueprints, in the form of new housing districts, business parks and mixed-use projects  (Figure 4). One interesting transformation is the fact that the public sector has now taken over the government’s former function of organizing and developing the infrastructural supply of these projects. However, all decisions related to the major planning of developments and the distribution of land have remained in the hands of the rulers and their top officials, many of whom have become direct or indirect associates and sponsors of these developments. Although planning authorities remain in control at the helm, real estate developers have more freedom and opportunities to design and implement development master plans individually with far fewer restrictions. This new decentralized form of governance, based on case-by-case decision-making, has led to new dynamics in urban developments and rapid growth on one hand, and an increasing lack of infrastructural consolidation on the other. In essence, in most cities in the Gulf, the liberalization and opening up of markets driven by a hub vision, in combination with large-scale public investments, has resulted in and impacted on a new urban transformation process.

At the dawn of the new millennium, regional rulers, decision-makers, and top government officials started to demonstrate a stronger and more attentive interest in architecture, urban development projects and real estate investment; this concerted interest and attention have resulted in a new influential phase impacting on the development of architecture and urbanism in the Arabian Peninsula over the past two decades. With such a focused and vested interest and investment, it can be argued that there is a dramatic departure from the typical understanding of tradition which is created by and for ordinary people to an emerging understanding that present itself at the interface between the authority and the public. Today, many cities are experiencing rapid growth coupled with fast track urbanization processes; this is marked by large-scale projects, new educational and residential environments, and mixed-use developments that serve specific segments of society; the rich and affluent rather than the masses (10).

Image credits:
·       1.a. (Courtesy of Aga Khan Award for Architecture, Geneva, Switzerland.
·       1.b. (Courtesy of Archnet-IJAR 2007 from an article by K. Asfour, Volume 1, Issue 1)
·       2.a. & b. (A. Salama 2016)
·       3. (Courtesy of Msheireb Properties, 2011).
·       4. top and bottom (A. Salama, 2015).

Notes / References
1.      A. M. Salama. Urban traditions in the contemporary lived space of cities on the Arabian Peninsula. Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, 27(1) (2015), pp.21-39.

2.      B. Hindess, Discourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996), and C. Pierson, The Modern State (London: Routledge, 1996).  See also A. Al-Lahham. Traditionalism or traditiona-Lieism: Authentication or fabrication? ArchNet-IJAR: International Journal of Architectural Research, 8(3) (2014), pp.64-73.

3.      N. AlSayyad, Traditions: The ‘Real’, the Hyper, and the Virtual in the Built Environment, (London: Routledge, 2014), p.30 and N. AlSayyad and E. Tomlinson, "Traditional Environments," in Encyclopedia of Life Support Systems, (Isle of Man, UK: Eolss Publishers Co Ltd, 2011).
4.      A. Rapoport, “On the Attributes of Tradition,” in N. AlSayyad and J. P. Bourdier (eds.), Dwellings, Settlements, and Tradition: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1989), pp. 77-105.
5.        Suggesting an analogy between the spatial formation and social construction Janet Abu-Lughod emphasized the process aspect of tradition, and introduced the term ‘traditioning’ to denote the series of actions that ultimately create an environment. See J. Abu-Lughod. “Disappearing Dichotomies: First World-Third World; Traditional-Modern,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol.3, No.2 (1992), pp.7-12.
6.     Implicitly and explicitly in various contexts within the Arab World, scholars over the past decade or so have instigated discussions and offered examples on social governance delineating its value in understanding urban traditions. See M. Khechen, “Beyond the Spectacle: Al-Saha Village, Beirut,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol.19, No.1 (2007), pp.7-21, and M. G. Abdelmonem, “The Practice of Home in Old Cairo: Towards Socio-Spatial Models of Sustainable Living,” Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 23, No.2 (2012), pp.35-50.
7.      Dismissing the assumption that tradition represents the authentic product of a community, Alsayyad proposed that tradition could also be catalogued, packaged, imagined, and sold. Still, he maintained that traditional environments continue to represent places where real social encounters take place. See N. AlSayyad, “Global Norms and Urban Forms in the Age of Tourism.” In N. AlSayyad (ed.), Consuming Tradition-Manufacturing Heritage  (London: Routledge, 2001), pp.1-33.
8.      I was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture in Bahrain and the Arab Center in Beirut commissioned a study of the evolution of architecture and urbanism in the peninsula to the author. The study revealed that key socio-political events and institutional decisions have had direct dramatic impact on urbanism.  Key findings of this study are included in the Kingdom of Bahrain’s Catalogue Pavailion in Venice Architecture Biennale 2014. See A. M. Salama, “A Century of Architecture in the Arabian Peninsula: Evolving Isms and Multiple Architectural Identities in a Growing Region,” in G. Arbid (ed.), Architecture from the Arab world (1914-2014): A Selection (Ministry of Culture, 2014), pp. 137-143.
9.      M. Davis, “Sand, Fear and Money in Dubai,” in M. Davis and D.B. Monk (eds), Evil Paradises: Dreamworlds of Neoliberalism (New York, NY: The New Press) pp. 49–67.
10.  New large-scale interventions intended for rich locals and high profile expatriate communities are on the rise from Abu- Dhabi’s Saadiyat Island Development to Bahrain Financial Harbour, and from Kuwait’s City of Silk to Qatar’s City of the Future, Lusail.


Dr. Ashraf M. Salama is full professor of architecture and Chair of the Department of Architecture, University of Strathclyde Glasgow, United Kingdom since 2014. He was the founding Chair of the Department of Architecture and Urban Planning at Qatar University, Doha, Qatar (2009-2014) and was a Reader in Architecture at Queen’s University Belfast (2008-2009).  He is a fellow of the Higher Education Academy-FHEA and the Royal Society of the Arts-FRSA. He holds B.Arch, M.Arch, and Ph.D. from the Al Azhar University in Egypt and North Carolina State University, USA (1987, 1991, 1996). He has held permanent, tenured, and visiting positions in Egypt, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. With varied experience in academic research, teaching, design and research based consultancy, Professor Salama bridges theory and design and pedagogy and practice in his professional activities. He was the Director of Consulting at Adams Group Architects in Charlotte, North Carolina (2001-2004).  Professor Salama has written numerous articles and papers in the international refereed press; authored and co-edited nine books: New Trends in Architectural Education: Designing the Design Studio (North Carolina, USA), Human Factors in Environmental Design (Cairo, Egypt), “Architectural Education Today: Cross-Cultural Perspectives” (Lausanne, Switzerland), Architecture as Language of Peace (Napoli-Roma, Italy), Design Studio Pedagogy: Horizons for the Future (Gateshead, United Kingdom), and Transformative Pedagogy in Architecture and Urbanism (Solingen, Germany). His latest books include:  Demystifying Doha: On Architecture and Urbanism in an Emerging City (Ashgate 2013), Architecture Beyond Criticism: Expert Judgment and Performance Evaluation (Routledge 2014), and Spatial Design Education: New Directions for Pedagogy in Architecture and Beyond (Ashgate 2015). Professor Salama is the chief editor of the International Journal of Architectural Research (featured on Archnet) , associate editor of Open House International-OHI, and serves on the editorial boards of numerous internationally refereed journals and on the scientific and review boards of several international organizations.


ArchiCGI said...

Thanks for the great article! It's nice to see that architecture could totally change cities and even countries.

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