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AT ISSUE: Found in translation

With more architects working on projects overseas, how does this dispersal of talent affect practice? The appetite for shiny new objects must be balanced with a kit bag of concerns: flash versus function, desire for progress versus respect for indigenous design, imported notions about identity versus local cultural values. In reconciling these seemingly oppositional issues, designers need to interpret context and discover a new vernacular. In doing so, they lay the foundation for a more enlightened global landscape.

Softening thresholds

by Rahul Mehrotra

KMC Headquarters, Hyderabad, India. Photo: Robert Stephens.

India’s kinetic urban landscape mirrors its society, a complex emerging fabric of multiple aspirations. The high-tech center of Hyderabad in South India has grown tremendously, rivaling Bangalore as an information technology hub. But as you traverse the landscape of Hyderabad, the social inequity is striking. Architecture often is an instrument in exacerbating these inequities — a tool to separate people rather than bring them together.

The work we are doing in India is inspired by this concern. In designing the headquarters of KMC, an infrastructure company in Hyderabad, we were able to challenge this social hierarchy, and in a corporate office where these divisions are even more acute. The project, completed in 2012, involved questions of identity but also of function: We needed to keep the building cool in this hot, dry climate. We devised a green wall, but not in the common way we have come to think about sticking green on walls. Instead, we employed a double skin: The inner façade is reinforced concrete with operable windows; the outer skin, about three feet away, is a custom-cast aluminum trellis outfitted with blooming plants that grow in hydroponic trays with a drip irrigation system that also cools the building with a fine mist.

The greenery is so central to the building’s identity and function that the gardeners who main­tain it have become much more important. Rather than the usual scenario of the gardeners toiling in the hot sun while the executives drive by in their limousines not making any eye contact, now they are part of the corporation. They freely traverse any part of the building via the green wall that they are charged with maintaining. The success of KMC’s corporate identity is dependent on the success of the lowest-paid employees who upkeep the façade— true green jobs!

None of this was articulated to the client as “Here is our social agenda.” We were operating intuitively, slowly becoming conscious of the possibilities of the design and engaging the client and users of the building in these discussions as they evolved. I believe if you embed your own concerns and values in your practice, you push the envelope as these values resonate in design decisions. I use the metaphor of a threshold: They tend to get hardened by economic and social differences and played out in the way we articulate our buildings. So the design of the double façade was not only a performative element of the building but also softened the threshold: Different social classes became aware of one another, through their sheer presence.

When we first got the commission for the KMC project, Hyderabad was torn by social unrest. Ethnic and communal tensions had been stoked by a government debate over whether to split the state of Andhra Pradesh in two. The ostentation of the glass skyscraper as a symbol of global capital was an irresistible target for protesters throwing rocks. Everywhere we went, the buildings were covered in fish netting to protect the glass. It’s interesting that the glass skyscraper is so compelling a symbol of wealth and power that corporations insist on them even though they aren’t appropriate to the meteorological climate of South India or, as we saw, its political climate. The headquarters at KMC offers an alternate design approach — one which is also a response to an important social issue. Even if it is only a gesture, it’s a beginning. ■

Grappling with identity

by Kelly Hutzell AIA

Education City, Doha, Qatar. Photo: Osama Saeed.

I don’t cover my head. I teach my courses in English. I can drive a car. These are answers to questions that I frequently face from Americans about what it’s like to be a woman in the Middle East. The political and cultural nuances of the Arab world — from the ultraconservative society and hijabs of Saudi Arabia to the cosmopolitan glamour and high heels of Lebanon — are lost to many. In Qatar, local women wear hijabs and heels. I wear neither.

Qataris account for only one-fifth of the total population of the country (which has tripled in 10 years), and men outnumber women three to one. Interestingly, the enrollment in the beginning architecture elective courses that I teach at Carnegie Mellon University’s branch campus is overwhelmingly female. When I first started teaching, I was surprised to find that Qatar University, with segregated campuses for men and women, offers the only Bachelor of Architecture degree in the country, and to women only. Civil Engineering and Mechanical Engineering degrees are offered only to men.

In my classes, I use our campus, a multiversity called Education City, as a laboratory. With buildings designed by Arata Isozaki, Legorreta + Legorreta, Antoine Predock, and OMA, among others, it offers valuable lessons. This past spring my class donned hard hats and orange vests to visit the construction site of the ambitious new Faculty of Islamic Studies building by Mangera Yvars. It’s certainly no accident that the building is the most avant-garde on campus; it speaks to Qatar’s ambition to play a major role in defining contemporary Islamic identity and culture. While the students marveled at the soaring and fluid forms that referenced Arabic calligraphy, they lamented the absence of color, stating that “white is so boring.”

On a recent field trip to Msheireb, the massive mixed-use regeneration project intended to bring locals back into the heart of Doha, my students admired the project’s ambition yet commented that they would never live there. Most Qataris left the clusters of extended family courtyard houses in the city center a generation ago, choosing to live dispersed in suburban villas behind walls and gates. With this physical atomization of the community unit, the value placed on privacy intensified. What I saw as the benefits of density, my students viewed as an invasion of personal space. It’s yet another reminder of how different their context is from mine.

My time spent teaching at Carnegie Mellon Qatar has afforded me greater access to the culture than most expatriates. As an architectural educator and researcher, I have had a front-row seat to Doha’s physical transformation. It is a city that erases and rewrites itself often; for as many buildings that are built, it seems that just as many have been demolished. The issue of identity — whose identity? —  takes on great importance when talking about everything from fashion to architecture. Teaching — and learning — in the Middle East has allowed me to see beauty in what others may merely see as black and white. ■

Let's not forget function

by Rose Mary Su

National Grand Theater, Beijing. Photo: Paul Maurer.

China is developing at a dizzying speed, but in its haste to showcase its progress to the world, some design vision is lost. One place where this is particularly obvious is the country’s program for new performing arts centers.

In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the government poured generous funding into the construction of the National Grand Theater in Beijing. This venue consisted of three spaces: a large opera house, a major concert hall, and a smaller theater. The theater was designed by Paul Andreu, a French architect known more for his airports than performing arts centers, but he achieved what most Chinese view as progress: a Western-style monumental architecture that is a standout building in modern Beijing.

With more government funding, the rush to build performing arts venues continued to other cities, including smaller ones. Many of these cities do not have an existing facility nor resident artists who would use such a space. The government’s strategy seems to be “build it and they will come.”

Such a rush for progress comes at a price. Unlike first-tier cities where there are three performance halls within each Grand Theater, many of the smaller cities have one multipurpose hall that must accommodate all types of uses. The programming of these spaces can be an afterthought because the primary goal is to provide showstopping exterior architecture to attract tourists (inviting comparisons to Sydney). This makes it extremely challenging to satisfy the acoustical and operational needs of a wide range of performances, in particular those that rely heavily on visiting performers. Maintaining and operating these monumental halls can also be a challenge, as the funding is left up to the local authorities rather than to Beijing.

What types of performances occur in these venues? Since the Cultural Revolution, traditional Peking opera, with its more intimate courtyard-style setting, has been replaced by propagandistic operas more akin to a heavily amplified Broadway show, with casts of hundreds, including dancers, acrobats, choruses, and sometimes even soldiers. Such extravaganzas require a huge stage. At the opposite end of the spectrum, a traditional Chinese instrumental ensemble playing in the pentatonic scale ideally would perform in a more intimate setting more comparable to a Western recital space. I once heard a guzheng ensemble (guzheng is a type of Chinese zither) in a multipurpose hall; the musicians were heavily amplified, and the performance was not memorable. On another visit to Beijing, I went to a guzheng maker’s studio. With a more intimate setting, I was able to appreciate the timbre of this string instrument.

As the composer Tan Dun has said, “China is learning fast, but it has missed the point by building concert halls that are houses for rent instead of institutions with resident companies, production budgets, and a management team.” The funding granted to these cities focused mainly on designing and building the venues, not on the continuing production of the events. As architects and acousticians, it is our responsibility to guide our clients and not simply use the opportunity to design a facility that is flashy but not functional. One hopes that as China races to build these once-in-a-lifetime performing arts facilities, it will make time to pause and plan out programs for the next generation. ■

The power of stories

by Peter Kuttner FAIA

The Scientific Center, Kuwait. Photo: © Gustavo Ferrari.

Although aquariums, science centers, and children’s museums are almost uniquely US exports, making learning meaningful to children is part of every culture. To engage families in exploring the familiar with new eyes, a museum and the stories it tells need to be both exciting and new, while welcoming and comfortable. Communities everywhere can take a measure of pride in their own stories.

In 2000, we designed The Scientific Center, a multiuse educational center including an aquarium, IMAX theater, and Discovery Place — Kuwait’s first children’s science museum. We worked with the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Sciences, an institute committed to returning science education to Kuwait in a meaningful way. Because we are involved in the design and programming for both the building and the exhibit experience, a broad cultural awareness is crucial to the project’s overall success, beyond the typical incorporation of local architectural motifs.

Kuwait has a unique setting at the head of the Persian Gulf. It follows the coast, where the desert meets the sea. So it has a vibrant history of trade, reinforced by its geography. Kuwait City is a strategic port, with a culture informed by the Bedouin caravans traversing the desert and the Persian sailors crossing the Gulf in their trading ships called dhows.

Tradition shapes The Scientific Center, both literally and in allusion. The plan is based on the Arab souk, with the different exhibits arranged as shops along the spine. Architecturally, traditional building elements such as arched entries and mashrabiya (wood screens which shade openings) control the light; local tile patterns set the interior flavor. Perhaps more as a metaphor, the fabric sun panels above the souk skylights are reminiscent of the sails of the dhows out on the horizon, and the sun protection along the waterfront recalls the Bedouin tents in the desert.

For the exhibit experience, we tell local stories, based on the geography and history of the country. Discovery Place is organized around Desert, Gulf, and Coast galleries, interpreting science as local. While the children’s science exhibits are museum classics — like a flow table to study currents or a flotation cylinder to understand pressure — they use local details to connect with Kuwaiti children: In this case, the water flows from an Arabic teapot, or the pressure causes a Persian pearl diver to rise or fall.

As Western designers, we also needed to understand the role of Islam in learning. In the United States we place an emphasis on the predictability of scientific experimentation, but much of what devout Muslims — as believers of divine intervention — experience is interpreted as God’s will. Although Kuwaiti educators appreciated participatory learning, illustrating cause-and-effect with hands-on activity caused discomfort for some Muslims. As it was explained to us, Allah has created an order to the world around us, and science does not solely live in a secular realm.

To find some common ground, but still promote self-directed exploration, we moved our focus to the “sense of wonder” inherent in all nature and science. For instance, the exhibit What’s Under Kuwait lets children lift portions of the earth, discovering the geological formation of the Arabian Peninsula (including oil, of course!) without dealing directly with the planet’s creation stories. Appreciating the world around us has always been the first step in understanding science, in any culture. ■

Memory and modernity

by Michael Murphy

The Umubano Primary School, Kigali, Rwanda. Photo: Iwan Baan.

In 2007, I rode down National Highway 4 outside Kigali, the capital city, toward the eastern lowland countryside in Rwanda. Lining the highway were small shops and homes, largely built in mud — either wattle and daub or mud block. Tin roofs, shed roofs, lean-tos. The older roofs were clay-tiled, fired in local kilns, made by hand, and green from the wet and rainy months behind us. Below the roofs were small windows with wooden shutters, and next to those, large red X’s spray-painted on the walls; a reminder that eminent domain, along with the stench of progress, was upon them. I asked Bruce, my Rwandan colleague, why so many of these were to be torn down. “The government wants progress,” he said. “They want modern buildings.”

As a sophisticated economy began to emerge in Rwanda in the early 2000s, glass and steel construction filled Kigali’s woven streets. Shopping malls replaced marketplaces; blue-glass-gabled monstrosities came flat-packed from China; meanwhile swaths of self-built houses — the filth of the informal — were swept clear under the tabula rasa of modernity and progress, the perception of development.

The Rwandan “modern” need not be overly nostalgic for a past that few have an interest in preserving. Colonized, butchered, forgotten, ignored, Rwandan progress was a sight to behold. I wondered, however, staring at these new fields where thousands once lived, what was lost? What were we all trying to forget?

Later that summer, I visited the school that my team and I had spent the previous few years designing and building in Kigali, a school that weaves into the landscape like so many Rwandan baskets weave between the folds of fingertips. The materials were simple, brick and tin roofs extended to shelter and collect. I stood on a hill opposite the school and watched students bolt for play, cascading along the hill. Staring there, pleased with what we had built, three other buildings stood out that I had not seen before: small enclosures perched next to the school campus, built on our neighbor’s property long before we started this project, long before I had thought about what a school in Rwanda might look like.

These were not so much buildings as sheds — cowsheds. Simple, small, enclosed rooms made from woven reed that store grain and house cows in the evening. Above those enclosures are tin roofs that extend far beyond, held up by stick columns that provide shade and protection and a semblance of ownership. Cowsheds protect the sacred. They are more than banks or safes or even hidden wads of cash stuffed under mattresses. They are the physical manifestation of the future, the hope of prosperity, an investment.

Standing there, seeing our own designs under this new light, I realized the race toward modernity is not always forward but cyclical, and the tendrils of culture not so severable as the many mud blocks, clay tiles, or self-built walls we mourn for and admire. Their memory is our architecture, is our modernity. ■