Redefining Local

The American University of Sharjah injects some regional ­tradition into the rapidly modernizing Middle East.

In Dubai, where architecture declares its individuality in the boldest terms—how  a ­skyscraper rotates or the shape of an island when viewed on Google Earth—one complex of three-story apartment buildings has dispensed with flash to create something truly different: contemporary design informed by local traditions. The blocky modern buildings of the Warqaa Courtyards, designed by Dubai-based Centimeter Cube Thinkspace, face inward to a series of protected squares that are oriented to maximize airflow just as Middle Eastern homes have for thousands of years. The paint mimics the texture of mud houses, and a diagonal crosshatch motif is borrowed from traditional screens. “That introversion of the building is part of regional design,” says Atif Khawaja, of Centimeter Cube. “Privacy is important for the family here because women are veiled in public. The courtyard-style home is the physical interpretation of the veil—women are free to move about without being covered.”

Khawaja has been interested in vernacular forms and how to integrate them into contemporary designs since he joined the first group of students in the five-year architecture program at the American University of Sharjah (AUS) in 1997. Despite the United Arab Emirates’ glass-and-steel building boom—Sharjah, one of the seven emirates, borders Dubai, and the university is a mere 15 miles away—it is the first and only architecture program outside an engineering school in the UAE, where engineers have traditionally designed buildings. The tension between traditional and modern remains a constant point of discussion. “Students don’t come here to learn about their own cultures, they just want to build glass towers,” says Samia Rab, chair of the program. “But we try to engage them in understanding how architecture is guided by tradition.”

Rab and the other faculty teach architecture and design history, encouraging students to think about the role of history in contemporary design and to study the ideas behind the creation of Islamic and Arabic forms. “We try to make them aware of both traditional and contemporary approaches,” associate professor George Katodrytis says, “and hopefully a new identity or language will emerge.”

One of the challenges is that the UAE does not have a lengthy or rich architectural history on display. Much of Dubai has been developed since the 1970s and previously absorbed many of its architectural traditions from India and southern Iran. There have been some limited attempts to address the past and develop a stronger sense of place; some buildings in the Madinat Jumeirah, for instance, a Disneylandesque simulation of a traditional Arab town, have large wind towers on their roofs—structures that increased airflow and cooled ancient homes—but they are purely ornamental. “What entails retaining a sense of identity?” fifth-year student Budoor Bukhari asks. “Engulfing buildings with decoration to bring in elements like domes and traditional forms that are just cut and pasted? Giving identity to architecture is a major question that is raised constantly.”

Since the majority of Dubai’s population is made up of foreigners, a more global design language may be best for most buildings, according to Khawaja, but in smaller residential projects he has seen a growing interest in, and a market for, projects that recontextualize traditional themes in contemporary settings. And with the first generation of graduates emerging from the AUS, a growing number of designers are now equipped to reconcile the go-go architecture of contemporary Dubai with its local and regional identities.

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