Arab architecture, Arab design, Architecture, D3, Dubai Design District, Mohammad Saeed Al-Shehhi

The evolution of regional design practices: how the Arab world’s design past informs its future

Written by Mohammad Saeed Al-Shehhi, Chief Operating Officer of Dubai Design District (d3)

Design practices from art to architecture have been evolving across the Middle East for more than 1,000 years. Many of these have their roots in “Islamic art,” an umbrella term that was coined for post-7th century visual arts created by those closely linked to the people and cultures of Islam. It has included architecture, architectural decoration, ceramic art, relief sculpture, drawing, painting, calligraphy, textile design and metal-working. If we look closely, Islamic art has been influenced by Greek art, too, which it has combined with the many Middle Eastern cultures of Egypt and ancient Persia, along with the cultures of China and India. This amalgamation has led to a style that is today known the world over.

As one who is well-versed with the origins of this movement, I believe the most important feature in its advent is the Arab element. This contributed to the development of Islamic Art and informed the language of the Holy Book, the Koran (Qur’an), as well as the Arabic form of writing. The Arabic script became the singular feature of all Islamic Art and subsequently design, leading to a vast variety of abstract decorations that can be seen even now.

Let’s start with architecture.

If we go back to the first half of the 20th century, we can see how architects from Iraq and Jordan such as Rifat Chadirji and Rasem Badran tried to revive the traditional Arab house, not by making formalistic modifications but by taking the core values and reconstructing them to suit contemporary needs. Chadirji’s Villa Hamood in Baghdad (1970-1972) and Badran’s Villa Handal in Amman (1975-1977) are great examples of contemporary Arab architecture. There are also other projects scattered around the Arab world, some of them mosques and universities, that are in line with local tradition and the practical requirements of the surrounding society.

Many Arab cities were designed with an incredible focus on the technology that large international firms could provide. But in all that construction, much local wisdom was lost. Saba George Shiber, one of the region’s great planners, touched upon this in 1963, saying: “Today, not only in the Arab world but elsewhere, perhaps what is needed most is not merely technical skill and knowledge, but wisdom …. .”  Design stalwarts across the region can take pride in the extent to which Arab architects are being supported by Dubai’s government and by evolving destinations like Dubai Design District (d3), where we are moving towards a knowledge-based economy in which technology, but also the revitalisation of the Arab past, is encouraged.

Today a host of contemporary designers are drawing on tradition for inspiration across a variety of creative disciplines. Many are using local materials and age-old regional motifs to build functional pieces of universal appeal. Creatives like Lebanese furniture designer Nada Debs have started “East and East”, merging minimalist Japanese aesthetics with ornate Arabic details; UAE-based MONOGRAM has created architectural sculptures based on language and designed to evoke the culture of the United Arab Emirates; Amman-based Naqsh Collective has taken its inspiration from contemporary and traditional Arabic aesthetics. Ideas around art, architecture and heritage are adapted as minimal and current looks, shapes, and structures are distilled to reflect the beauty of culture.

The street art that can be found in the Arab world today also has a modern context. It touches upon themes that are important to contemporary society.  The growing field of graphic novels and comics in the Middle East such as Persepolis, for example, are evolving with clear direction – they deal with social matters, another signal that design can often serve for the study of cultural history.

However, a region’s design history can inform us about more than just its culture—it also points to its economic success, its technological prowess and its political and social status. This year’s Cityscape, which was held from September 11 – 13 at the World Trade Centre, touched upon a few interesting ideas not only related to the history of Dubai’s design industry and its growth, but also its ability to create sustainable places for emerging designers.

This month, d3 presented a curated selection of creative talent from across the Middle East in London, at “Middle East: Design Now!” which is part of the London Design Festival. This showcased thought-provoking talent emerging across the Middle East today. Taking a look at traditional materials and design methodologies, it also portrayed designers and artists from a variety of creative fields and through different mediums. The exhibition hosted 18 designers including Aljoud Lootah, Ayah Al Bitar, Loulwa Al Radwan, Marc Baroud and Chacha Atallah, from across the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. Many of them utilised traditional methods, materials and motifs in a modern day context, understanding how memory and DNA play a part in the creation of contemporary artefacts and graphics.

From architecture to graffiti, Islamic art continues to evolve, just as it has for so many centuries. And maybe the greatest testament to its power is this ability to endure and change. For all those who have faith in this region, even amid its many travails, there is comfort in that.