31/1 - 4/5 2014

ARAB CONTEMPORARY

ARCHITECTURE, CULTURE AND IDENTITY

Arab Contemporary is the second in the Louisiana’s exhibition series with the subtitle Architecture and Identity. This series of spot-checks on world architectures deals with the interaction between new architecture and a world in constant transformation. When we speak of ‘identity’ and ‘culture’ in this context, they are thus to be understood as concepts associated with living contexts in an ongoing process. We want to show architecture in its embeddedness in the world and in society; between politics and art, you could say.

Another condition they share is the very large group of young people – 50% of the population are between 15 and 24 years old; a generation in waiting, ready for new times. Arab architects in particular stand in a waiting position in terms of identity – torn between a construction industry dominated by commercial interests and large foreign drawing offices, and ambitions of rediscovering or redefining a local, site-specific architecture. With the exhibition we take a criss-section and try to give a picture of what characterizes the Arab world right now.

The exhibition ranges over architectural works and visual art, and is divided into five sections, all of which relate to the fundamental spatial organization of life that permeates the Arab world. The division between the private and the public seems to emerge everywhere, irrespective of the many differences from country to country, and the interactions among people are underscored by specific architectural elements. The five main headings of the exhibition are:

What is Arab identity for you?
My father’s house
New public spaces
Transformation
From Genius loci to Genius logo

What is Arab identity for you?

Many factors combine to refute the Western dream-image of the exotic Arabia Felix – Arabia the Fortunate. The Arabian Nights and The Arab Spring – great contrasts appear when one tries to draw broad lines and create a unified narrative for such a large region.

However, one consistent feature for the countries we call the Arab world today is the language – the spoken language, the written language and the language of art. The artistic imagery in particular, with its geometric patterns, creates a visual ground for the culture that is evident everywhere in the region. The ornamental can be seen in everything from the Arab carpets and hangings that traditionally frame every indoor space, to the tile patterns in the courtyards; from the curving characters of the calligraphy to the architecture, in which whole walls and facades are made up of complicated patterns that arise both as part of the construction of the building and as interior elements in the form of semi-transparent room partitions. The arabesque, the symmetrically built-up pattern that seems able to continue endlessly, is the common factor in an organic imagery that has its roots in classic Islamic art.

Another common factor is the spatial organization of life, which seems to apply irrespective of the many differences from country to country. Unlike the open, fluid spaces that are being developed for example in Nordic architecture today, Arab architecture and culture are based on a razor-sharp separation of private and public space, and of social functions within the many walls of the home, which operates with a number of smaller spaces for a variety of purposes: the women’s space, the men’s space, the host’s space, the guest’s space – the traditional semi-private reception room, the majlis, where the host meets his guest, can be seen as characteristic of the way private space is managed. Although the majlis is no longer a fixed component in modern Arab architecture, the phenomenon shows how the organization of rituals and habits is tied to the architectural setting.

My Father’s House

The Arab house is a house with many spaces. In its own way, the spatial organization of the home mimes the many different rituals and social codes of Arab culture. Just as the home consists of many spaces, Arab culture consists of many social ‘spatialities’ – many divisions and boundaries that frame different everyday practices. The most tangible is the division between men and women, requiring many different degrees of private and semi-private space. But family life in general is also based on a high degree of privacy, where a specific comparison with the Nordic countries emerges, for example in the windows. Large panes of glass with a direct view of the living room are a rarity in the Arab world.

My Father’s House is the exhibition’s Arab house. The house features stories about the people who live in the Arab house and a number of architectural elements, each of which in its own way is a key to the understanding of the traditional Arab culture. The mashrabiya wall is still an important element in Arab architecture, which is being transformed today by modern construction techniques. But many traditions have also been transformed or forgotten in the encounter with other cultures. For example the restless grid structure of the American suburb, and villas with lush green lawns in the front garden have over several years been replacing the traditional Arab house. Especially on the Arabian Peninsula, the traditional courtyard has been replaced by an unusable outdoor space that neither provides the necessary shade and air circulation, which is the primary function of the courtyard, nor ensures the privacy on which Arab everyday life in general is based. Here new architecture has not persuaded the women to sunbathe, it has given them even more indoor life and Vitamin D deficiency.

Today several Arab architects are returning to older virtues that not only support the indoor climate but also build further on a strong culture that does not accept change simply with the encounter with the globalized world and its main architectural currents.

X-Architects on the development of Arabic house building

New public spaces

In recent years public space has perhaps been the most important issue for many Arab citizens – both the physical space and the public sphere; the citizen’s sense of his or her own position in society.

A new Arab public sphere has seen the light of day in the social media such as Facebook and Twitter; platforms for the debate that arrived in earnest with the Arab Spring in 2011, which has given ordinary citizens, including women, new potential for speaking out in a public forum. While this ‘parallel public sphere’ continues with its dialogues, dramas and struggles in the Arab world, the physical space changed in 2011, when the people occupied the streets as demonstrators. Several Arab artists and activists thought that the meaning of public space had changed forever. Even if today they do not seem exclusively to have created positive change, these events may contribute to a future redefinition of public space.

The square, which in western urban history is the symbol of democratic public space, has changed character over time from a market place to a space for leisure and recreation. Public recreative space hardly exists in the Arab world. Tahrir Square in Cairo mostly recalls an oversized roundabout which has only been a focal point for the public a few times – most recently during the demonstrations in connection the Arab Spring. But a change in the concept of the public sphere may also influence the use of urban space.

While in 2011 several artists moved their practice out into public space, architecture is dependent on financing and the will to build something new, and we see very few examples of Arab architectural projects that have anything to do with public space. It is still too early to speak of an architectural product of ‘the revolution’, but the visions exist. Architects in the Arab world are working increasingly with the spaces between the buildings. The nodal point for trade, the souk, is still the most important public space in Arab culture, and has therefore been the primary object of reassessment in recent years.

Jean Nouvel interviewed on the DOHA SEALIGHT, QATAR, PROJECT

Transformation – three drawing offices

The architectural landscape of the Arab world is far from being designed solely by Arab architects. There is a long-standing tradition of foreign architecture. As early as the middle of the nineteenth century, before British colonization, Cairo was copying the European city structure which with its long, broad avenues, parks and large hotels differed drastically from the traditional Arab city with its narrow, winding streets, bazaars and mosques. Later the colonization of more Arab countries made European architecture part of the Arab cultural heritage. In the 1930s the Iraqi government on its own initiative invited several great modernist architects to build in Baghdad. Le Corbusier was inspired by the traditional Arab architecture, just as Jean Nouvel and many others are today. Danish architects like Jørn Utzon, Vilhelm Wohlert, Henning Larsen and Knud Holscher have also created important works in the Arab world which are today considered among the best examples of architectural cultural encounters.

Architecture can be seen as a language that speaks of the place where it stands, and the thinking behind it. In the encounter between the foreign architect and the Arab context a new language or a new a dialect is perhaps emerging. Three drawing offices each offer a proposal here for an architectural transformation of Arab culture, with special emphasis on new public space.

Louis Becker, Henning Larsen Architects, talks about their work in the Arab world

Now Babylon
from Genius Loci to Genius Logo

The desert covers about 80 per cent of the Arab world. This unrelenting, inhospitable landscape is one of the basic premises for Arab culture and architecture. The tents and the simple caravanserais of the nomads are the prevalent architectural model. In this shifting landscape life always relates to the most permanent features – wadis, periodically arising watercourses and oases. Settlement takes place at the edge of the desert, not in it.

For example the mudbrick-built town of Shibam, also called The Manhattan of the Desert, lies on the edge of the Yemeni Desert. Shibam was built in the sixteenth century and is one of the finest examples of Arab desert architecture. Perfectly adapted to the climate by its spatial organization and use of materials, it expresses what in architectural theory is called the Genius Loci – the spirit of the place: architecture that is able to emphasize and strengthen the special qualities of a given place. Today Shibam’s almost magical beauty and simple but impressive construction technology inspires architects and urban planners all over the world.

The Arab world’s architectural landscape is nevertheless marked by contrasts. The recurring ‘tabula rasa situation’ of the desert has given rise both to interpretations of the traditional architecture and to the establishment of brand new globalized cities.

By contrast one also sees, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, a building boom that is to a great extent driven by property speculation and branding. The many sky-scraper projects are expressions of a global market logic that wholly ignores the desert landscape and the local climatic conditions. The Genius Loci has become the Genius Logo. The architecture has become an icon for the global spirit of marketing.

Interview with libyan writer Ibrahim Al-Koni about the desert.
Interviewed by Anders Hastrup