Well, it is funny. The Arab world has experienced a surge of its resources and demographic diversity, yet the constituents of its identity have been sacrificed rather than nurtured. You might think that a part of the world as ancient and drenched in discoveries as ours, not to mention home to a number of its own Golden eras and the glorious architectural heritage they have left us with, would have enough of a framework to move forward, towards a glorious future. Sadly, the present seems to suggest that we’re not there yet.
It’s natural, when talking of a new construct, such as the gleaming cities of the Gulf, to criticize the cultural validity of the built environment and the controversies of their size, girth, skyline, sustainability, so on and so forth. It’s less natural for the region’s more ancient cities, our Beiruts, Cairos and Baghdads, for example, to be subject to the same issues. You know you’re making a bad choice when you take an executive decision to rebuild an ancient souk as a mall – and still call it a souk, of course. Take Beirut’s Souks project, an elastic reconstruction project in the city’s central district, which began at the end of the Lebanese civil war and opened in 2009, when it was unveiled as a 163,000 square metre tile-façade mall.
Projects like this are a simplification of what architecture should be. You invite a couple of international names to rebuild an ancient and local quarter. Or you spend a fortune on designing the biggest tower in the world, which will only retain its title until another international architect extends the needle atop their tower, in China let’s say, and suddenly, you’re history. Personally, I think that Starchitecture should take a leaf out of the neutron star’s book and explode mutely into supernova.
The problem of thinking about the built environment purely as an aesthetic ego-playground is that you create impotent spaces. The only real value of skyscrapers to the ‘indigenous’ inhabitants of Dubai is the shadow they cast on the ground because ground level is where all architecture needs to start and yet it has been almost forgotten by what passes today for mainstream architecture.
Vitruvius, a Roman who knew a thing or two about building, states in his classic dissertation, De Architectura, that there are three main parameters of good architecture: durability, utility and beauty. I am not a fan of quoting the Ancients but it is awkward, to say the least, that two thousand years ago, architects had already defined sustainability, functionality and beauty as necessary for a building to raise the spirit of the people, when millennia later, we are still struggling with its contemporary inhumanity.
We say that ‘home is where the heart is’ for a reason. Built space can make your day. Or break it. Few hearts truly thrill at the thought of life in vitro, so we perhaps we should work on rethinking what we want out of our built environment. My vote? Forget the Starchitects and give our cites to the young folks and the local folks. They own the land – it’s their future – and the Arab world is filled with eager young talent ready to show us what they can do. Rather than create an imported massacre that no one really wants to live in, why not let our own build our cities? We understand them better and because we’re the ones that have to live in what we build, I doubt that we’d see quite as many disjointed malls or abstract dildos in cities we actually build ourselves.