JT+Partners’ Michelle Najm reflects on her experience in Dubai and how we can all learn from Frank Lloyd Wright
“When I was a kid, I would always draw dresses,” said Lebanese architect Michelle Najm from JT+Partners. “But then I would always find myself excited by new buildings and places, especially in Beirut, where the urban environment is very dense and you can discover a lot. You can observe all of the city’s phases of history and architecture by just walking down a street.”
Later encouraged by her father to study architecture – “I had the artistic talent and the intelligence, and he saw that” – Najm joined the Lebanese Institute of Fine Arts, where the field was taught alongside other creative forms, like painting and theatre. It was a programme that allowed her to see the beauty in architecture, she said, rather than studying it as a part of engineering.
“That’s how I fell in love with it,” Najm added. “When I graduated I was at the top of my class, and then I immediately joined Scale Group.”
After her graduation, Najm worked in Beirut for nearly five years at various boutique consultancy firms, which allowed her to work on an array of projects, from governmental to commercial and residential. But despite her growing portfolio, the market in Lebanon felt small, she said, and Dubai started to look like a world of opportunity.
“I had been looking for work on LinkedIn, and I came across Joe [Tabet’s] profile. We have mutual friends, so I sent him a message to see if he could help. It turned out he had just left Atkins and was setting up his own firm and he was in the process of recruiting. Within three days, I had joined the team,” Najm explained. “When we started, the team was only four people and it’s been amazing ever since.”
Some of the projects that Najm has worked on since joining JT+Partners include the Al Raha Waterfront Courtyard, which won an Arabian Property Award and was shortlisted by The Plan Awards, as well as private residences across the region and beyond. Upcoming projects include a Double Tree in Iraq, as well as a Hampton by Hilton Hotel and another luxury villa project, both of which are in Ras Al Khaimah. It’s a full plate, but Najm is happy and hungry for more.
“When I look back on the past three years and I compare it to the years that I worked in Lebanon, despite it being a shorter period of time, I feel that I’ve done 10 times more,” she said. “And I feel that I’ve evolved on a personal level, too. The opportunities that Joe has given us has pushed me to mature and develop in terms of my design thinking and delivery.
“I like to create fluid movements in my design – and if you look at most of my projects, you’ll see that it has the same language as Frank Lloyd Wright’s buildings, but with a 21st century approach.”
According to Najm, Wright’s architecture and its dialogue with the environment created a “beautiful language”.
“His approach was so simple. It was very minimalistic and right to the point,” she added.
At the moment, Najm is working on two projects in Seychelles, and while she’s gaining a lot of experience in the hospitality sector, private residences also interest her. With clients more eagerly involved, the challenges that commonly arise when working on private residential projects push her to innovate design solutions that don’t “kill the architecture.”
“In the end, if you’re intelligent and a good architect, you can always find way to please the client and yourself,” she said.