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Oct / Nov 2013
Rage Against the Machine

WRITER: Christopher Al-Omary Fiorello

Bernard Khoury may have a bleak view of our region but he hasn’t given up on this part of the world. Instead he fights on against the big corporate machine that he believes is largely to blame for our architectural inadequacies.


Give me one single building in the last fifteen, twenty years that was built in Dubai that’ll make it in the history of contemporary architecture,” Bernard Khoury asks rhetorically.  “Not one has produced real meaning. That’s absolutely sad.”  

Khoury, who touts a reputation as a regional maverick in architectural modernism, has spilled rivers of ink in the Gulf. Especially between 2003 and 2008, Khoury’s team at DW5 (shorthand for Design Workshop 5 – his fifth attempt at running a financially viable firm) spent a sizeable portion of their creative output on Gulf interventions. “But most of it remained on paper.”

As is the case with the profession generally, most of what is designed never sees daylight. However, Khoury’s experience designing in the Gulf was an entirely different magnitude of frustration. “There was a lot of speculative work being done,“ he continues, going on to describe a second problem he faced, one rooted in the fascination with excess. “When we were initially brought to a project, it was explained by the developer in superlatives. The biggest. The tallest. We realised much later that most of the time, this attitude was more about producing images that were going to be printed on glossy paper for brochures than about doing what it takes to get the projects done.”

This approach frustrates Khoury, who believes in symmetry between the logic of the design and the logic of the build itself. Since 2008, he has increasingly been convinced that the Gulf is a leading producer of “very shiny, very flashy pictures” that rarely, if ever, get built. “It’s easy to be ambitious on paper but it’s another thing to stand behind that ambition. The act of building is a completely different story. It requires a lot of persistence, a lot of precision, true to the logic you proposed to yourself. It’s got nothing to do with producing a shiny picture.”

The real problem, he says, is not that Gulf developers were commissioning largely on speculation but that what has been built, indeed what has been produced generally, in the past two decades of economic growth is what he damningly describes as imported.

“If you want a contemporary project, whether it is in film, music, theatre, or architecture, in any discipline, you will have to resort to a Western artist or architect,” he continues, speaking of the Gulf. “The Arab no longer contributes to modernity. The Arab buys modernity, borrows it, imports it. He does not produce it anymore. He’s been condemned not to do it anymore.”

The implications of an import culture are as catastrophic as they sound. “It shows that we’re not even writing our own history anymore. We’ve become passive players in a history that’s written by others.”

On a purely architectural level, this detachment from contemporary cultural production leads to what he calls ’dangerous cities’, places that not only lack specificity but produce no meaning and which ‘drown in their own absurdities’.

But is the Gulf really composed of such cities? Perhaps not yet, anyway. But Khoury talks of a persistent disinterest in bringing specificity to Gulf architecture.  In place of buildings that enter into a dialogue with their surroundings, that critique the city in some way, he says all he’s seen are second or third rate replicas of buildings that were originally designed for other times and places.

“You do not import a university or a museum from another part of the world without questioning its displacement,” he adds talking of the process he claims has been followed by much of the region’s development, everything from branch campuses of major universities to housing developments to shopping malls.

“I’m not against import, as long as something has been changed. But nothing is changed, we only reproduce transvestites of other models, we monkey with them,” he continues, speaking of the inherent danger of an architecture that fails to speak to its surroundings.

Khoury says he isn’t the only one fighting for specificity in Gulf architecture adding that many of the European and North American architects who come to the Gulf with “good intentions” are, off the record, greatly disillusioned. Given landmark project briefs, they quickly realise that their task is simply to reproduce the building they had created for a specific situation in another part of the world.

He worries that projects like Abu Dhabi’s Guggenheim (which was given to American architect Frank Gehry) or the Louvre (which France’s Jean Nouvel is designing) are not about building for Abu Dhabi but about mirroring experience. “If the one designing the building does not have the ability to take a critical position,” Khoury explains, referring to the challenges architects face when liaising with the developers of these multibillion-dollar projects, often joint private/state entities, “they’re going to produce something that’s sterile.”

The root of the problem is twofold. Young architects in the Gulf lack the institutional support to be experimental and unlike in other parts of the world, where developers and stakeholders run competitions that creatively advance the profession, little priority is placed on producing challenging buildings.

The other side of the story is that end-users simply aren’t as interested in critical buildings.  Khoury says that there is a desire for architecture that reminds them of New York’s sleek skyline or Beaux Arts beauties.

He believes that curbing this trend is, in part, the role of the media. “It’s about time [the press] ridiculed these stupid replicas. It’s about time you celebrate what is sometimes absurd but what is very relevant to your environment and even if what you end up celebrating is not as sugar-coated as people want, it doesn’t matter.  There can be meaning and pleasure in things that are hard to digest.”

Given his bleak view of architecture in the Gulf, Khoury’s sustained interest in the region might seem illogical. But he continues to draft bid after bid for projects there. “My disillusion is with the stupidity of the large majority of those who are building, but it doesn’t mean I’ve given up on this part of the world,” he explains. “On the contrary, I’m at war with those big corporate machines who’ve built most of the Gulf’s cities.”

“This part of the world is the most challenging context for the problematic it brings forward. The Arab World is boiling with pertinent, relevant questions and the very sour questions we ask ourselves here, you don’t ask yourself in Rotterdam or in Berlin.”
He firmly believes that architecture can play a key role in answering many of these questions but it requires access to do so. “It’s far more challenging to intervene in our part of the world today than it would be in Europe or the United States,” he says, in conclusion. “But that’s why I’m here and that’s why I’m still ‘shooting’ for this part of the world. The experience may be sour but it’s also very exciting.”

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