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On Global (Winter 2014)

I was intrigued by Jay Wickersham’s article “Code of context” and his thoughts on the global homogenizing of the built environment. Having led international design for close to 15 million square feet in the Middle and Far East, I cannot agree with Wickersham strongly enough. My agreement is not an indictment of the profession — since many of the issues can be traced equally to client pressure, local review agencies, and time constraints — but a reaffirmation of Wickersham’s comment about identifying appropriate design drivers. Successful design develop-ment stems from an intimate connection to place: an understanding of the people, culture, and setting. From personal experience I can attest that developing a successful design in an unfamiliar environment is an absolute challenge. What is required to shift this move-ment is a renewed focus on two key drivers. Wickersham identified one: Sustainability. Those projects rooted in a well-conceived concept of climate, materials, and techniques resident in the region are a very good start. Second, I would advocate for culturally sensitive operational understanding. How do these users uniquely interact with this building type? Yes, international architects are commissioned to bring global expertise and a different perspective to the typology, but understanding how that typology will be affected, at an operational level, will determine how well it is accepted. An architecture that springs from a combination of cultural and climate-based sensitivity is far more likely to be regionally successful. By no means am I saying there is an easy fix. Our profession is one of creativity and exploration, and I truly believe in our intentions. Developing an understanding of a new way of life takes significant commitment in a world obsessed with “speed to market,” but it is the challenge we accept, as the magazine puts it, with the “uneasy excitement of global practice.”

T. Scott Rawlings AIA
Payette, Boston

Jay Wickersham outlines several challenges for architects who practice globally: challenges to make their work more sustainable, relevant, and socially responsible. Challenges fall into many categories: Some are projects that are envisioned to glorify powerful planning leaders despite the logic of the marketplace or good principles of city-making. To some degree this is symptomatic of increasingly competitive cities and their planning leaders vying for promotion and stature. Others are projects that aspire to high social or environmental goals but fall prey to realities of funding or scheduling. With many private developers, one tends to see so much of the proverbial “green-washing” that rarely results in projects that are particularly sustainable.

But in China, recent revelations of widespread corruption among party officials are having an impact on business-as-usual planning. Many cities are putting large public projects, such as exhibition halls, museums, and performance spaces, on hold, while other public officials are demanding more private participation in large-scale urban projects. This is a good first step toward bringing more rigor to development in China that far too often has led to poorly conceived or executed publicly funded projects. Another change that is coming is more accountability. Many of our planning directors are asking us to protect traditional residential neighborhoods and historic buildings from the wrecking ball, and agricultural areas are being preserved close to city centers to provide farm-to-table enterprises. Our more enlightened public clients are asking us to reverse the ills of superblocks that have rendered so much of China’s cities so pedestrian unfriendly. Newer policies are requiring that displaced villagers, all too frequently banished to the hinterlands, be relocated on site to preserve social organization and community cohesion. Although China’s autocratic government has a long way to go to calm some of our most uneasy feelings about social equity and environmental sustainability, it has made a lot of progress the 15 years I have practiced.

Alan Mountjoy AIA
NBBJ, Boston

 I’ve been working in the Middle East for quite some time, most recently in Saudi Arabia, and things have definitely changed for women architects. Four years ago, during my first visit to Saudi Arabia, I will admit I was somewhat fearful about traveling to a country where I was advised that women must be accompanied everywhere by their husbands, and concerned I might make a cultural misstep during the trip. When the pilot announced the plane was 40 minutes to landing in Riyadh, I changed out of my Western clothing and into an abaya and hijab, which was hot and quite oppressive once I got out in the desert environment. The next day my client told me it was unnecessary for me to wear a hijab, which was a relief. I am now at the point where I travel by myself (without my “three husbands from Cambridge Seven”), and I see more solo Saudi women every time I fly. I am used to being the only woman in a room of 30 men here in the States, so that aspect of Saudi Arabia did not faze me in the least, and everyone has been very respectful. One piece of advice I have for architects hoping to work in the Middle East is this: Don’t expect to immediately get down to business when you arrive. Building relationships in Saudi Arabia and in other parts of the Gulf Region is very important. Expect to spend about a day sharing family stories over tea and coffee. Don’t rush this part of the process — it can be just as important as the presentation you are there to make.

Patti Intrieri AIA
Cambridge Seven Associates
Cambridge, Massachusetts