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.