GEOGRAPHY AND IDENTITY IN EMERGING CITIES

In February, partner Alfredo Caraballo gave a thematic talk on ‘Geography and Identity’ at WAF Dubai. Dubai – a city that is a global crossroads, where native residents are outnumbered by more than one in six – is an apt place to explore these topics. It and other cities in the Gulf Region have undergone rapid development, much of it manifested in a global architecture. As a counterpoint, Alfredo shared how our work in the region strives to be locally rooted – with examples in three cities: Beirut, Doha and Muscat. Each of these growing cities came from somewhere. There is a vernacular there to work with.

In Beirut, we are architects for a new block at the edge of the city’s historic centre. Called District//S, this new insertion into an old city will have twenty two buildings, primarily residential and with active commercial ground-floor uses. Simple buildings, they are modern, but most importantly, they feel local. Clad in stone, all buildings incorporate tall oversized timber shutters as a complement to the traditional Lebanese balconies and shutters in buildings adjacent. They are arranged around an interlocking series of complex spaces, intentionally irregular, resulting in an intimate public realm that mimics the urban fabric of old Beirut.

In the Qatari capital of Doha, the practice’s work as the ‘architectural voice’ on Msheireb Downtown Doha, on an ambitious urban infill project with Arup and AECOM, is helping to create a whole new urban quarter. A new part of the city is being rebuilt to go back in time in a sense, reintroducing the grain and scale that gave old Arab cities their distinct character. Hopefully, it will encourage pedestrianism and provides naturally cooled areas (a major environmental benefit). It is no coincidence that old cities in this hot desert region grew up organically in this way.

Most recently, in Oman, we are working at a larger scale – the design of a new capital district in the metropolitan corridor of Muscat. A site that is predominately open space, our contextual approach to urbanism means that we looked to topography, helping to determine where to build. Landscapes are local too and have a cultural value. We then looked to the site’s country to craft an architectural language that is contemporary yet distinctly Omani.

At three different scales, from the block to the district to the city, in three different countries, these interventions reveal that in working with context, cities can grow and ‘modernise’ without having to forget who they are. In doing so, they are distinctive, utilising architecture to reclaim and assert identity. In an age of hyper-globalisation increasingly hungry for novelty, this sense of localism may end up being among the most valuable of commodities.