Building sculptures

Marwan Zgheib, founder of Lebanon's MZ Architects, speaks with MEA about the ideal city, the international style and achieving the dream.

Marwan Zgheib
Marwan Zgheib

Marwan Zgheib, founder of Lebanon's MZ Architects, speaks with MEA about the ideal city, the international style and achieving the dream.

How did you develop an interest in architecture?

Man is surrounded by architecture from his first breath till his last. Every man is seduced by his surroundings. As for me, it all started during my childhood when I was helping my grandfather in building a small wall of stone in the garden.

My first art book, Point and Line to Plane by Kandinsky, further developed this passion. Later on, I deepened my knowledge by reading Vitruvius and Le Corbusier.

Is there a particular design ethos to which you adhere?

Well, I think that there are no 'schools of architecture' but instead 'schools of architects'. That's because every architect leaves his own signature.

How would you describe your personal style of architecture?

Mine is an international style. Evolving from the classical era, passing through the Middle Ages, to the Corbusian modernism, and encompassing a whole continuity of styles and periods.

Form and function-which are being adopted by the international platform-must be in total fusion; they are two souls in the same body. The purity of the form combines with a clear habitable space and engulfs a piece of architecture in total harmony.

There is a fruitful relationship between architecture and sculpture, but that does not mean that architecture is becoming a 'concave sculpture'. What distinguishes architecture from sculpture is that it always belongs to a place that is unique; the context is the difference.

Context affects-and sometimes dictates-the architecture. We always search for the fundamental concept of the sculptural form.

What are your views on the architecture we're seeing int the Gulf?

The oil revolution in the Gulf resulted in an economic boom and attracted masses of investors to the region. These investors settled in compounds, which offered a new dimension and a different lecture of space. New cities emerged out of the traditional existing agglomerations.

These new cities responded to new demands and introduced a different way of life.

The compounds expanded in the late 1970s and brought with them the need for a completely new system of transportation, infrastructure networks and development.

These conditions attracted consultants and architects from all over the world, who introduced their culture, knowledge and experience. This created a rhapsodic movement, in richness and variety, on one side and an identity crisis of architectural styles and languages on the other.

What is your opinion of bringing in star architects to build the cities and icons of the Middle East?

Every city is identified mostly by historical and iconic buildings. In the modern Gulf cities, star architects are trying to create new symbols and consistent landmarks that gather all the qualities of a healthy society. They are trying to create the ideal city; something that is ideal in its uniqueness.

Is it fair to say that local architects understand the Middle Eastern context better and thus, create better architecture here?

It's difficult to differentiate between local and foreign architects, because the potential of the architect is what really matters. International standards and global experience are no longer obstacles, so there are some buildings-designed by foreign architects-that are in perfect harmony with their context.

How have you seen the region's architecture change since you began working in the field?

The growth of the modern cities in the Gulf has been incredible. We have seen cities developed in the last few years that are dictated by economic growth but face major technical problems such as traffic, lack of infrastructure and poor environmental conditions.

In architecture, the change is also incredible. The region seems to have become a large experimental field in which local and international skills and proficiencies of investors, designers, consultants, contractors, etc. are showcased.

What are some examples of successful architecture in the Gulf?

The word 'successful' is very relative; we can talk about 'being a success', because every project is a success by its own standards. We have to differentiate the commercial profit from the global impact on the overall context.

For example, the Emirates Towers in Dubai and the ADIA Tower in Abu Dhabi are successful for what they represent as iconic and sculptural images.

What is most exciting about working in this field in the region?

First, the interaction between and diversity of the different cultures adds so much excitement and richness-directly or indirectly, consciously or unconsciously-during workshops.

Second, it is a pleasure to participate in design competitions with colleagues from all over the world-sharing opinions, visions and methodologies. And third, the pace of construction in this region gives one great pleasure in achieving the dream.

What are the advantages for clients using local architects?

This subject is very relative; the client has to differentiate between an architect and a consultant. A great consultant could be a very bad architect and vice versa.

The client should realise the style of the architect he wishes to work with and trust him as a creative person rather than a technician. The accessibility of data, uniform regulations and standard codes nowadays is no longer an advantage for one over the other.

What are the challenges for local practices in the region?

The challenges depend on three different factors: quality, time and cost. Quality is achieved by local firms having a perfect assimilation of the cultural heritage and respect for the local traditions.

Time is less of a problem because local firms understand the environmental conditions that prove challenging and create well-conditioned, sustainable architecture. Money becomes less of an issue if you're designing for different energy saving elements and eco-friendly solutions.

However, the choice of materials, its quality, its delivery, the proficiency of the contractors and other different factors contribute to creating better conditions for local practices.

What is the way forward for architecture in the Gulf?

As I mentioned, the Gulf is becoming a laboratory; a new experimental field. The buildings are oriented toward a more sustainable composition and highly sophisticated infrastructure.

This provides several positive components including bringing us closer to achieving truly modern cities. However, with modernisation come side effects: loss of tradition and a replacement of the original way of life. The most critical consequence comes when cultural continuity is ruptured.

What does the future hold for you and for MZ Architects?

We are one of the leading architectural, urban planning and engineering consultancy firms in the Middle East. Our portfolio of exceptional modern architectural designs covers a variety of fields.

We are also dedicated to becoming more and more specialised in tower design and sustainable urban development too.

Right now, MZ is made up of three different divisions: MZ Architects is the creative department; MZ & Partners includes the consultancies; and MZ Urban Planners handles urban development projects. We are also considering strengthening MZ in the UAE by opening an office in Abu Dhabi.

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