LOM’s director John Avery discusses the firm’s ongoing relationship with GCC banks
An award-winning British architect who studied at Cambridge University, the Oxford School of Architecture and the Architectural Association, John Avery joined LOM Architecture and Design shortly after it was established more than 20 years ago. With extensive experience across the GCC, from Oman to the UAE, Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, Avery’s clients with LOM have included the United Arab Bank, HSBC Middle East, Ahli United Bank and the National Bank of Oman.
“We see ourselves as being a commercial practice, but it’s really important to us that design is at the core of everything we do as well,” he said. “We try and use a quite analytical approach, quite strategic approach, while also trying to create the beauty and wonder that architecture’s all about.”
“So with LOM, we’ve done work in the region since the beginning, and for various reasons, we’ve had a really long-standing relationship with the regional banks, and that’s spanned everything from retail design through to head office buildings,” he added.
Avery’s first project was the head office for a commercial bank in Doha, which opened in 2005, and mostly consisted of glass. “It’s not a building you’d design now,” he said. “I don’t think we would anyway, because it’s all transparent.”
Visually and architecturally, it was the opposite of the firm’s latest project, the National Bank of Oman, Avery added, which is far more context-driven and reflective of the local environment.
“I see those two projects as bookends, in a way,” he said. “And in between, we’ve done a variety of things of different scales.”
“For example, in Bahrain, we did a series of little pavilions for the Bank of Bahrain and Kuwait, which were quite retail and commercial, but we tried to use stone and heaviness and depth to make them both transparent and shaded. The National Bank of Oman was a unique opportunity.”
According to Avery, building in Muscat comes with a set of conditions and criteria that are not particularly prevalent in other GCC cities, from building heights to creating an architectural language that’s perhaps more responsible toward the cultural and environmental context.
“The Muscat Municipality is quite keen to see a new style evolve,” he said. “And there are a few examples that I think are quite interesting, like the German University of Technology. The buildings have elements that are contextual – they use the local stone – but they’re very much contemporary. So I think there is a really interesting style evolving there, which is different to some of the architecture that we’re seeing elsewhere in the Gulf.”
In addition to financial buildings, Avery has also worked across the residential, education and heritage sectors. Before joining LOM, too, he worked as a designer for Channel 4, Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre. After a few years he returned to the field of architecture and went on to win his first prize in the Corus Architectural Competition in 2001, receive an Architects Journal Award for Architecture in 2002, and exhibit work in the Royal Academy Architecture Room in London.
At the moment, he’s based in London and travels to the GCC monthly. He’s currently working on the interiors of an HSBC office as well as a mixed-use building that will consist of twin towers featuring residential, office and retail facilities – both of which are in Dubai.
“It has a triangulated skin, which is about reflecting the sky and the water,” he said of the mixed-use project. “So it’s thinking about the context in a way that’s perhaps a little bit more subtle. There’s a lot of glass, but what’s interesting in that is that when we were designing that about a year or so ago, it was the same time that Dubai implemented new green building regulations. So we had some really interesting challenges to face with the engineers.”
Regardless of the type of project and its scale, Avery is adamant about always finding a way to incorporate social space. While LOM has been working on a number of bank buildings that require more traditional layouts, it often looks at strategies for informal gathering areas to create more dynamic spaces.
“Because we’re working with banks, of all the kinds of clients, they can be the most traditional,” said Avery. “So one of the things we tried to do with the National Bank of Oman is create a social space – there’s an atrium and there are some shared spaces, and those make the architecture really interesting. What we like to do is let that open-plan environment really creep into the building, and hopefully, in the next project, we’d like to reduce the amount of space that we call ‘office’, and make the whole space more of an internal landscape.”
While LOM has had a continuous stream of projects in the Middle East, it has yet to open a regional base. According to Avery, it’s been an ongoing topic for several years, but the practice finds the current situation to work well.
“We’re always one project away from having a local office,” he said. “We have based ourselves here sometimes for a project for a few weeks, but we’ve always found it really productive to have our team based in London while also spending our time here with our clients.”
“For us, the GCC is a really exciting place to work,” he added. “And in comparison to Europe and the UK, there can be more design freedom.”