New York-based architects reveal Middle Eastern influences

Three architects, based in New York City, say how inspirations from the countries of their parents continue to influence their contemporary designs when it comes to Middle Eastern projects. 

The Middle East, once known primarily for its desert camps and Bedouin tents, has gained international recognition for its feats in architectural developments. From the world’s tallest tower, Burj Khalifa, to the famous twisted building, Cayan Tower, architecture has grown by leaps and bounds.

Many critics are fast to condemn architecture in the Middle East as lacking in culture and true local flavour owing to the rapid influx of Western designs. However, as this section will reveal, several Middle Eastern architects are committed to preserving local culture while at the same time, integrating modern concepts to create architecture that is truly both local and global.

In this special feature, Zeinab Saiwalla speaks to three architects, Hana Kassem, Hani Rashid and Nishan Kazazian, who are based in New York City but work on projects in the Middle East. Drawing on inspirations from grapevines and Bedouin tents, to modulating sound waves, these architects evidently have a tie that binds them to a region their parents called home.

When Hani Rashid’s firm, Asymptote Architecture, was awarded the competition to design Abu Dhabi’s Yas Viceroy Hotel on Saadiyat Island, Rashid was pleasantly surprised.

“It was our first project in the Middle East so we were most likely not chosen based on our name, but on the quality of our submitted design proposal,” says Rashid during an interview at Asymptote’s studio in New York City.

“The Yas Hotel was a labour of love in terms of bridging cultures. On the one hand, I looked into the local cultures, spatiality, typologies and forms – not only in Abu Dhabi but also from the entire region. On the other hand, the project was designed to be primarily a high quality Western style hotel set above the F1 racetrack as well as an elegant marina and yachting facility.

“The design for the project reflected a contemporary, modern style of architecture but at the same time presented a true of local cultures, and I think that is what made us win the bid.”

For Rashid, this style of architecture, which merges various cultures, is a direct result of his upbringing.

Having grown up in Europe and Canada to an Egyptian father and a British mother before finally settling down in the USA, Rashid’s diverse cultural background and varied urban experience enables him to easily adopt an insider and outsider perspective when working.

“I think it has given me an impartiality and precise sort of intelligence about different cultures, that sometimes is difficult to see when you are embedded in a particular culture and place,” Rashid explains.

“What I learnt from my father, who was an accomplished Egyptian modern artist, was that there is an incredibly deep, resonant, beautiful and powerful history to the Arab culture. With tent cities, for example, that itself goes all the way back to the poetry of how the Bedouins explored and occupied space in an infinite void and lived in these remarkable temporary and transient structures.”

When it came to designing the Yas Viceroy Hotel and facilities, Rashid found himself returning to his roots and the lessons taught by his father to develop a structure that was both Middle Eastern in appearance and Western in terms of its functionality.

“Looking at the project from a tectonic architectural point of view, we consciously thought about how we could create an elegant, powerful and poetic envelope by incorporating the mathematics and patterns of the arabesque to the grid-shell.”

Through conversations with Emiratis, Rashid realised that the Yas Viceroy’s success was primarily because the locals could connect with the building personally and feel proud of the beauty it reflected.

“Yas Viceroy has a feeling and sense of the local without being cliché or Disneyland like. At the same time from the international perspective it reflects a contemporary piece of architecture that speaks to contemporary global cultures,” Rashid explains.

While he agrees that most international firms do engage in processes to ensure their building designs are reflective of the local culture, he believes that there is room for improvement.

“What is most commonly being done, particularly in Dubai and the region, is that western firms seem to be testing ideas from an engineering point of view to offer a solution that makes sense physically. However, very few people understand the nuances and metaphysical aspects of these places. That cannot really be quantified. It is something that needs to be felt and acted upon with conviction.”

Inspired by famous Egyptian architectHassan Fathy, Rashid is driven to emulate the humanistic qualities that defined Fathy’s work.

“My Middle East dream project would be to master plan something like the Masdar City development, but from a holistic perspective that elevates residents’ sense of worth in a high-tech, eco-friendly environment.I am really all about bridging deep and resonant cultural roots with 21st century technology to deliver a heterogeneous space with creative form making. In my opinion, this could possibly make for a better world.”

For Nishan Kazazian, a Lebanese architect now residing in New York City, architectural inspiration always originated from his memories of home.

“Beirut in the 1960s, was a city of the future. It was a city that maintained archeological and historic structures side by side. It created and promoted a model of coexistence that could have been emulated on a global level, characteristics which I sought to emulate in my work.”

When Kazazian first moved to New York City in 1972 to pursue his graduate degree at Columbia University’s School of Architecture, his mission was clear; to replicate Beirut’s architectural success in other parts of the world.

He says: “The Beirut I grew up in organically fostered an intermingling between people from different socioeconomic backgrounds. The city provided spaces around its buildings, facilitating both pedestrian movement, relaxation, and activities that allowed people to stop and enjoy the city.”

Apart from the more macro urbanism that Kazazian tried to impart through his work, he also sought to transfer the physical micro details, which defined so much of Middle Eastern architecture.

For example, from his experience of growing up amidst rooftop grapevines, Kazazian incorporated the grapevine structure into several of his residential projects in the United States.

“I paid particular attention to the special layouts and transformation of space through material and light, as well as the visual access to outdoor grapevines and scenery. This was done through carefully crafted pockets, rather than completely transparent glass,” explains Kazazian.

According to Kazazian, the concept of grapevines is more than just a modern Middle Eastern phenomenon but rather, has its roots from the ‘Hanging Gardens of Babylon’ in Iraq. “The Middle East is so rich with great architecture and it is a pity that more and more architects are ignoring what is truly Middle Eastern and replacing it with a Westernised concept.”

For Kazazian, one of the most fascinating aspects of Beirut’s architecture is the flow of circulation and access to destinations. As he explains, the movement is achieved through various pauses and intervals across the varying scenery, vegetation, scent and music.

“To me the local and cultural characteristics are ingrained in the physical planning of the structures, pedestrian movements and interplay of spaces and how they reflect the language, music and specific ways of communication of everyday life,” Kazazian adds.

“Without understanding cultural nuances, verbal and physical communications, languages, music, literature and topography, relying primarily on computer animated forms and a reductionist language of sustainability, the new buildings we create will be sustainable white elephants capable of surviving anywhere from the North to South poles.”

While Beirut then offered an ideal model of architecture, Kazazian admits that the city’s current state of architecture is no longer what it used to be. “The centre of Beirut can be characterised as a void made up of mostly empty space with a scattering of developments of conflicting, dissonant styles.”

To overcome the influx of Western architecture styles, Kazazian believes that architects should design for people and nature, specific to each place. Using both intuitive and analytical approaches, architects should integrate their own experience and knowledge into each project.

Kazazian illustrates his point by referencing a project he recently designed in New York City.
The project, a rooftop house, demanded a creative lighting approach owing to its location in one of the city’s busiest districts.

Drawing on his experience from Beirut, Kazazian designed the space with large glass walls and a reflected water motif to recreate a soothing and cooling atmosphere. The design reminded me of the tiny fountains is Beirut with large-scale walls inlaid with arabesque stone motives that paid tribute to water.”

Hana Kassem (top pic) director at Kohn Pedersen Fox Associates (KPF).makes clear right from the onset that her work is about trying to create architecture that is at once Middle Eastern and modern.

“Middle Eastern does not mean going back into tradition and staying there but it means digging into the tradition and finding parts that are relevant to how Middle Easterners live now and really making those viable and keeping them alive.”

She adds: “It is never a choice for someone to say: I am going to live in a certain place as a Middle Easterner or as somebody from this specific country – those things go hand in hand, and I try to address this reality.”

Most recently, when designing the Al Bateen Wharf project, a mixed-use development in Abu Dhabi, Kassem paid special attention towards understanding the history of Arabic patterns so as to accurately incorporate them in the hotel’s architecture. “We were careful not to take traditional Middle Eastern patterns and repeat them endlessly, as is the vogue.

Rather, we tried to understand how certain patterns are developed and why these patterns exist on specific surfaces,” explains Kassem Comprising two sections – Salt and Matrix – the idea is to provide users a starkly different retail experience unlike that offered by traditional malls.

“Salt is a very traditionally based, souk type of environment with a lot of opacity and solid walls. You have to walk through it to discover what is going on around the corner.

“It has a very labyrinthine layout. In contrast, Matrix is very transparent and glassy. It is high-tech and speaks to the future with its endless spaces.

“I remember vividly visiting this castle in the desert when I was in Iraq and noticing that the castle was somewhat sunken into the ground. When you descended from the open courtyard to the rooms, it was at least 10 to 15 degrees cooler. We tried delivering a similar concept for Salt, so that it evokes a very traditional atmosphere yet in a very modern way.

“Although I am originally from Lebanon, I have spent most of my life in international cities and so I always try to be sensitive to different cultures and to tie in something that is both global and local. As someone who knows the culture, who speaks the language, it is an advantage to be working in the Middle East. In addition, as a woman, it is an even more positive thing.”