Face to face: Sumaya Dabbagh

Architect Sumaya Dabbagh says the fabric of the kingdom's cities must be part of its future

Architect Sumaya Dabbagh
Architect Sumaya Dabbagh

Architect Sumaya Dabbagh says the fabric of the kingdom’s cities must be part of its future By Hadi Khatib.

So much is being talked about the new Saudi architectural landscape. Glitz and glitter for the most part, painting a new cosmopolitan picture of the Kingdom.

The 1km Kingdom Tower in Jeddah set for completion in 2018 is by far the most iconic development, but not the only one.

The Headquarters Business Park in Jeddah, a 50-storey office tower and mixed use development, and the Olaya Towers in downtown Riyadh, one of the more prominent sets of buildings to rise in that city’s skyline, are defining a new direction and setting standards for the future.

“This is what happened in Dubai, when the Emirates Towers first came up. The ‘feel’ of quality of a well-designed, well-executed and long lasting project became a reference for people,” said Sumaya Dabbagh.

Dabbagh is a Saudi national born in Jeddah and the current Honorary Secretary of the Gulf Chapter of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

She also runs Dabbagh Architects, her own practice in Dubai. She said: “When a city starts to grow that way, people can start to discern the difference and demand quality.”

Dabbagh Architects is a privately-held architectural design ?rm. With more than 20 years of UAE experience, Dabbagh set up her design of?ce and became fully licensed and registered in the Emirate of Dubai in 2008. The company’s mission is to create ‘feel good, contemporary architecture that has a positive impact on the world’.

Dabbagh said that she believes Jeddah is suffering from a lot less quality in new buildings than Riyadh.

Riyadh’s King Abdullah Financial District, for example, represents a highly important economic boost for the city – not to mention being a prestigious architectural development. It has been masterplanned by Danish architects Henning Larsen.

“Wadi Hanifa, which was for years a rubbish dump, was cleaned up and transformed into a vast park with flora, fauna, and lakes that attract cool breezes and this brought a dimension of fertility to the city,” said Dabbagh.
Wadi Hanifa crosses parts of Riyadh, essentially creating a ‘pseudo corniche’ that runs southeast for 120km before reaching the shifting sands of the Empty Quarter.

“In Riyadh we find the Diplomatic Quarter with very innovative projects that have won awards – and of course the Riyadh Metro, which will transform the city. Jeddah, a low-rise city, seems to have more private projects with only a handful of developers looking at developing quality,” said Dabbagh.

And quality has been missing in Jeddah, according to Dabbagh. Poor housing development has been, for the most part, a source of discontent for renters and/or home owners.

“In Jeddah, land prices are very expensive, so a developer having to pay up for the land and cost of construction tends to build cheaply resulting in very poor quality, and charge really high prices,” said Dabbagh.

The solution might rest with government-led investments and spending. The $86bn King Abdullah Economic City, encompassing 173 km2, is located along the Red Sea, around 100 km north of Jeddah, close to Makkah and Madinah by car and an hour away from an airport that can reach all Middle Eastern capital cities. It’s only one of six economic and four medical cities that will change the face of the country in the years to come.

And, as with every high quality scheme, there is a temptation to start from scratch, as if the area’s history never existed.

“Construction trends in Saudi Arabia seem to follow those of Dubai where islands of new developments are comingup in places like BurjKhalifa and the area around it, the Marina, JBR, and others,” indicated Dabbagh.

“What I find missing is the issue of integrating that development into the fabric of the city. These developments, though they enjoy great design, workmanship and masterplanning, tend to turn their backs on what’s around them, and create division rather than integration.”

Dabbagh, whose understanding of cultures is essential to her work, believes there is a missed opportunity when one builds a completely new element, and takes little from its context, its locality or its orientation.

“Jeddah and other Saudi cities have a very strong history and heritage. If construction can’t make a connection with the street and human scale, then we are losing an important aspect of community creation and with it a sense of belonging. What tends to happen is that the old part is neglected and people start moving out.”

Dabbagh said it is vital not to forget what or who came before. “Yes, modern construction attracts business and revenues, but what I’d like to see more of is a vision and a way to build communities, and make them sustainable socially, culturally and economically.

“Al Balad in old Jeddah was a great example of an integrated, mixed-use development at the height of its time. Without copying it stylistically, we have a lot to learn from the essence of that piece of city fabric to use in our future cities.”

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