Steel-Meshed House of Music Another High Note for OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen

While small in scale, the Dar Al Muharraq, a new cultural center in Bahrain, makes a big impact.

Slotted perfectly in the windy streets of Muharraq, Bahrain, the Dar Al Muharraq features an intricate mechanical facade that can be raised or lowered at the flip of a switch. Images courtesy OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen

Its silhouette is unmistakable. So I hadn’t expected Dar Al Muharraq, a newly completed venue for traditional Gulf music designed by the Belgian architects OFFICE Kersten Geers David Van Severen, would be so difficult to find. A taxi gets me only so close before, with little notice, the street gets too narrow for the sedan to navigate. The old town of Muharraq—the heart of Bahrain’s lucrative pearling industry up until 1930, when the introduction of Japanese cultured pearls ran the trade into the ground—is a maze of narrow corridors into which air-conditioning units and pipes protrude and, tonight, the low din of music tries to escape.

It’s just after eight when I arrive, and the performance is already under way. Standing three stories tall, the building is sheathed entirely in a stainless-steel ring mesh, which is pulled up, temporarily, to head height. Beyond a row of thin columns, two interior partitions have been folded out of the way, revealing a rectangular room surfaced in stained oak that emanates a safety orange color. Here, in the majlis, or sitting room, the musicians rest on cushions on the floor. Beside them are percussion instruments—double-headed drums, tambourines, and water urns, which are played by beating on their mouth with a flat hand. A crowd of about 40 people has congregated along two sides of the building, in streets that are not much wider than six feet. Some are sitting in chairs; others are standing. Fjiri, primarily a vocal music, originated with the seamen and pearl divers of the Arabian Gulf. It is composed of melodic exchanges between a solo singer (nahham), who is dressed in a black thawb, and a chorus, which tonight counts 12, all in white. Combined with handclapping and occasional dance movements, it is enough to hold us in trance for an hour.    

When the performance concludes, practically the entire audience disperses within a minute, as if its presence were merely a serendipitous pause en route to somewhere else. I decide to stick around. I watch as the chairs are gathered, the cushions are stacked, and, with a bit of a struggle, the partitions are pulled back from their accordion position and closed. Somewhere a switch is flipped, activating a system of motors and cables that gradually lowers the mesh. Over 30 seconds, along all four sides of the building, the enclosure progressively changes shape from scalloped bunting to straight draping. The festival atmosphere—droning voices, glowing orange oak, whimsical chain-mail bunting—gives way to exquisite, baffling repose. Once the lights are finally switched off, after the last few stragglers extinguish their cigarettes and leave, there remains the faint indication of an inhabitable building.

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I’d traveled to Bahrain with high expectations. For upwards of a decade OFFICE has, trailed by legions of imitators, cut a conspicuous path across the field’s unthinking excesses, demonstrating its talent for concision and economy in nearly 150 didactic projects, built and unbuilt. To put it plainly, Geers and Van Severen—at ages 42 and 39, respectively—are among the most promising architects of their generation. Yet Dar Al Muharraq still impressed me in ways I had not anticipated, and tempered certain reservations. OFFICE’s work at times can feel overburdened by its own emphatic discourse. But Dar Al Muharraq, while steeped in the obsessions of its designers—boundaries and rooms, Platonic shapes, lightweight materials, historical associations—exceeds these pursuits. Its deft orchestration of performer and spectator, private and public spheres, architecture and city, remakes a centuries-old cultural practice anew.

Historically, the dar, which means “house” in Arabic, is a private space akin to a fraternal society or club; between sea journeys, pearl divers would meet here regularly to perform the fjiri. After the country’s pearling heritage was granted UNESCO World Heritage status in 2012, the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities commissioned OFFICE to design two public facilities as a way of preserving the musical tradition. (The second dar, essentially identical, is located a half hour away in the city of Riffa and will be completed this spring.) As Van Severen remembers, “The demands were generic.” Instead of deferring to a preestablished type, like an amphitheater, OFFICE skillfully preserved the intimacy and volumetric specificity of the traditional majlis while integrating a public audience. Transformations of architectural typologies are linked to social rituals, and Geers and Van Severen have updated a type by, in a sense, designing a new ritual.

In its subtle effects and judicious execution, the Dar Al Muharraq is a mirror image of most high-profile buildings in the Gulf region. In Doha, a quick 45-minute flight away, the procurement of new educational and cultural buildings by I.M. Pei, Jean Nouvel, Rem Koolhaas, Arata Isozaki, and others has about as much imagination as one of those perennially marked-down doorstops by cool hunter Philip Jodidio. Perhaps because Bahrain lacks the deep pockets of its neighbor to the south it must shrewdly develop less-established talent rather than license brand names (the total cost of the dar, including the renovation of an existing private dar next door, was $850,000). But I observe a sense of obligation to the discipline, and curiosity. As the head of architectural affairs for the culture authority, Noura Al Sayeh, explains, “you don’t know what the next step of their practice will be.” This twofold approach to patronage—commissioning projects that are both new for an architect’s body of work and for the place where they are built—is effective in part by how it mediates desired aesthetic outcomes and material circumstances.

The best example of this dynamic is the ring mesh. Quality Wire Products, a local manufacturer that specializes in industrial products like strainers, screens, sieves, and filters, primarily for the oil and gas sector, worked with OFFICE to develop the custom architectural textile. A team of 45 workers spent two and a half months stitching ten-millimeter stainless-steel rings together by hand in the factory before it was transported to the site in panels and pieced together into a seamless whole. Despite its drapelike appearance, above the ground floor the mesh is fixed in place, with practically no give to it. A good thing, since it is the only component keeping one from falling out of the building. (Another good thing: It blocks some of the sun from getting in.)   

This tension between the provisional and the permanent is reinforced throughout the project by color. The pair of restrooms on the third level, as with the other service elements like the sound equipment and the winches that position the ring mesh, are housed within steel enclosures powder-coated ultramarine blue. The air-conditioned staff offices and storage located on the second and third levels are similarly self-contained, in orange rooms identical to the performance space. Though carefully positioned and fixed in place, the monochrome units playfully suggest they could be withdrawn, making the concrete platforms available for some other use, some other fantasy.

When I spoke with Van Severen about the project recently, he mentioned Le Corbusier’s Maison Dom-ino, a reference I dismissed as too obvious at first. After all, how many buildings aren’t derivative of this slab-and-column method? But the more I considered the dar and the possibility it conjures up, the more I began to register in it that primordial Modernist image—the vaunted three-quarter-view drawing of the bare concrete frame. This “purity” is paid for in contradiction, though. The columns are structurally redundant to achieve a desired rhythm, and four out of the 18 are altogether false—hollow stainless-steel tubes threaded with plumbing and wiring. More nerve-racked mannerists might feel compelled to signal these inconsistencies with irony or overwrought symbolism, but Geers and Van Severen do not suck the air from the room. At Dar Al Muharraq, they just let space be.

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