Architecture, Context-driven architecture, Opinion piece

We need better architecture

I won’t name names. Or buildings. But I think we’ve all had that same conversation, again and again, about how great everything is without actually meaning it. We sit down to discuss a new project that just opened somewhere in the GCC – built by architects who are known only because they continue to scoop up design competitions and grace media headlines.

We will note the use of mashrabiya as the project’s nod to regional heritage – “it also uses wooden screens to create privacy,” someone will chime – but in the end, one poor soul will accidentally end the conversation, saying something subtle with an almost undetectable trace of pessimism about modern-day architecture in the Middle East. It could be anything from, “mashrabiya, again?” to, “no one wants wind towers anymore,” but the message will be there: whatever this new building is, it lacks story and experience, and the context is achieved through superficial means. Or maybe that’s just me reading into things too much.

I think it’s safe to say that there was a period of ‘fast architecture’ across the region – architects were flooding in and were left awestruck by the endless projects they were being commissioned for. Cultural elements pushed for overnight work and industry professionals were more than willing to keep up with the pace set by expectation, because if they weren’t, there were countless others who were.

A design proposal by Islam El Mashtooly for Egypt Science City, a design competition held over a year ago. After winning an AIA Award in 2016, the jury said the design, “successfully gathers all the dimensions of architecture, culture, history, heritage, landscape and urban design.” The design is a successful example of context-driven architecture.

Many architects set aside their responsibility to advise, which happened for many reasons including the fear of losing the commission. Such urban development created junk spaces between high-density pods across various regional cities. And throughout the year, various industry professionals from Firas Hnoosh at Perkins+Will to Professor Ruben Garcia Rubio noted the phenomena. “It must be fixed,” they often said. “In fact, it can be fixed.”

In the past two months, I’ve noticed that architects – aside from the ones that maintained their work ethic throughout the last few years – are starting to wake up. They’re realising that there is real power in their profession, and designing our cities is no small job. Architects design our day-to-day, they design how we get to work and what our work looks like, feels like. They are the creators of our modernity, and if their eyes are closed, the rest of us will suffer.

You’ll see later on in this issue that we produced our annual list of influential architects in the Who’s Who (pg.26). There are 50 names and almost all of them strive to create context-driven work. They analyse their sites, research respective cultures and aim to deliver projects that suit the landscape. It sounds easier than it is – there have been years of buildings completely missing the mark, but in the last year or two, there’s been a slow turn around. And I expect to see more righteous initiative taken across the next 12 months.

We put a lot of effort into researching the Who’s Who, and had many conversations with candidates. Architects in the region are actively caring again, and I’m relieved to see it.