Welcome to Kalamna, the student blog of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Abu Dhabi's New Parliament: Local & Global

NYU Abu Dhabi @ NYC (at the refurbished townhouse on 19 Washington Square North) recently held an event presenting the architectural design for the United Arab Emirates' new parliamentary building, the Federal National Council (FNC).

Steven Ehrlich at Ehrlich Architects (Los Angeles), a former peace corps volunteer in Morocco and Nigeria, is the man behind the project. He titles his architectural philosophy"multicultural modernism".

Ehrlich, as his resume suggests, is no vapid man chasing a high-profile project and putting a nice label on it. His philosophy is grounded in the world outside America's borders that he witnessed as a young man. Take his time in Morocco ('69-'72), there he made note of the common gathering space in the center of markets - a living room on the scale of an entire city - and the casting of shadows and movements of lights that characterize the suk in Marrakech. And I have to stay that his observation seemed so evident and yet it was if something that stood in front of me for so long needed to be pointed out. I have been to the suk in Tunis and elsewhere numerous times, and there is an almost natural way in which shade is built into the structure: 

Marrakech, Morocco. 

Fez, Morocco. 

Then there is the dichotomy between asymmetry in housing (more organic and responsive to the environment) and the use of symmetry for important monuments, particularly mosques, in Arabic-Islamic landscapes. 

Notice the contrast between the asymmetrical homes and the symmetry reserved for the Grand Mosque of Kairoun (Tunisia), for instance: 

Ehrlich also spent time in the Sahara and West Africa. His observations here would also later influence his work: buildings that grew out of the ground and harmonious with their environment, it is these structures that are most sustainable for their builders do not have modern tools. Again the marketplace serves as a courtyard of the city and shade extant even in the public streets.

Dogan (?) tribe in West Africa, for instance, have found there is no need to create new form as they replicate the square bottom and round top for both baskets and homes with different symbolism: rain falls, the grain raises. Again, living in delicate harmony with their environment. The lesson: indigenous architecture leads to a sustainable future. Best to learn from the fathers. 

The challenge for Ehrlich and his team then in designing their ideal building (and let me state here that this rather small L.A. shop won a 14-firm competition that included much better known heavy weights Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, and others) was to combine local and global. To quote Ehrlich, How to make something ancient and contemporary and culturally rooted and part of a global dialogue?

How can you be simultaneously global and local? An example of how not do to this would be the glass-rimmed towers in some Middle Eastern architecture meant to convey "modernity" but such structures are  incongruent with the local environment. Ehrlich argues for embracing the indigenous styles (for instance, Islamic tradition of geometry) and local ethnography and cultural elements. Everything looking the same would be a great tragedy. 

Their winning entry (the new Federal National Council Parliament Building Complex will be 1million sq feet along the cornice facing north and flanked by two buildings) will seek to create a symmetrical building. 

The main meeting room is the central building - a dome structure acts a shade rather than enclosing the space. And notice that the pattern design is the sun's gift rather than been craved in stone (akin to the shade pattern in the above suk). There is a strong tradition of pattern in Islamic design - and in this case the pattern will come from sun and shade and always change from time of year and day: 

The dome structure evolved from the national flower (tribulus omanense) from five to a ten point connection.

The assembly hall is the imploded structural pattern of the dome into wood-clad beams inside the chamber. There is controlled natural light - majlis (seating area) above with frosted glass center. Notice how the geometry is the architecture instead of the typical Western attempts of having a box with geometry over it. 

In my question to Ehrlich I wondered if this new building will be part of the urban fabric of Abu Dhabi and the UAE. The late Anthony Shadid (how poorer are we without him?!) wrote about the new building projects in Doha - all quite impressive akin to the above - meant to situate the Qatari city as a global capital, but these projects are not seen as reflective of the social milieu among the local populace. Existing more as elite motifs projecting the elites' aspirations for global recognition within the Persian Gulf's new architectural competition for iconic structures (launched by Dubai's glitzy building speer) rather than having meaning at home. Ehrlich took my question and rephrased as such: will Emirates recognize (in the imagination) the FNC akin to the way Americans see the U.S. Capital? He thinks they will, especially since the structure not only includes elected (and this requires a caveat I will explain later) representatives, but also public space: gallery and a library, for one. Time will tell. 

P.S. As for the political elements, I will save that for a follow-up post. 


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