“You used to live abroad, didn’t you?” I had become used to my professors eventually asking this question, and despite four years in the department, the same inquiry still pops up.
“Yes, I did. Did my accent give it away?” I grinned sheepishly. I still get uncomfortable when people bring it up, and the faint lilt in my Libyan accent always gives me away.
“A little, yes. But I noticed it in your designs.” I was slightly taken aback. I knew that my designs were a little different, but not that they reflected anything about my personal life.
“Haha, yeah, I guess I was really influenced by my childhood.” I felt myself entering dangerous territory. I didn’t want to be accused of lifting designs from the internet, what the students call their source of ‘inspiration’.
“Yes, it’s apparent. You try very hard to make them Middle Eastern, but it looks like an outsider’s interpretation. I admire your effort to return to your roots, though.”
The project that we had this conversation over was a landscaping task for a small house. I had initially begun with the aim of giving it a Spanish Colonial Revival feel, because I found that style comfortably familiar. Mediterranean-meets-Middle East, if you will. Spain’s architecture reflects it’s mesh of East and West very organically.
This might explain why I was attracted to it, but the resulting design was neither Spanish Colonial or Middle Eastern.
You’d be hard pressed to find a house that looks like this in the Middle East. This screams middle class white neighbourhood, but the architecture of the house and the privacy afforded by the clustered trees hint of something else.
That ‘something else’ was my attempt to design something that was both climatically and culturally Libyan, while staying in my comfort zone. When I look at it, I don’t feel that it’s ugly or repellent. But there is something off, not quite right.
The other students reveled in the options afforded them by Middle East design, with tiles being the dominant ground cover, palm trees and water features in every nook and cranny, and a sterile white colour palette.
The next project was a small park in the middle of a busy district in Benghazi, and at that point I abandoned all pretense of designing something Middle Eastern. I read up on the urban landscaping revival in the West and the standards they had set.
Middle Eastern cities are the anti-thesis to Western cities. The former focuses on privacy, the latter revels in public space. Arabs try to shield themselves from their weather while Westerners invite it into their homes.
So a Western design in an Arab city is perhaps an invitation to folly, but I had had enough of faking different styles and attempting to do something I was uncomfortable with.
I was much more satisfied with this design than the previous one, and interestingly enough, my professors also responded more positively than before. I guess all those adages about being ‘true to yourself’ are more than just sappy self-help quotes.
For my neighbourhood design (urban planning course), I decided to attempt a balance, by utilizing my (Western) style, but adding the primary concepts of MENA design with a twist, to make it fit together.
For the airport design, there was very little room to add a distinct style, as successful airports are dictated by their functionality and economic standards. Overall, I’m really satisfied with the development of my work this semester, though I could still improve my time management when it comes to deadlines.
Like writing, I have found that designing helps me articulate my personality, and understand myself better. I need to avoid the pitfall of trying to mash contradicting principles which result in a design that gives the impression of cognitive dissonance. Architecture is problem solving among other things, and a non-orthodox approach does not condemn the proposed solution to failure.
Whether you’re influenced by the East, West, or another direction entirely, it’s important to be sincere with yourself and with your client. No matter how much you try to dress up or photoshop your design, nothing can truly disguise dishonest architecture.
A good example of this is in Dubai. The skyscrapers and impossible innovation are interesting if you observe them in a vacuum. But for these things to be in the middle of an Arab city, in our climate and culture, reeks of inconsistency. The struggle to bring the region up to modern city standards is admirable, but importing foreign designs and ignoring the surroundings never bodes well.