Historic moments

The Middle East is far ahead of the rest of the world when it comes to sustainable buildings.

The question of history is a vital one for architects. Drawing from the experience of the past is one way to pay homage to that history; another is to try to improve on it and do something new.

Sitting in the Jumeirah Beach Hotel as Construction Week's Building Sustainability in the Middle East conference was taking place, I watched Nicholas Bailey presenting on how architects can design more sustainable buildings.

The design director for Atkins (Northern Gulf) was like a party popper, full of enthusiasm for the subject, and then he made a very salient point. Namely, sustainable design was what he'd always done-simply because it made sense and that was how he'd been trained.

Building designs which might be portrayed as new or innovative are in fact just a case of remembering the lessons of the past, be it the architect's own past, or that from the grander stage of history. Historic architecture generally had to be sustainable since societies were subject to greater limits on resources than we face today. Masdar City, for instance, draws heavily on traditional architecture of  Middle Eastern heritage by using fewer resources.

While various governments and pressure groups around the world still quibble over things like the Kyoto Protocol and the Bali Summit, architects really are blazing a trail because for the industry, the argument has already been settled. There's simply no question that we need a more sustainable world.

If Frank Lloyd Wright is to be believed, this is good news for us all. "The architect must be a prophet," he said. "If he can't see at least ten years ahead don't call him an architect."

Architects have seen the future, and they're seeing it here. The rest of the world might be busy arguing, but here in the Middle East, the home of some of the world's largest oil reserves and the highest per capita energy consumers, we've actually come so far that sustainability is the norm. And you can bet your bottom dollar (or dirham) that the rest of the world is going to look to our architecture, our architects, our way of doing things-and build a better world, in our image.

During the medieval period, the Middle East was the mathematic and scientific centre of the world, while the West skulked in petty superstition and self-interest. Isn't it funny how history repeats itself?

James Boley is the assistant editor of Middle East Architect.

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