Architecture, at its best, is a manifestation of society’s needs and ambitions, and is rooted in a country’s culture and heritage. This does not imply that it should be backward looking, though. Jean Nouvel’s Institut du Monde Arab (1980) in Paris is a perfect example of how a contemporary design can reference Arabic geometric patterns, in this case through an active sun screen.

Central role

Right now, the Middle East and North Africa (Mena) is a fascinating region, full of opportunities and challenges. Architecture is playing a central role in the development of its peoples and the dramas that are being played out. Much of the region is blessed with fossil fuel wealth that has supported economic development. But with oil dipping below $30 a barrel, some of the development plan figures no longer add up, putting strain on the region’s enormous ambitions.

Sooner or later, oil and gas will run out, and in preparation the world is trying to wean itself off fossil fuel energy. The region is also full of political and religious tensions, with full-blown wars and ongoing terrorist activity. Yet the drive for development continues. There is a determination to prevail against all difficulties, which is truly admirable.

The race is on to build modern infrastructure that will support economic activities long after oil and gas has gone, or the world stops using it. Demand varies across the region from infrastructure to education, healthcare, commercial buildings, hospitality and recreation. Dubai’s commercial and hospitality markets have been buoyed by the 2020 Expo. Other markets, such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia, are prioritising health and education over commercial or arts activities, due to the huge demand for facilities.

At present, many patients and students are ‘exported’ to the West, at great expense, to undergo treatment or to study. There is therefore a sound economic case for investing in Mena facilities. Building local healthcare facilities is not only more convenient for patients, but it also brings expert staff to the region, who all need good housing, schools for their children and the social infrastructure that well-educated professionals expect. The same goes for education, science and technology facilities. Economic growth is stimulated all round.

Learning curve

The demand may be varied and volatile, but there is consistent pressure to continue developing the region. Architects and clients have been on a learning curve over the past 20 years. There was a generation of ‘wibbly-wobbly’ buildings and crude pastiches, which neither worked well as facilities nor reflected the culture of the region. Clients have now become more sophisticated and have drawn in top-quality architects. Zaha Hadid is working in Iraq, for example. Herzog & de Meuron, Jean Nouvel, SOM, Perkins + Will, Tabanlioglu and Fosters are all active across the region.

In addition to quality designs, there are a number of emerging themes. There is a new emphasis on functionality; clients recognise that to be economically sustainable, buildings have to work efficiently from the inside out.

Wider matters of sustainability and ecological resilience are also on the agenda as clients realise they are building ‘places’ for people for the future as well as one-off buildings.

There is a rich field to draw from in Arabic culture: mathematics, geometry, calligraphy and poetry

Wellness is important; building design can promote wellbeing by encouraging exercise and preventing harmful emissions. As in the West, many previously separated functions are being merged: schools are similar to offices; offices are like retail or hospitality environments, and hotels have workplaces. Through mobile technology, work, rest and play now all overlap.

So what is it like to work for clients in the Middle East and North Africa? Speed, the importance of image and narrative content are all hallmarks of the region.

Speed of execution is expected. At the extreme, one regional client told me that they would set their architects demanding delivery dates, and if they hit them, next time they would make them faster, and then faster again.

A very early full-rendered photorealistic image is often required. In the West, this would take months of work; in the Middle East, it is the starting point. If they like the look of it, then they will see if it actually works. In fairness, it is much like how I would buy a car.

Staying ahead

Architects have to be at the top of their game. Practices have to be able to craft a design that they know they can make work, and craft it quickly.

Narrative is also important to Middle East clients and is behind much of the very best architects’ work everywhere. For example, the windows of Daniel Libeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin trace the lines that connected Jews across the city, forming an abstract pattern with an underlying meaning.

The biggest challenge is how to make a modern, international style speak to a specific region

Clients often want to know the story behind the design, and are looking for something that will make the building iconic (an overused word) and say something about the region. What makes this a Middle Eastern or North African design? What makes this Dubai, not Doha, Abu Dhabi or Riyadh? There is a rich field to draw from in Arabic culture: mathematics, geometry, calligraphy and poetry. It is a diverse region with roots in pearl diving, Bedouin tribes, scholars, mystics and much more. There is no case of one mashrabiya (latticework window) fits all. This is probably architects’ biggest challenge: how to make a modern, international style speak to a specific region.

Architects are camp followers; we go where the work is. The Mena region, despite all its difficulties, is full of opportunities and clients with ambitious plans, who want their imaginations to be captured and to be inspired by what architecture can do for them. You could not ask for more.

About Jack Pringle

Jack Pringle

Jack Pringle manages the London office of Pringle Brandon Perkins+Will, and is the immediate past president of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Perkins+ Will employs 80 people in Dubai and also carries out work in the region from its UK and US offices.