Inspired by uncertainty

Ahmed Al Ali and Farid Esmaeli, founders of X-architects, talk to Jeff Roberts about Bedouin influences, building paradise & the beauty of their ambiguous future.

Spiralling staircase on the ‘O’ de Squisito. \n\n\nmiddle_east_architect/2009_08_01/x2_thumb.jpg
Spiralling staircase on the ‘O’ de Squisito. \n\n\nmiddle_east_architect/2009_08_01/x2_thumb.jpg

Ahmed Al Ali and Farid Esmaeli, founders of X-architects, talk to Jeff Roberts about Bedouin influences, building paradise & the beauty of their ambiguous future.

Why 'X' architects?

AA: 'X' stands for the ambiguity of understanding what the future holds. It comes from asking, “What can come from the cross-breeding of modern thinking and the cultural environment?'

Tell me about the origin of X-architects.

FE: We were classmates at the American University in Sharjah. The whole idea started while we were students. It was in our third or fourth year that we began really discussing the idea of creating a design- and research-oriented office. After graduation, perhaps the very next morning, we started the office.

AA: Farid and I opened the office in 2003. We share the same theories or ideologies when it comes to design. Our vision was to create a design-oriented office where we could concentrate on a theoretical approach to architecture.

Some of our first projects best illustrate our philosophy of bringing a contemporary feel to the architecture of this region. We always try to modernise regional architecture and take it to another level.

What is the 'X-architect' approach to architecture?

AA: Farid and I do everything together. We've been working on designs for several new projects but we started with Ismaeil villa. We look at every project in a very detailed way. In Xeritown, for example, we've incorporated simple urban features that act as shading devices for people on the street. But, they're outfitted with PV panels so they garner energy from the sun and they light up at night to create very unique lighting features too.

I think we're being a little bit more sensitive to the places we're building in and the people we're building for. We use both context and clientele as design guidelines.

FE: The basic environmental elements-i.e. sun, wind, sand-are very specific for this part of the world. How can you use wind to reduce the use of energy? How can we use the sun to do the same? These are the things we're focusing on.

What are some of your company's signature projects?

AA: We began with Ismaeil villa, which we did for a local family. This project is about providing a way for the family to maintain its privacy-locals are always searching for privacy that also allows for enjoying the maximum openness of the space that surrounds them.

Ismaeil villa looks solid from outside but once inside, it breaks down to open spaces and transparencies and so forth. It offers a shallow experience for visitors to the house and a deeper experience for the family.

We're also working on a 60-hectare masterplan for a sustainable mixed-use development. It's sustainable from the perspectives of technology, society and context.

Starting from scratch, we considered the wind and how it shapes the dunescape of the original site. We looked at the sun, which affects the way we orient our projects. We have to address the lack of water and the need for water-saving strategies. We also considered climate, energy and soil.

If you look at 'O' de Squisito, which is our houseboat project, you'll see it is a completely new contemporary typology for this part of the world. Nakheel and the big developers are building projects around the idea of living in the water. 'O' de Squisito is a typology that responds to this.

Years ago the Bedouins used to live in very mobile structures because they had to move from one place to another. So, this offers a way for the new Dubai to be mobile in the water. If you don't like the skylines of the Marina, tomorrow you can go to the World.

Which do you prefer, houseboats or mixed-use developments?

AA: For us, it doesn't matter. We're interested in any design-oriented projects in which we can express our thoughts and feelings. We're working on a lot of projects right now, all of which are different from one another. We're doing everything from single homes to small cities to bigger cities.

What is your opinion on regional architecture?

AA: The things that some architects are producing are wonderful. For example, Jean Nouvel's Louvre is absolutely wonderful. I think there are a lot of positive things about the region's new architecture, but it's been concentrated in a very limited number of projects.

Jean Nouvel, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and Rem Koolhaas are all doing some really amazing things in the region. But the general mainstream architecture is still naive or banal. Not to criticise or blame, but this is how it's going. Until you attract architects who are truly visionary, you cannot move forward.

FE: The building boom in the region has had a really positive affect on the architecture. The way people see urban design and how they understand architecture is so much more advanced, even from just five years ago. The level of discussion between us and our clients is incomparable. Proper international knowledge of architecture is now coming to the Middle East.

What inspires you?

Nature. The environment. Culture. These are the principles of the society itself. How you become sensitive to these principles and how to incorporate them into architectural forms and materials is what intrigues me.

AA: I'm inspired by the ambiguity of the future. Although we are very sensitive to all the elements Farid mentioned, we don't know what kind of typologies will emerge from all the building in the region. That's very inspiring to us.

Do culturally significant projects need local architects?

Good design is good design. The really good projects that are really sensitive to cultural specifications seem to be coming mainly from Western architects.

Jean Nouvel's two extremes are a perfect example. He built the Arab World Institute, which is extremely sensitive to Arab culture, in the middle of Paris. Then, he designed the Louvre for Abu Dhabi. He put an Arabian element in Paris and now he's putting a French element in the Middle East.

AA: If you consider Rem Koolhaas, for example, he is one of the most radical architects but he is very sensitive to understanding local culture and context. That's why he's been able to build in China before any other Western architects. He understood the situation and sensitivity of culture.

What are some examples of successful architecture?

One example is the work of Rasem Badran. In Riyadh, he did a project called Dar al-Hakim, it's wonderful. Also, the Kuwait water tanks, done in the early 1970s, are so well done. You cannot imagine them anywhere else other than in a Kuwaiti context.

FE: The Weill Cornell Medical College by Arata Isozaki in Qatar is also a beautiful example of successful architecture.

If you could be involved in any project, anywhere in the world, what would it be?

AA: There is one that I'm very interested in. The Grand Mosque in Isfahan [Iran] is a wonderful project. It's wonderful on all levels. It's unbelievable to think how they were able to make every centimetre of the building as complex as the entire building itself. There is so much sensitivity. There are so many emotions that went into making that building that I wonder if we're on the right track.

You don't see that kind of emotion in buildings today, even from the greatest architects or artists. The play of light, the material selection, the's magical. It is so skilful, so accurate. It's building paradise. Any attempt to duplicate that would be so trivial.

What is the future for X-architects?

AA: In sha'allah, the future will be positive. In the last five years, we've done so many different types of projects. We're moving in a line that never repeats itself. We've had kind of a five-year grand tour of the market. The future looks good. We're getting a lot of recognition in the marketplace.

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