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Volume 22, Number 3May/June 1971

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Building on Tradition

Written by Friedrich Ragette
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

Not too many years ago, most architects would have found the terms "modern" and "Arab" incompatible. Any suggestion that the ancient forms developed by the Arab world years ago could somehow be married to modern international architecture—as embodied in the steel and concrete towers of today's world capitals—would have been laughed off the drawing board.

And not without reason. With the exception of the horseshoe arch and some excellent decorative techniques, the Arabs had few building traditions that were not clearly derived from their Byzantirie and Persian victories. To put it bluntly, there was virtually no purely "Arab" architecture.

Also, the major construction projects which were to spearhead the area's post-World-War-II building boom were airports, factories, office towers and television stations whose needs had already spawned the basic shapes of the efficient but impersonal and unimaginative glass and steel structures so common to modern capitals. Lastly, many of the rulers in the newly prosperous Arab countries insisted on modern architecture as a way of presenting at least the façade of a modern nation to visitors.

It might be argued that the western architects brought in to design those structures were negligent in not trying to develop local themes. But this ignores the fact that in the post-war period there were few architects who did not wholeheartedly believe that technology was international and that contemporary functional architecture could be—and ought to be—transplanted anywhere. In any case, there proliferated throughout the Middle East impersonal, rootless structures, totally ill at ease in their environment, and suffering, moreover, from poor execution and almost no adequate maintenance.

This is still a problem today, but in the interim the Arab world has become more aware of the cultural values that are at stake. Arab architects in particular have realized that they must live with the buildings they create, and have become involved in the sophisticated process of distinguishing the valid elements of their traditions from the anachronisms. They also have a growing personal interest in efforts to reinterpret the standard forms of the international metropolis in the light of particular national backgrounds.

With increased experience such men have sorted out the four main elements which had for centuries contributed to the regional peculiarities of traditional Arab or Islamic architecture and which, they slowly began to realize, might just as logically influence modern design. The elements were climate, local materials and building techniques, habits of living and traditional forms of design.

In the Arab world, climate—i.e., a strong, intense sunlight most of the year—is a powerful factor. Builders must protect the inhabitants from the sun by limiting (or eliminating) windows, providing shade and insuring adequate ventilation. Since modern design usually calls for large windows, architects in the Middle East generally settle on some kind of protective screens or panels outside the windows. Since such devices also enable the designer to introduce playful or striking decorative patterns, yet maintain order and harmony through prefabrication techniques (which demand repetition of standard forms), it has been a happy compromise.

Valid architecture will also consider the climate in selecting the fabric of the building itself, in exposing it to, or protecting it from, prevailing winds and blazing afternoon sunshine, and in such features as wall thickness, roof insulation or the height of ceilings.

This makes sense even today. Air conditioning or other artificial cooling techniques, however effectively they neutralize the effects of the sun, do so only at continuous expense for power and maintenance. And as anyone who remembers the New York power blackout might imagine, houted half the congregationa building which depends exclusively on mechanical cooling would, in a hot climate, become instantly unlivable in the event of a similar power failure.

The second element, the availability of local materials and building techniques, is no longer a restrictive factor in architecture; concrete and steel are totally international materials, basically devoid of regional characteristics. But imaginative architects in the Arab world have achieved some striking effects by searching out and using characteristic materials such as native stone, brick, stucco, ceramic and tiles. By contrasting local materials with modern ones, the architects have also produced some original and valid regional themes. In the Middle East this is still a practical technique because until now the labor-material cost ratio has permitted the inclusion of certain decorative details which would be prohibitively expensive in western countries.

Specific living habits have much less impact. Functionally modern buildings —office towers, airport terminals and broadcasting stations—will differ little from non-Arab, international structures, but in buildings where the personal, human elements are important—"villas," apartment buildings and some schools—particular styles of living can shape a structure. New town planning schemes—in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, for example—also reflect basic social habits.

The influence of the fourth element —traditional arches and domes, and such indigenous decorative forms as stylized geometric patterns—is the easiest to spot. For although both dome and arch are structurally obsolete when executed in reinforced concrete, they do remain a popular element in design. The pointed arch, particularly, is often used to achieve an "Arab" effect. This arch, an ancient eastern form, was rejected by Roman architects as a violation of the geometric correctness of the arch principle of construction, but the Arabs, more inclined towards decorative effect than the expression of structural logic, adopted the horseshoe and the broken arch as their most characteristic architectural trademark.

To create an "Arab" architectural theme from those few elements would be a considerable challenge for any architect. What it means is that he must consciously—even self-consciously—integrate essentially foreign elements into a Middle East environment, and vice versa. In effect it is trying to mix pride in the distant past with a search for a modern image, and it takes gifted and skillful designers to find a satisfying solution.

Some architects have been successful in creating a regional tone by stressing such traditional aspects as cubic simplicity, solid masses and asymmetrical distribution of openings. In a few instances the conscious recreation of traditional architecture has been undertaken, generally for tourist projects in localities where a strong ancient character happens to have survived. And even there, historical exteriors must be blended with modern interiors, not always an easy task.

Because of such problems, good modern architecture with an Arab flavor is still rare. But with excellent help from abroad a tradition is taking shape. It is a complex evolution and the first examples hint at exciting potential. To examine some of those examples further, Aramco World in the next few months will run a series on some of the buildings that, hopefully, will be landmarks in the development of that potential.

Friedrich Ragette, Assistant Professor of Architecture at the American University of Beirut, is temporarily at the Technical University of Vienna. This article is the first of a three-part series on modern Arab architecture.

College of Petroleum and Minerals
Written by Friedrich Ragette
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

Already, amid the clutter and confusion of construction, the striking beauty of Saudi Arabia's College of Petroleum and Minerals is obvious: long colonnades of pointed-arch supports, the soft patterns of domed roofs and the lean water tower suggestive of a minaret, all contributing to a theme that is severely modern, recognizably "Arab," and closely attuned to its stark desert setting.

In a project like the Petroleum College the decisive factor is the basic concepts from which the formal aspects are derived. And in planning the college the architects—Caudill, Rowlett and Scott of Houston, Texas—shaped the concepts from the isolation and prominence of the hilltop site, the harsh terrain surrounding the site, the need for protection against extremely strong sunlight, high winds and sand storms, and the need to establish in such an environment an enclosed "oasis" of green.

The site of the college is the ridgeline of a hill which dominates the main highway between the nearby town of al-Khobar. the air terminal and Dhahran. It is a rugged site and its character has clearly influenced the master plan; no two buildings are parallel to each other, and all spaces have a non-rigid, organic quality. On the other hand building shapes and masses were kept simple and dignified to provide continuity and unity. These aspects, together with the elevated position on the hill, produce an impressive image from all sides, a focal feature for the whole region of Dhahran.

The concepts of climate and "oasis" go together. The buildings were arranged and designed to turn their backs to the searing winds of the desert, and to surround a protected inner zone which is being developed into a garden with a reflecting pool. As a shield from the sun, lofty colonnades were erected around buildings where there will be continual student movement.

On the formal side the architects avoided the superficial application of arabesque motifs; instead they made excellent modern use of essential Arab architectural features; the contrast of predominantly closed, low horizontal masses with one vertical element—here the very important water tower—the repetitive use of the pointed arch as support, and the dome as a roofing device.

All this is being executed in a straightforward way. For exterior texture the architects have ordered nothing more complicated than raw, reinforced concrete, the exposed face of which will be sandblasted to show the local aggregate. This way the color and texture of building exteriors will be extremely durable and will also blend perfectly with the surroundings.

Dhahran Air Terminal
Written by Friedrich Ragette
Photographed by Burnett H. Moody

When Minoru Yamasaki, the Japanese-born American architect, first visited the Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia to inspect the site of a proposed air terminal, he was disappointed by the lack of Arab character in the area.

This condition is not rare in areas which—though they belong to an ancient culture—have only recently developed on a large scale. If the air terminal of Dhahran is a striking example of new "Arab" architecture it is not because it was adapted to its environment, but because Minoru Yamasaki was able to create a new form that in effect reestablished a national identity. It was this very quality which made the government select Mr. Yamasaki's project, and which established it as the prototype of a new school of recognizably "Arab" architecture.

The key element in the design of the Dhahran terminal is an umbrella-shaped concrete unit which answers the most up-to-date requirements of economy through prefabrication, structural efficiency and ease of erection, yet, when combined with other units, forms a pattern of high, graceful, pointed arches. It is an astonishingly effective design in which Yamasaki manages to suggest the Gothic vastness of a cathedral and the simple austerity of a mosque without detracting from its efficiency as a busy air terminal.

Yamasaki, however, would have been unable to combine these elements into a convincing whole had he not also used the traditional Arab theme of horizontal dominance and vertical accent as his base. This theme—which is also apparent in the nearby Petroleum College campus—emerges in the air terminal as a low, if light, mass accented by a soaring, delicate concrete tower. The whole is enhanced by suspended lamps, lacy screens, and stained glass.

The terminal, completed in 1961, was one of the first examples of modern "Arab" architecture and has influenced subsequent design throughout the Middle East.

This article appeared on pages 15-23 of the May/June 1971 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for May/June 1971 images.