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    Friday, June 18, 2010

    RANT - Architecturally Speaking..

    As an architect, i've always considered Saudi modern architecture to be an eye sore.. Our understanding of modernism doesn't go beyond the material used to give the idea of being modern.. And you guessed it, glass and steel is a must if you want to be 21st century-isc.. This is not a full fledged generalization, it's merely a majority that seems to lead the market into their arena.. Maximizing profit, minimizing cost, mutilating the surroundings..

    One neighborhood after another, the aesthetic levels vary.. Some areas are well articulated, and some are cardbox disasters, sharing the same design motifs, mainly because the designers use the same CAD library all the time.. When you work as an intern in one of the prominent firms around, you're bound to come across the Bible of Saudi Designs, which is a 10 GB collection of CAD files of different facade designs, column designs and room layouts.. Some later versions of that bible can go up to 50 GB, and once you acquire that, you can start your own business already..

    Architecture in Saudi Arabia is measured by the ability to copy and paste those CAD models.. The speed determines the number of projects handled, and the authenticity of copied CADs (maybe from the neighboring countries) determines how long your design can last before spotting the similarities with an Egyptian or Syrian look-a-like.. Assuming your building was engineered to last that long, since Architecture in Saudi Arabia is all about "Build to Earn" and only a selected few who "Build to Learn"..

    To think objectively, we only need more of those venture designers who cross the red lines of common understanding, and present something new.. If the idea is truly genuine, and it present a new cake to the table, it will be successful and it will lead more to follow in that path.. And it's a win-win situation.. You'll land a new business, you'll create diversity in monochromatic culture we're in, and you'll allow other business to rise..

    I mean, honestly, for Allah's sake, whats the difference between those 70's buildings in the old Jeddah areas, that seem to last standing strong to this day (40 years and counting) and those cheap buildings behind my house that didn't even last 5 years and required heavy maintenance?

    Oh i get it..

    Instead of using actual italian tiles, now we're using the Chinese look-a-like..
    Instead of spending time studying the aging process of the facade material, just stick whatever impresses on first sight, and leave the durability in god's hands..
    Instead of respecting human beings, by building spaces that are up to human standards, now we're settling for Neufert's Midget Standard book to maximize the Space/SquareMeter ratio..

    From personal experience..

    A 1.2 by 1.2 Bathroom.. Not just the toilet seat, but with a sink and a shower? How the heck did that make any sense?

    Or a maid's room that is fitted under the stair case 3 meter high staircase? a 1.8 meter high maid's room? Really?!

    Or maybe those glorious closet solutions, filling the dead spaces between the column and the load bearing wall (which were arbitrarily placed) and just sticking a 0.6 wide door on it, and there you go..

    We're not in the business of trying new approaches to better deliver architectural ideals, or maybe hope to elevate cultural and social relation to spaces, we're in the business of mass marketing design to fit the rising demand for "individuality".. Only to find that that individuality is copied somewhere around your block, with the same exact window designs and corniches.. And as an aspiring new architect, am stuck in between the demanding market that knows little-to-nothing about architecture and the design process, and major offices who have huge payrolls and want money no matter what.. The room for the actual process to exist and demand it's market share is very small, and very few manage to make an impact..

    Am not saying that i do know, but i do read and i do study, and nothing seems to fit.. I try to sometimes ease the annoyance by saying, maybe we're a poor country, but we're not.. I try to ease the annoyance by saying, maybe we lack aspiration, but we don't..

    And then, even if you're presented with the chance to finally design something worth building, you're always in a competition with the Saudi under appreciation of local talent.. The more foreign and english-terminology-abusing you can get, the more chances to have your design approved on whatever price limit.. Open check-books for the win..

    But if you're a Saudi, with no need to make a local-approach study of understanding socio-cultural demands (because you're a damn Saudi), and with a decently suggested price, you're shot down.. Are we inherently believing in outsiders completely disbelieving in honesty of each other?

    How many lame "I designed this building to represent islamic culture by using islamic patterns" designs do we need? Or "representing the trip to makkah by creating a garden with the word Allah all over it"? Or "To represent Saudi Culture by adding a 1 meter wide wall between segregated areas"?

    Is it blamed on the client? or the client's lack of understanding (and the architect's abuse of that weakness)?

    I have allot of projects in mind that fueled the heat in this rant, and i'm in no liberty of letting their names out, because am working on them.. Seeing those horrors first hand explains why we lost over 4 new potential architecture geniuses, for the sake of their national ID..

    Anyways, rant over..



    1. Hey there!

      Saudi Modern architecture is nothing but an 'eye sore' as you describe it!
      I have lived here almost all my life and as i learned gradually about architecture (along my 5.5 yr course!) the soreness has just become unbearable!!

      Cad templates is exactly what i used to think they were (and that too imported from the western countries!) and now i'm sure after reading your inside story!

      Everytime i get out of the house, i cant help wondering 'what in the world do the architects here learn in architecture?? to just copy and past?? where is all the creativity??'
      Who ever told them that 'modern' was just glass and steel??

      They very well know how to spoil the image of a city...
      and that makes one realize the responsibility of an architect in creating the image of a city!

    2. It seems more clear everyday that we keep on choosing the "safest" investments.. Why venture down a path that may seem aesthetically prosperous when it doesn't give me back my money instantly? Why risk a long term investment, or an investment that leads to a bigger one, when i can build those copied CADs and get my rent's worth?

      That "Merchant" culture is killing the city, allowing it to look more and more like a sprawl of uncontrolled development, we like to call "real estate".. While it's not even related to it..

      The thing is, when you look at the western-city-concepts we like to implement in this country, you'll know that the government is seeking something, the developer is seeking something, and what this country really needs (a big a** revision of both), you'll land exactly where many chose to NOT choose architecture as a profession..

      It's a dirty job i guess, and somebody has to do it :D

    3. Thanx for the enlightening comment. Have never met a Saudi Architect before.
      Dirty job ey? ...with the scenario u just mentioned it sure sounds dirty!
      I did my internship in the city of Bangalore in South India...and the picture there is quiet different. The Architect never ends up doing what the government wants. They very coolly bend laws to suit their concepts. Guess the governments influence is very less.And since India is a comparatively poor country, the main challenge of the Architect is to build aesthetically at least cost. And there are a long list of Architects who has been very successful and quiet famous coz of that.

      I donno..i feel architects there are more aware of their social responsibility as compared to those in Saudi.
      I also believe that one cannot shy away from the social responsibility in the name of 'client-architect' relationship...

    4. It's mainly because of Architects knowing what it means to hold such a title, and there's a general understanding of what an Architect really is..

      Many young architects try to push their "let's think broader" agenda every day, and i see them shunned down on a daily basis because they're either costing an extra 5% (despite that 5% might give back in the long run) or because they're thinking of something that is more than cost-effective and more culturally-effective..

      We tend to admire the foreigner for considering culture in his design proposal (despite the number of zeros that will cost us) and completely disregard the local doing the same thing (thinking he's out there to get our cherished pockets)..

      But i completely agree.. It's because of restrictions that Architects become famous (Hasan Fathy comes to mind) and it's that NORMAL restrain that pushes us to better solve the problems.. But when the system and the market are both against innovation (for the sake of how much it costs) we're bound to blog i guess..

      Let's hope this spirit in the young stays long enough to last through their soon-to-open small practices, because only then they can actually be in charge of the change they want to see..

      Where did you study architecture?

    5. "But when the system and the market are both against innovation (for the sake of how much it costs) we're bound to blog i guess.." LOL! :)

      I studied architecture in India, Kerala to be specific.And you?... somewhere in the US i assume?

    6. Actually, no.. I studied in KFUPM, Eastern Province of Saudi.. The university is based on a very strong academic curriculum (once you know how to utilize it).. The only difference in my case, i actually read the books they gave us..

      To be honest, my college had the best architecture faculty (during my years), I feel proud (and somehow lucky) to be part of that period.. That is, of course, before things started heading downwards..

      Education in Saudi needs more than just a revision (a slap would be a good start)..