Architecture & urbanism

Award-winning OMA is opening an office in Dubai and MEA spoke to partner and head of Middle East architecture, Reinier De Graaf.


Award-winning OMA is opening an office in Dubai and MEA spoke to partner and head of Middle East architecture, Reinier De Graaf.

When is OMA Dubai set to open its doors?

It depends when the licensing process is completed, but soon. It's in the process of being finalised. We have our space and now it's just a matter of a signature.

How did OMA become interested in the Middle East market?

With the building boom that is happening in the Middle East, requests started landing on our doorstep, which is common for many architects at the moment. But, we took part in a competition held by Dubai Properties for which we proposed a building in Business Bay called The Renaissance. We didn't win the competition, Zaha Hadid won instead, but the experience of taking part in that competition generated an intellectual interest in Dubai. That competition was the impetus for our becoming more involved in the region.

How does a worldwide collaborative architecture firm work?

OMA is an international partnership that works on projects all over the world and is based in Rotterdam but the bulk of our work, perhaps 95%, is in other countries. We work partly in Europe, partly in America, partly in China and Southeast Asia and increasingly in the Middle East.

As I said, our headquarters are in Rotterdam but we have an office in New York that is dedicated to our work in North America and our office in China is focused on building the headquarters for China Central Television (CCTV), for which we are the head architects. Our China office has been increasingly expanding to do other jobs around Asia and currently, with the ever-expanding body of work in the Middle East, we're in the process of setting up an office in Dubai.

What projects is OMA involved with in the region?

At the moment, we're working on a large project for Nakheel near the new Palm in Jebel Ali. We are also doing a building for Porsche Design in Dubai. We have been commissioned to look at the Sharjah Museum on the Khor al Khan site and there are miscellaneous competitions that we are doing for buildings in the UAE. We are also working on projects in Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

What do you think about the predominance of iconic architecture in this region?

RdG: It has very interesting repercussions in many fields. I mean, the talk I intended to give, [at Cityscape 2007] was about that. It was about the consequences of the proliferation of iconic architecture and the speed with which it is produced and how it has an impact on the profession as a whole and how the profession works. However, architects can use [the iconic architecture in the Middle East] as a way to innovate the way they work.

Can a city have too many iconic buildings?

Such categorical statements are always very difficult to make about things that have already happened. If you look at Dubai, one could make that statement. I guess it is the city par excellence. If there is one city about which one could make that statement, it is Dubai.

On the other hand, Dubai exists. It is there. It is a phenomenon in its own right. It is a phenomenon of which the scale and the speed often defy judgment. Dubai is beyond taste. It is beyond good and bad.

Dubai is so extreme that statements like 'It's too iconic', simply don't apply. It just represents the next category of architectural development.

Architecturally speaking, do you think Dubai is chaotic or disharmonious?

No. I generally try to resist statements like that. So many statements are made from Europe and America, the 'old' centres of production, that suggest that those old centres reserve the right of judgment about the rest of the world.

The fact is, however, the centres of real production have shifted elsewhere. What happens here, in terms of architecture, happens according to different rules, so a large part of our value system doesn't apply. That is not a statement I would make about Dubai.

I am more interested in the newness of Dubai and Dubai's effect on the future of architecture. I generally find that more interesting than dwelling on all the things that might have gone wrong. Generally speaking, I'm in favour of a wholesale amnesty for the build.

What challenges do you anticipate for working in this region?

The speed of building here is a challenge in itself. But the real challenge is the decision-making process [in this region], which is clearly different and, in weird way, similar to that in Europe.

I mean, the challenge is finding a way to ensure, as much as is within your ability, that the right decisions are made. In Dubai, there is clearly a completely different process than in Europe.

This is a region that is often criticised [for environmental risks and architectural forms] outside the region but I do think it is a region that has shown itself to be incredibly sensitive to that criticism. It seems that sometimes, the outside criticism coming from various sources has a noticeable effect for the better.

The criticism does put issues on the agenda for the leadership and they do make a genuine effort to address it rather than look away and dismiss the rest of the world. It is quite different from other regions in that respect.

From what or where do you gain your inspiration?

I mainly gain inspiration from curiosity. I gain inspiration from insight acquired through working in different conditions and in different regions.

For me, it is quite interesting to look at the production of towers and icons on a massive scale in the Middle East.

In a sense, there is so much extravagance here that the traditional 'extravagant' avant-garde architecture becomes insignificant. I think this is an interesting condition. If signature architecture can be copied and outdone so easily, one could wonder about the point, or future, of signature architecture.

In your architecture, do you try to match a style with a region?

It is difficult to say because in Dubai, which style would that be by now? Dubai is exemplary. If you go to Shanghai or Mumbai or anywhere, you will find the same situation.

If you adapt your style, what exactly do you adapt it to? Do you adapt it to the older architecture that is supposedly reflecting the traditional identity of a country? Almost anywhere, the quantity of the old substance tends to be outdone by the quantity of the new substance. Much of that new substance is imported from elsewhere, so it's a tricky question.

In the Middle East, we try not to use the international' style of architecture, which does not deal particularly well with hot climates. The much older Arabic vernacular clearly has a much more efficient way of dealing with the hot climate than the air-conditioned glass towers that you see going up in this region.

So, if the traditional architecture offers a repertoire that is more intelligent and less wasteful to acute conditions, then it becomes weirdly and suddenly relevant.

Will OMA try to perpetuate the greening' of the desert?

Obviously sustainability is an issue. It is very much an overused word so I tend to be hesitant in using it but interestingly enough you mentioned 'greening'.

If you examine that statement, the wholesale greening of the desert is not sustainable at all. Where greening is supposedly responsible everywhere else, green in the context of the desert, is very energy inefficient. Therefore, 'greening of the desert' presents a bit of an eco-riddle. So, if greening means environmentally sound, what is greening of the desert?

However, OMA has a city in Ras al Khaimah [The Gateway City] that has been likened to Abu Dhabi's Masdar initiative many times. It's won a Cityscape award for masterplanning and I just wanted to note that we were first. But, naturally, I endorse many of the zero-carbon concepts that Foster + Partners is using in Masdar.

If you could have worked on any project at any time in history, what would it be?

That is an incredibly difficult question. I'm happy with the body of work we have. One thing I'd like to mention is that we tendered for the Dubai Development Framework, which was an initiative that looked at the next 20 years of development in Dubai as a whole. It was a kind of masterplan of masterplans. We didn't get the project but that is something that I would have enjoyed working on.

Now is what counts. As an architect, it is so hard to plan your career. When you think about it, however you spin it, [an architect's] career is the result of a series of relatively random requests so thinking ‘I would have liked to have done that' is a bit pointless. You just have to do well what you're doing at the moment.

What is the future for OMA?

The future looks bright. There are still many developments going on and there is plenty to be built. So, from an opportunity point of view, the future will be much different from what it's been so far.

By definition I think that issues like preservation, history and low-cost housing will play increasing roles in the architectural development of the Middle East. Many issues will need to be considered to make a relatively new phenomenon into a complete city. Generally I think the next 15 years will be quite different from the past 15 years. They have to be, invariably.

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