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Lom’s John Avery on designing for Middle East's banking clients

The director of Lom Architecture and Design talks to Rima Alsammarae about how he hopes to develop the banking industry into a cultural sector

INTERVIEWS, Design, John Avery, LOM Architecture, Middle East construction, Oxford School of Architecture, The Architectural Association

An award-winning British architect who studied at Cambridge University, the Oxford School of Architecture and the Architectural Association, John Avery joined Lom Architecture and Design shortly after it was established more than 20 years ago.

With extensive experience across the GCC, from Oman to the UAE, Kuwait to Saudi Arabia, Avery’s clients with Lom have so far included the United Arab Bank, HSBC Middle East, Ahli United Bank, and the National Bank of Oman.

“We see ourselves as being a commercial practice, but it is really important to us that design is at the core of everything we do, as well,” he says.

“We try to use a quite analytical approach, quite strategic approach, while also trying to create the beauty and wonder that architecture is all about.”

“So with Lom, we have done work in the region since the beginning, and for various reasons, we have had a really long-standing relationship with the regional banks, and that’s spanned everything from retail design through to head office buildings,” he adds.

Avery’s first project was the head office for a commercial bank in the Gulf, which opened in 2005, and mostly consisted of glass. “It is not a building you would design now,” he says. “I don’t think we would anyway, because it is all transparent.”

Indeed, visually and architecturally, this early project seems somewhat opposed to the design firm’s more recent projects, such as the National Bank of Oman headquarters building. Avery explains  this latest project is far more context-driven and reflective of the local environment.

“I see those two projects as bookends, in a way,” he says. “And in between, we’ve done a variety of things of different scales.”

The National Bank of Oman project posed what Avery calls a “unique opportunity” for Lom. Building in Muscat, he explains, comes with a set of conditions and criteria that are “not particularly prevalent in other GCC cities”, from building heights to creating an architectural language that is “perhaps more responsible toward the cultural and environmental context”, he adds.

“The Muscat Municipality is quite keen to see a new style evolve. And there are a few examples that I think are quite interesting, like the German University of Technology,” says Avery. “The buildings have elements that are contextual – they use the local stone – but they are very much contemporary. So I think there is a really interesting style evolving there, which is different to some of the architecture that we are seeing elsewhere in the Gulf.”

In addition to buildings for the financial sector, Avery has also worked on projects for the residential, educational, and cultural developments. Before joining Lom, he worked as a designer for various projects in London before returning to the field of architecture. He won the Corus Architectural Competition in 2001, received an Architects Journal Award for Architecture in 2002, and has also exhibited work at the Royal Academy Architecture Room in London.

At the moment, Avery is based in London and travels to the GCC monthly. In Dubai, he is currently working on the interiors of an office for HSBC, as well as on a mixed-use building that will consist of twin towers featuring residential, office, and retail facilities.

Describing his current mixed-use project, he says it has “a triangulated skin” that reflects the sky.

“There is a lot of glass,” he says. “But what is interesting is that when we were designing that about a year ago, it was the same time that Dubai implemented new green building regulations. So we had some really interesting challenges to face with the engineers.”

Regardless of the type of project he is working on and its scale, Avery says he always tries  to find ways to “incorporate social space”. While Lom has been working on a number of bank buildings that require more traditional layouts, the company often also tries to incorporate “strategies for informal gathering areas” within these types of buildings, he says, “to create more dynamic spaces”.

“Banks, of all the kinds of clients, can be the most traditional,” says Avery. “So one of the things we tried to do with the National Bank of Oman is create a social space – there is an atrium and there are some shared spaces, and those make the architecture really interesting.”

He continues: “What we like to do is let that open-plan environment really creep into the building, and hopefully, in the next project, we would like to reduce the amount of space that we call ‘office’, and make the whole space more of an ‘internal landscape’.”

While Lom has carried out work on a number of projects in the Middle East, it has yet to open a regional base in the region. According to Avery, this has been an topic of discussion for the firm for several years, but there are no plans at present for the arrangement to change.

“We are always one project away from having a local office,” he says. “We have based ourselves here sometimes for a project, for a few weeks, but we’ve always found it really productive to have our team based in London while also spending our time here with our clients.

“For us, the GCC is a really exciting place to work,” he says. “And in comparison to Europe and the UK, there can be more design freedom.”

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