In architecture, as in many disciplines, the question “what is global?” has provoked much discussion in recent decades — yet it has all too rarely moved beyond the inevitable clichés. Again and again the terms of debate have been reduced to an easy opposition between “local” and “global,” with architecture granted the role of bridging “tradition” and “modernity,” even as such debates overlook the very modernity of tradition as an idea. Lately these oppositions have seemingly motivated two very different approaches: On the one hand, we’ve seen a spate of highly publicized projects in which buildings are conceived as built metaphors and function as a form of branding. 1 On the other hand, the local/global debates have inspired renewed interest in practices that are socially grounded: practices in which indigenous craft, labor, and materials are blended with imported western technology and in which fluid concepts like “authenticity” and “heritage” are embraced unselfconsciously, as architects talk earnestly about expressing cultural specificity and difference. 2
What is actually happening when global practices meet local conditions?
To be sure, no matter the differences in scale or intent, the projects that result from the local/global dynamic are usually packaged in broad motifs — motifs that can be easily digested in our continual infoscape of architecture-as-image and that underscore the multiple meanings of “representation” in the field. Indeed, representation in architecture can refer not only to the act of drawing or of participation in society but also to the capacity of buildings to embody meaning, to become iconic. Which leaves us to consider: what is actually happening as global practices meet local conditions? When architects are enlisted in the work of identity building, whether for a city or state, institution or corporation, what identities are being constructed? What meanings are being represented? What margin of resistance might architects claim? And given the tensions that can arise between constructed image and lived reality, can architecture ever really exist beyond context or content, beyond place or program? 3
Can architecture ever really exist beyond context or content, place or program?
Today there is no better context for this investigation than that of the Arab city. I realize, of course, that it is risky to categorize cities along ethnic lines and to lay claim to so large a concept as “the Arab city.” Nevertheless the term “Arab” can evoke particular images and connote unique aspirations — aspirations which are now animating a new generation of architects, historians, and scholars who remain irreverently optimistic about the power of a secular, transnational, progressive and intellectual Arab. In this sense the notion of “Arab” allows us to see certain cities as more than “Islamic” or “Arab-Islamic” — religious references that have long dominated much scholarship. In a region at once feared and exoticized, we have been witnessing for more than a generation, simultaneously and not coincidentally, the devastation of old centers and the rise of new ones. The old centers — Beirut, Baghdad, Damascus, Cairo — embody a rich and complex relationship with modernity, both a struggle and an embrace, manifest not only through art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and political thought but also through architectural and urban experiments launched at the turn of the 20th century, during the last years of the Ottoman dynasty. 4 The new centers — the Persian Gulf cities of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Doha — offer what can seem in contrast a blank slate, what some western architects have even perceived as the absence of context.” 5
The narrative is by now quite familiar: the cities of the United Arab Emirates are fast-tracking from tradition to modernity. Recently inhabited by Bedouins roaming the desert and living in tents, now ruled by visionary leaders seeking to marry hypermodernity with religious tradition, these instant cities boast concentrations of corporate skyscrapers, luxury lifestyles, and world-class cultural institutions — and as such represent a harmonious contrast to the older Arab cities now caught between the extremes of totalitarian rule and violent sectarian struggle. But of course the realities are more complicated. For even as we abandon the polarizing formulation of an East/West clash of civilizations, we are nevertheless witnessing a fierce battle for regional power: on the one side, progressive attempts to engage modernity; on the other, conservative efforts to modernize without democracy. It is a battle in which ethnicity, tradition, and religious identity are posited as the foundation for new transnational entities that range from moderate to extreme — and in which architecture and real estate, buildings and cities, are being deployed as both substance and symbol.
In this context the architect is increasingly called upon to play the role of shrewd diplomat, skillfully weaving together traditional and modern into a mash-up of signifiers for both. In the past decade this approach has produced projects such as Foster + Partners’ plan for Masdar, in Abu Dhabi, and OMA’s new eco-city for Ras-al-Khaimah, both influenced by the high-density, low-rise medina quarters of older Arab cities which so inspired Alison Smithson’s 1974 manifesto for the “mat” building. 6 Masdar in particular translates a sophisticated language of Islamic architectural motifs into high-tech devices for green performance, such as the use of the mashrabiya to screen and filter sunlight (a strategy also found in the Louvre Abu Dhabi, by Ateliers Jean Nouvel, and in the Museum of Islamic Art in Qatar, by I.M. Pei). 7
The architect is called upon to play the role of shrewd diplomat, weaving together traditional and modern into a mash-up of signifiers for both.
In some cases the blending of historical and contemporary has involved the layering of calligraphy onto bold new forms, such as in the Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, designed by Ali Mangera and Ada Yvars Bravo. More broadly there has been a proliferation of metaphorical strategies in which entire buildings are conceptualized to refer to some aspect of life in the desert or on the Gulf. Some of the more famous examples include the Burj Al Arab, the luxury hotel in Dubai, designed to evoke a sail; the Dubai Opera House, by the late Zaha Hadid, an unbuilt project from 2008 (“the gentle winding form evokes images of mountains or sand dunes”); the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center, by Morphosis (“the new KAPSARC master plan is rooted in the historical model of the oasis village”); OMA’s Jeddah International Airport proposal (“both the main terminal and Royal pavilion with their crescent-like shape enclose an internal oasis that can accommodate different forms of use”); and Nouvel’s National Museum of Qatar (which “crystallizes” the Qatari identity, in “a building that, like a desert rose, appears to grow out of the ground and be one with it”). 8
Is it a stretch to draw parallels between the new architecture and urbanism of the Gulf and the resurgent sport of camel racing? Indeed, the old sport has enjoyed a strong revival, starting in the 1980s when it was reinvented and promoted by Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan and the ruling family of the UAE. As anthropologist Sulayman Khalaf has argued, this was part of a “large-scale cultural revival” — an ambitious campaign to construct the identity of the Emirati as a stable and continuous force in the midst of rapid social transformation.
This invention of camel culture in the celebration of annual camel festivals provides links to the historical past of the Emirates’ pastoral way of life that has been swept away by oil-triggered modernization. These annual races also provide the Emirates’ political community with a ritually constructed theater to celebrate its own specific ideology, cultural traditions, and values by invoking nationalist themes, symbols, metaphors, and language. 9
Clearly the camel represents the traditional Bedouin lifestyle; but in a contemporary twist, the animals are driven not by humans but rather by highly engineered and miniaturized robot-jockeys, which signify the Emirates’ embrace of modern technology. This conjoining of camels and robots demonstrates the ruling family’s visionary approach to developing the Gulf city-states: the keen commitment to reconciling ancient values with the technologically driven contemporary world, all the while promoting a unique, specific cultural experience that reinforces local identity in an era of global homogenization.
But the Emirates’ rulers were seeking not just to blend the historical and contemporary; the identity they have been seeking to construct is also exclusive and exclusionary. The genuine Emirati citizen was understood as stemming from the pure lineage of the Bedouins, who were cast as the original inhabitants of the watan, or homeland, and true bearers of its culture. No doubt this highly partial narrative overlooked the many peoples that over the centuries have settled in — and hybridized — the Gulf; but it has functioned to reassure Emirati nationals who now constitute a minority in the booming cities of the region. 10 In this view all non-Emirati people — from privileged western expats to Arab refugees to Southeast Asian construction workers — are lumped into a polyglot category of never-to-be-integrated other.
In the distorted mirror of reverse orientalism, the Gulf States are seen as driven by futuristic visions purveyed by urbanists, developers, and starchitects.
Enlisting cultural heritage has proven an effective tool of Gulf statecraft; so too has a very different approach by which the Gulf States are positioned as beyond history. In Dubai: The City as Corporation, the anthropologist Ahmad Kanna argues persuasively that the Emirates have been engaged in what he calls “reverse orientalism.” Building upon Edward Said’s seminal work of post-colonial theory, Orientalism — which explores the long history of western misunderstandings and misrepresentations of the Arab world, of essentialist depictions of a backward region characterized by static religions and archaic cultures — Kanna argues that contemporary Gulf cities are still being depicted as outside history and politics, though now as a result of not conservatism but rather hypermodernity.
To the old story of an orientalist gaze and its culturalization of the history and politics of empire, there is a new twist. In going to the Gulf (and especially to Dubai) in recent years, orientalism somehow seems to have gone through the looking glass. Instead of appearing as traditional societies suspended in time, in the early twenty-first century certain parts of the Gulf became very forward-looking, dynamic, and hypermodern.11
Viewed in the distorted mirror of reverse orientalism, the Gulf States are now seen as driven by futuristic visions purveyed by urbanists, developers, and starchitects. Dubai is reimagined as a fantastical, glittery spectacle, a 21st-century incarnation of the Thousand and One Nights, the tale which likewise inspired Frank Lloyd Wright’s vision for Baghdad in the middle of the last century. 12 And of course, for some observers, the shiny new Dubai exemplifies as well the promise of entrepreneurial neo-liberalism. 13
For the global practices commissioned to design the buildings and cities — to craft the symbols — of the new Arab city, these various narratives are potent; certainly more inspiring than the everyday realities of the vast desert and crumbling old towns, the banal malls and relentlessly generic housing in the neighborhoods on the outskirts of the glitter. 14 The calculated revival of cultural practices, the imaging of a hypermodern future: together these have created a wholly new context in which a mythical golden age of Islamic architecture — a reconstituted archive that groups together, undifferentiated in space and time, the medinas of Fez and Aleppo, the lush palaces of Andalucia, the golden buildings of the Baghdad caliphate, the refracting surfaces of Sinan’s mosques — is merged with the promise of a technologically advanced utopia. It is a powerful vision, at once nostalgic and futuristic, which portrays an Islamic renaissance in which religion is not hindering progress but enabling it; a renaissance in which a deeply conservative society, conscious of belonging to a broad “Islamic nation” — a concept ever more charged and complicated — is rising at the cutting edge of a global, urbanized future.
Surely the most successful architectural embodiment of this narrative is Atelier Jean Nouvel’s Louvre Abu Dhabi, located on Saadiyat Island and scheduled to open later this year, after years of construction. Inspired by the organic patterns of the traditional medinas, the museum consists of a series of building-scaled rooms, whose nonhierarchical relationships are unified by an immense shallow dome (similar in scale to the Cour Carrée at the Louvre in Paris). With its layering of perforated, three-dimensional fractal patterns, the dome filters light to create micro-environments of dreamy mist, suggesting both sunbeams fingering through the palms at an oasis and rays of light refracting off the ornate surfaces of mosques. Or as one of Nouvel’s partners has put it, “ The rain of light is an effect you find in an Arab souk.” The Louvre Abu Dhabi is a beautiful building, and Jean Nouvel, a self-declared contextualist, is incapable of producing kitsch; his sophistication makes him an orientalist of the highest caliber. Remember too his Institut du Monde Arabe, in Paris, where the mechanized façade of sun-sensitive lenses offers a multilayered interpretation of Islamic geometric patterns — vision as both optics and experience. 15
All too often an idea of ‘Islamic architecture’ is promoted in an effort to unify a region that extends from Turkey to Syria to Iraq to the Emirates.
So, if the global practices are creating exemplary architecture for the emerging cities of the Gulf, what then is the problem? One problem is that the mélange of symbols and metaphors — the medina, the oasis, the souk — all too often produces reductive meanings and experiences; it can encourage, albeit unintentionally, the sort of essentialism which, as Edward Said so eloquently argued, is not only offensive in its representations but also instrumental in perpetuating forms of colonialism. An even deeper problem is that the new architecture is too often rooted in pan-Islamic tendencies that blur the distinctions and complexities of situated art and architectural practices. 16 Is it really appropriate, or “contextual,” to use architectural innovations developed in 16th-century Istanbul, during the era when Sinan was chief architect of the Ottoman Empire, and adapt them to the desert cities of Doha or Abu Dhabi, as if these innovations belong to some singular tradition of Islamic architecture, no matter the differences of place and time, politics and economics, technological sophistication and material advancement? All too often an idea of “Islamic architecture” is promoted in an effort to unify a region that extends from Turkey to Syria to Iraq to the Emirates — to advance the strange concept of a cohesive Islamic people, nation, empire. The predictable result is cultural displacement; and arguably even the dystopia of ISIS, which deploys a crudely generalized concept of a mythic Islamic empire — a worldwide caliphate — in an effort to legitimize its brutal tactics. Unsurprisingly, these tactics include the destruction of ancient monuments seen as “hybrid” or impure.
The noisy focus on superficial expressions of Islamic culture has crowded out the perception of more nuanced discourses.
This sort of essentializing of Islamic architecture — of Islamic identity — can make it difficult to perceive the alternatives. The endless and noisy focus on expressions of Islamic culture — whether in scholarship, in popular culture, in architectural discourse, in buildings and even cities — has crowded out the perception of more nuanced discourses that sought to build Arab nations that were modern, progressive, and secular. (It is this richer understanding that was animated for a brief hopeful moment in the streets of Cairo during the Arab Spring. 17) Nonetheless efforts to retrieve this more complex narrative have propelled many intellectual, political, and artistic practices in the region in the past two decades — practices that have questioned the very use of identity as an interpretive lens. One of the seminal recent studies is Pensée et politique dans le monde arabe, by the Lebanese political economist Georges Corm. 18 Motivated by his disappointment with the denouement of the Arab Spring, Corm tracks the evolution of Islamic and Arab intellectual and political thought in its encounter with modernity from 1850 to the present, in the process recuperating a rich history that encompasses religious reformers like the writers Sheikh Rifa’a al-Tahtawi and Taha Hussein, both emerging from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, as well as secular thinkers such as Yassine El-Hafez, Mahdi ‘Amel, the poets Adonis and May Ziade, and the economist Samir Amin, to name but a few. In this way Corm assembles a richly resourced archive that counteracts the “Jihad vs. McWorld” dichotomy that was first articulated two decades ago by Benjamin Barber and that has since dominated scholarly research and architectural rhetoric. 19 Corm’s wide-ranging scholarship constitutes nothing less than a potent source of new influences for contemporary architecture in the region, offering perspectives very different from those of the conservative regimes which global practices are usually commissioned to serve.
Already some organizations are working to enlarge this archive of alternative possibilities. The Arab Image Foundation, founded in 1997 in Beirut, houses a growing collection of over 600,000 photographs taken between 1850 and 1950 — the period of the Nahda, or Arab Renaissance — by professional, amateur, and anonymous photographers. The images depict a range of subjects, genres, and styles that capture everyday life during an era of rapid growth, progressive thinking, and high optimism. While the AIF’s mission is to illuminate the practice of photography, the organization acknowledges that “inevitably, the research projects raise questions about how images are used or their relationship to notions such as identity, history and memory.” With powerful collections — such as Akram Zaatari’s “The Vehicle,” which splices through family albums to spotlight “the infiltration of modernity into the Arab world through the representation of the vehicle”; or “Arts et Couleurs,” which portrays “a time of economic growth, hula hoop parties, beehive hairdos and the Beatles”; or the collection of Iraqi architect Rifat Chadirji, which documents, through the lens of his buildings, Baghdad’s ebullient intellectual and artistic renaissance in the mid-20th century — the AIF presents Arab modernity as multifaceted and complex. For architects, the Chadirji collection is particularly revealing; it documents a time when Iraqi architects, poets, and writers were experimenting with modernist ideas and styles, hybridizing them not with Islamic references but rather with a playful mix of Babylonian ancestry and contemporary critical discourse. (Even Hassan Fathy, whose design vocabulary has come to exemplify regionalist architecture, never referenced Islamic motifs in mid-century works like his seminal 1958 project in New Gourna, but rather freely wove together abstract modernist forms with pharaonic imagery.) It was also in this era — in an early chapter of the history of global practice — that talented architects like Mohamed Makiya and Hisham Munir were brought together with visiting luminaries including Walter Gropius, Josep Lluís Sert, and Marcello d’Olivo. 20
This embrace of modernity helped Arab nations break free from the shackles of colonialism and build independent institutions. 21 In this light, the 20th-century writings of various architects, urban theorists, and scholars counter the notion that modernity was experienced as an imposition, clarifying instead that individual cities adopted it in unique ways (architectural and otherwise). 22 To strengthen this alternative narrative, the Arab Center for Architecture, started in 2008 and based in Beirut, has been painstakingly assembling collections of buildings and projects in various media, including photographs, drawings, and texts. (Gradually, these valuable documents are being digitized and made available online.) As with the photographs at the AIF, the ACA collections challenge the simple distinctions we often make between generic structures and exquisite designs, and in doing so they reveal the complexities of the modernist project in Arab cities. Like the AIF, the ACA carefully traces authorship, documenting collaborations between local and international architects as well as temporary and permanent residents of the region. To cite just one example: a collaborative of French and Lebanese architects and engineers, practicing under the name CETA, was responsible for the elegantly proportioned Électricité du Liban building (1965–72) in Beirut. The importance of this documentation is accentuated by the fact that so much built legacy has been destroyed by conflict or development, either fallen into complete disrepair or else been pimped up with orientalizing flourishes and the usual depressing pastiche of identity-tropes.
To visit Cairo, Beirut, Damascus, or Baghdad is to see disproved the idea of an ‘authentic’ culture displaced by an encounter with ‘foreign’ modernity.
Indeed, the documentary efforts of the Arab Image Foundation and Arab Architecture Center are long overdue; for to visit the old centers of Beirut, Cairo, Damascus, or Baghdad is to see disproved the idea of an “authentic” culture brutally displaced by an encounter with “foreign” modernity. 23 To this day these cities welcome and incorporate diverse ideas, and they do so with no sense of defensiveness. Instead it is in the cities of the Persian Gulf where we find tradition and modernity set in a kind of opposition. In retrospect this polarization first gained significant traction in the late 1960s and early ’70s, as the emerging petro-states of the Arabian Peninsula began to develop centers of regional power. 24 It was back then, for instance, that Saudi Arabia sought out leading Japanese architects, whose respect for tradition and commitment to representing national identity through architecture made them desirable collaborators in the construction of sleek contemporary projects that served conservative socio-political agendas. From the elegant lines of the Dhahran Airport, by Minoru Yamasaki (1961), to the numerous state buildings of Kenzo Tange, including the Royal State Palace in Jeddah (1980–83) and the King Faisal Foundation in Riyadh (1976–84), much of this architecture borrows assorted oriental, Bedouin, or “Islamic” motifs — patterned surfaces, arched openings, courtyards, medina-like cityscapes, tent-inspired structures —to suggest the marriage of regional authenticity with enlightened statehood.
During the same era, new alliances of regional rulers and U.S.-based oil and construction companies (such as Aramco and Bechtel) generated commissions for American corporate architects. Like the Japanese offices, the U.S. firms pursued an approach that coupled conservative values with advanced technologies. The projects that resulted included the National Commercial Bank of Jeddah, by SOM (1977–84), which blended contemporary abstraction with orientalized patterns and courtyards; the Abdulaziz International Airport in Jeddah (1982), also by SOM, which incorporates the Hajj Terminal, for religious pilgrims; and HOK’s King Saud University (1984), in Riyahd, and King Khaled International Airport (1975–84), also in Riyadh and designed in collaboration with Bechtel.
These representations of tradition and modernity — and they were always representations of a synthesis rather than an actual mediation of past and future — were not limited to architecture but also manifest in urban planning. 25 Throughout the region local patterns of dense settlement have been supplanted by suburban-style gated communities. As early as the 1930s, the U.S.-Saudi conglomerate that would later become Aramco began to build company towns — gated compounds — for its employees, offering a vision of suburban comfort as a way to entice middle-class Americans to spend a few years in the Arabian desert. These detached homes and surrounding yards inverted the local residential type — the courtyard house in which rooms were clustered around an open space, and which had evolved to accommodate and reflect kinship and tribal relationships. Over the years, as Aramco constructed similar compounds for its Arab staff — though segregated from the western employees — the company struggled to integrate women into the work force and attract occupants through home-ownership programs, which were often seen by Arab women as socially isolating. 26 Today it’s clear that these early experiments in lifestyle promotion and company towns provided a template for the Gulf States’ contemporary sprawl of upscale private communities alongside out-of-sight camps for migrant workers.
All these narratives — conflicting modernities; forgotten cultural heritage; political, social, economic, and technological transformation — were powerfully interwoven at the Bahrain Pavilion of the 2014 Venice Architecture Biennale. Curated by the Lebanese architects George Arbid and Bernard Khoury, “Fundamentalists and Other Arab Moderns” took the form of a rotunda of shelves, a library filled with thousands of copies of the same book which documented seminal architectural projects built in the Middle East and North Africa from 1914 to 2014. As such the book could be read as a manifesto for the region’s ability not only to “absorb modernity” — to quote from curator Rem Koolhaas’s thematic agenda for the entire event — but also to deploy the generic language of modernism as well as its universalizing social ambitions to create specific and inventive formal adaptations. At the pavilion, the visitor could page through the book of projects while seated around a circular table, while in the white dome above there was projected over and over the same image of a man dressed in white engaged in what seemed a trance-like prayer. Or at least that was the usual assumption, since he was speaking Arabic; the speaker was in fact reciting the names of the nations from which the buildings had been selected. In this way the curators evoked the longstanding tension between Arab progressive and modernist nationalism, on the one side, and an Islamic conservative nationalism, on the other, even as the pavilion worked to undermine this binary.
This desire to resist simplistic or singular narratives, to explore multiple histories and meanings, has been motivating architects in the region, and in Lebanon in particular, where much of this debate played out during the civil war and afterward in the reconstruction of downtown Beirut. 27 Yet the Lebanese capital has been witness as well to a cautionary tale in the ongoing saga of Solidere. Named for the private company that has led and continues to oversee the postwar reconstruction of central Beirut, Solidere reflects not only the transition from the old centers of power and influence to the new ones in the Gulf but also the reshaping of an Arab secular nationalism to the predominant narrative of religious and embattled identities.
The ‘redevelopment’ of Beirut constitutes nothing less than a political editing of history.
Founded in 1994 by then Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a self-made man who rose to fortune and power as the principal contractor for Prince Fahd of Saudi Arabia, Solidere quickly became a model for the region and beyond, inspiring new development enterprises from Mecca to Mumbai. 28 Despite resistance to its practices — from the heavy-handed use of eminent domain to the pressure to forfeit property rights to the redrawing of property lines to assemble large development parcels — Solidere prevailed; which is to say it has brought about significantly more destruction than did years of civil war. 29 And while Lebanese architects and scholars have written widely about Solidere’s “redevelopment” of the capital, which constitutes nothing less than a political editing of history, the deeper effects have still to be untangled. As certain buildings were demolished and others restored, with the goal of reviving Beirut as a tourist destination, once again the “Paris of the Middle East,” Solidere turned the buzzing, tight-knit, messy downtown — with its layering of histories religious and secular, old and new — into a district of icons, where mosques, churches, and a single temple have been excavated and preserved as ruins while the thick and busy cityscape was wiped out. 30 Transformed into freestanding monuments, gutted of the crowded life and endless daily transactions that shaped them, these religious buildings have become meaningless clichés. 31 Using the “preservation of memory” as a kind of alibi, Solidere has instead constructed a fiction: religious pluralism as the only possible foundation of Lebanese identity. Today, with religious icons punctuating the upscale shopping boulevards — which themselves have alternating Haussmannian and Ottoman flavors — downtown Beirut has become a successful destination for wealthy Gulf and Saudi tourists (and a ghost town whenever those countries declare the city unsafe for travel). Today tourists are no longer confronted with evidence of the city’s deep history, including its complicated engagement with modernity, but rather with the singular, relentless depiction of religious conservatism aligned with “visionary” market-driven urban futures.
It is this complex and contingent understanding of the Arab city that makes clear the impossibility of architecture existing, in any meaningful way, outside or beyond its context. It is clear too that context is not the monolithic catalogue of formal devices that have come to represent the “Arab city” in so much contemporary architecture. Rather, it is a multilayered, complicated, messy history that does not oppose but rather brings together religious and secular, traditional and modern, local and global. Projects like the Louvre Abu Dhabi and the reconstruction of Beirut participate in the larger saga of global architecture and urban development, and as such they underscore not only architects’ powerlessness in the face of global capital but also the continuing capacity of buildings to embody ideas, to produce content, to shape context. And in an era of devastating conflict and displacement, it’s especially critical that architects contribute to a richer understanding of historical, social, political, and cultural complexities; the concepts we enlist, the content we produce, the contexts we shape: these matter. As a site both imaginary and real, the Arab city is located at the intersection of much of what’s now at stake for architecture.