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Architectural identity crisis

Suhail Thabet on why understanding belief systems is key for design

This masterplan for Mukalla in Yemen was born out of TRACE's EAT design methodology
This masterplan for Mukalla in Yemen was born out of TRACE's EAT design methodology
A home in Yemen designed in a local architectural language
A home in Yemen designed in a local architectural language
A modern language
A modern language
A contemporary language
A contemporary language
Understanding the belief systems of the user helps inform design
Understanding the belief systems of the user helps inform design
Suhai Thabet returned to the Gulf concerned by what he called an 'identity crisis'
Suhai Thabet returned to the Gulf concerned by what he called an 'identity crisis'

When Yemeni architect Suhail Thabet returned from the UK to start TRACE Design Studios in 2007-08, he found a region in crisis.

Modernist architecture, he explained, was such a powerful movement and made such a strong statement in its heyday that what followed—namely postmodernism—left the industry with a void from which emerged an industry-wide identity crisis.

According to Thabet, that crisis is particularly evident in the developing world. “The crisis manifested itself in several ways, one of which was the International Style, which was all about the blind exportation of architectural design. All of this has resulted in what I like to call the ‘McDonaldisation’ of architecture.”

Thabet’s concern, however, is not a mere criticism of the industry and the way in which Middle Eastern cities are looking more and more like Western ones. His concern is the psychological effect of creating buildings and spaces to which the region’s nationals aspire, yet with which they have no cultural or historical ties.

“Glass buildings and skyscrapers have come to mean modernization and, as such, [Gulf nationals] aspire to attain the symbols that have been portrayed to them,” explained Thabet. “This can be quite detrimental to the people of the region and their sense of identity and sense of place.”

While he admits that many architects and designers see the identity crisis as a form of sociological change which is natural and inevitable, Thabet’s strategy is to try to manage that change and readdress the balance between globalization and identity. And, he’s quick to point out, TRACE isn’t the only design studio looking closely at the problem.

“In this region, there are good examples of designers managing that change,” said Thabet. “But the majority is a poor collection of architects using superficial notions, such as the mashrabiya approach, the overuse of wind towers and the indiscriminate application of Islamic patterns.”

It stands to reason that most architects design according to the needs of the client and the end-user but TRACE considers a third element. “We try to address the needs of the person walking around the building; the voyeur,” said Thabet. “What does the building mean to the person walking by it everyday on the way to the metro? Does it give them a sense of place? Does it contribute to their identity? It’s very important to consider the people that walk, drive or live around these buildings.”

Thabet doesn’t try to offer the definitive answer for contemporary Gulf architecture, but he and his team at TRACE feel they’ve come up with a strategy for approaching the postmodern condition in a thoughtful and intelligent way.

The Trace Approach

Suhail Thabet was born in Yemen; he received a BA in architecture from the Polytechnic of Central London and an MA in building design for developing countries from the University of London. He has won awards for building design and worked alongside a RIBA president.

Suhail Thabet’s ancestry and experience provides him with a unique viewpoint from which to analyse both Western and Middle Eastern culture and architecture.

“Whilst there are many companies that approach the concept of ‘identity’ in regional architecture, we believe that there isn’t a genuine, strong push to resolve it,” explained Thabet. “There is a lot of work that needs to be done and I think I can offer a unique solution for designing architecturally appropriate space in the region.”

According to Thabet, the most fundamental step in developing an approach to regional architecture is to devise a methodology. “It’s very important to have a solid process and not just grab onto icons or symbols,” he explained. “We call our process EAT. First, we Extract local references; subject those references to Analysis; and then Translate them into a contemporary expression.”

In the TRACE studios, ‘extracting local references’ means considering five fundamental concepts: culture, environment, landscape, context and belief.

“None of these subcategories are new,” admits Thabet. “Most designers and architects look at these things but not many of them address the issue of belief. Understanding belief is imperative to understanding how to approach design.”

Thabet continues: “If I was designing a house for a Buddhist family, for example, I would need to understand Buddhism to understand how space is used in that belief system. Which rooms are most important? How does a Buddhist walk into a room? From which direction do they enter?”

Thabet uses the same caution when considering the beliefs of the people in this region. “You’ve got to consider how people enter the house. You’ve got to understand the relationship between public and private space and segregation of the sexes. To design effectively, you really have to understand the beliefs of the people, whether it’s in this region or anywhere else.”

Facing the Fear

Thabet believes that the Western motifs that have become so popular in the region’s architecture have remained so because many in the industry continue to design for what was worked in the past and what will sell in the future.

“Architecture in this region doesn’t need to have all of these symbolic motifs. It can be groundbreaking and cutting-edge with its own localised flavour…There’s almost a fear of the unknown; a fear of traversing a new path,” said Thabet.

In order to stem the region’s flight to postmodern architecture, Thabet says it’s crucial to uncover the real aspirations of the end-user, which can be done by highlighting areas of culture such as folklore, art and history.

“If architects can translate those ideas into a built form, people will start to realise that there is a lot in this region that we can call our own and give us a sense of place rather than the blind importation of styles and design,” said Thabet. “I think a major point of focus has to be winning the psychological battle that has been raging for a long time. It will take years and years to unravel and unfold.”

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