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modern arab architecture originality as a regional cultural project

Alexander Bouryak, Wail Houssin, Tatyana Bitkova

At the beginning of the new millennium two opposite tendencies are competing in architecture. On the one hand, any new artistic idea immediately becomes a common property. In the world, which is more and more interconnected and interdependent, artistic process evenly acquires the more and more universal and international character.  On the other hand the interest in local architectural traditions in steadily growing. The tourist industry turns the architectural originality of the countries, cities and historical regions into saleable goods. In the Arab East countries the first tendency predominates; the ancient Arab cities gradually lose their originality. The growing wealth of the region doesn’t soften, but aggravates this process.

The reason lays not in western architects’ dominance and not in “westernerism” of clients, but in weakness of local architectural schools, which don’t yet find ways to develop centuries-old traditions of Arab architecture. The aim of our report is to depict a number of tasks, connected with preservation and development of national originality of modern Arab architecture.

A system of means of artistic expressiveness of Arab architecture has deep historical roots. The originality of sub-regions of the Arab world, which had absorbed the influences of contiguous artistic cultures, is an invaluable historical heritage. This heritage is so manifold, that the question about the unity of Arab architectural tradition in the framework of Islam architecture makes itself a problem for historic-architectural science.

In the modern interconnected world the originality of the architecture of a region should be understood and appreciated from the point of view of West and East cultures. This evaluation includes the analysis of the world view differences in interpretations of architecture by the cultures of Islam, Christianity and Buddhism, the specificity of perception of architectural image by the representatives of these cultures, and the peculiarities of traditional Arab architectural poetics – correlation of space and mass, light and color, special use of sculptural and pictorial decoration, choice of materials and so on.

The sense of architectural expressiveness doesn’t restrict itself to formal-compositional conceptions. Expressiveness – is first of all a semiotic category, but not an architectural form, is a cultural sign, which carries a complicated complex of meanings and senses. Architecture expressiveness includes traditional and modern signs of social strata, wealth and prestige. In order to lay a bridge from modern realities to Arab architectural tradition it’s necessary to connect semantic analysis with the architectural typology, traditional for Islam countries.

Thus, historical and cultural analysis should be extended on modern design and construction, and its results should be implanted in the system of critical, pedagogical and science-theoretical work. Traditional architectural thinking forms a deep-laid socio-cultural substratum, on which the new original architecture of the region could be cultivated. It should be considered in the categories of “natural” with regard to the problem of revival of Arab countries architecture originality. Correspondingly, expansion of western architectural modernism in the current cultural situation may be considered as “artificial-natural”, by analogy with other cultures influences on the previous stages of development. Artistic language of Modern Movement has strongly entered the architecture of the region. As well, western behavioral stereotypes are already inseparable from the Arabs’ everyday life. 

The overcoming of cultural nihilism of the modern architecture, the revival of spiritual values and artistic technique of Arab architecture today get the status of “natural-artificial” cultural action.  This means that cultural policy, aimed at strengthening of originality, should now regard western borrowings not as “another’s” and even more so not as ‘alien”, but as a specific part of the “own” professional culture.

Such understanding of the problem puts as an immediate task, the rebirth of the system fullness of national architectural schools’ activity, strengthening of their cultural, historical and theoretical and methodical self-dependency. In today’s conditions this task can’t be solved without interested support and professional aid of the West itself, including architectural schools of the former USSR.

Preservation of the national originality was realized as the problem of modern Arab architecture by no means at once. Nevertheless, among socio-cultural attainments of national liberation revolutions in the majority of countries of the region it’s necessary to mark national legislation about protection of historical and cultural heritage, and development of the own architectural education and science.

Administrative, educational, entertainment and trade buildings and complexes in large cities have practically lost regional specificity yet in the period between the First and the Second world wars.  During this period and after then at the fall of the 40-ies – beg. of the 50-ies the development and reconstruction of public centers in the most important Arab cities was carried out by Europeans (and often not by prominent masters) on demands of colonial administrations.

The problems of preservation of historical and architectural heritage and architectural expressiveness of new construction emerged in a practical platitude in 1960-90-ies, when the process of cities reconstruction started to gain strength in many Arab countries. The increase of building volumes in historical city centers was connected with the growth of business activity due to an oil boom. New construction was conducted mainly by European architects in the manner of modernist ‘international” architecture. This concerned first of all the capitals – Cairo, Damascus, Beirut, Rabat, and as well the greatest business and cultural centers – Aleppo, Casablanca and others. These problems have aggravated with the forming of the new housing blocks and public-trade centers. 

During application in the Arab cities of the methods of reconstruction, elaborated in the West, there emerged a number of specific collisions and as a response, - the measures of protection of town-building heritage and architectural monuments. In particular, this concerns organizational and juridical problems, connected with overpopulation of old city centers and private property on land lots and buildings-monuments.

In the colonial period and in the second half of the XX century substantial changes in public buildings typology took place. The development of business, europeanization and secularization of life caused the appearance of huge administrative buildings and complexes, modern entertainment buildings, shopping centers. The buildings of schools and universities have gained an average-western outlook.

A kind of an exception presents, perhaps, only new religious architecture. After gaining the independence in the majority of the countries of the Arab world a gradual reviving of religious construction is observed. It is connected with the revival of national self-consciousness and search for the own cultural roots. At the same time the new tendencies in religious architecture are sufficiently contradictory. Often the following of Arab tradition if these buildings is understood highly skin-deep, on the level of mechanical inclusion of traditional forms and ornaments into “architectural setting”. Such compositional techniques have spread also in the Soviet architecture, especially from the end of the 70-ies in connection with the crisis of modernist esthetics and the growing influence of neoeclectics.

Our point of view is that the prospects of solving the problem of regional originality of Arab architecture do not lay in the platitude of choice of some traditional prototypes, space-planning and stylistic techniques. The originality of modern, i.e. future architecture will be determined by the development of modern creative activity in the countries of the region. A systematic organizational, pedagogical, research and theoretic work is needed, aimed at overall provision of national architectural revival.

In theoretic-critical aspect this puts first of all the task of interpretation of Arab architectural heritage in the system of means and methods of the architecture of the fall XX – in creative paradigms of conceptualism, contextualism, “environmental approach” and so on. This work includes categorical-methodological, aesthetic and axiological analysis of creative conceptions of the prominent architects, working in the region, including western ones. The same circle of research includes the interpretation of Arab architecture themes within the creativity of masters of postmodernism and transavanguard.

In practical-organizational aspect the way to solve the problem of originality lies through perfection of structure and organization of architectural activity and overcoming of  architectural activity’s system incompleteness, which has been historically formed in Arab countries.  This concerns not so much the activity of design and construction firms, as the system of providing and reproduction of architectural activity.

Forming of active national architectures, authoritative on the world market of design services, should base on the further amplification of the role of professional corporations, the development of the system of work with a potential customer and perfection of architectural education. Simultaneously, the work should be carried out on intraprofessional communication system development, on increasing the number and widening of genre spectrum of professional editions. 

Principal is the work on compiling of a full and all-embracing history of the architecture of the region on the whole and of local national histories – architecture of Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Syria, Tunisia and others. Only sufficient cultural potential, bearing on the own written architectural history will allow each of the countries of the Arab world to form architectural schools, dominating on the home market of educational and design services. 

One more direction – is the elaborating of the strategy and tactics of municipal and state regulation in the sphere of architecture and city environment development, including increasing the efficiency of the measures on traditional values protection. Apparently, the character of power division between the state and municipal authorities in the sphere of architectural-town planning and protection of cultural monuments needs as well to be analyzed and reviewed.

The most important condition is widening of public participation in the development and realization of city development projects and programs. Wide citizens’ participation will allow raising little by little the level of citizens’ interest in their habitat, to cultivate a cultural national customer and client, making orders on architecture and urbanistics programs. As the practice of population participation in architectural activity widens, the normative-legislative fundamentals of preservation and development of architectural-town planning originality should get further development.

On the whole the goals and principles of transformation of national architectural school in the Arab world are clear enough. In the contents of architectural education in the Arab countries, in the set and structure of curricula one of the central places should be occupied by historical traditions and regional originality of Arab architecture. Regional schools, as it was mentioned, besides pedagogical activity, should carry out research and development projects, aimed at permanent accumulation of the own potential of design, historical and architectural and pedagogical culture. In this case architectural educational institutions have a chance to become the centers of development of the new national project culture.

The development of artistic means in Arab countries’ architecture in the second half of the XX century went by four main directions of looking for architectural expressiveness:

  • following the “international style” course;
  • formal stylization of the objects of European type on the basis of the motives of traditional Arab architecture;
  • using of style motives and of steady metaphors form the dictionary of Arab architecture combined with the means of modern architectural poetics in order to “indicate” national belonging of a building or a complex.
  • revelation and creative use in new construction of organic texture of traditional types of Arab architecture taking into account the achievements of modern engineering and culture.

On all these directions there are interesting creative decisions, but at the same time in general one may state the process of still deepening degradation of the environment of traditional Arab cities and loosing their national specifics.

Theoretical thought about Arab national architectural originality is structured in a substantially another way. Behind different historical and theoretical conceptions there are different ideologies and organizational strategies. We distinguish “Pan-Islamic”, “Arab-centered”, integrative  (“positivist”) and multicultural groups of conceptions.

Let us characterize each of them:
“Pan-Islamic” conceptions consider Islam architecture as a united and indivisible historical and architectural phenomenon and thus, represent Arab architecture in its historical development as one of regional variants of Islam architecture. The majority of researchers of traditional Arab architecture share this point of view; among them there is the most authoritative in the West classic history of architecture by B. Fletcher. Arab architecture is not considered by this group of conceptions as a united one, and historical architectural schools of certain Arab regions are treated in all-Islamic space along with the architecture of Iran, Middle Asia, Turkey and so on.

In view of this both development and realization of the strategies of Arab architecture revival seems to be a task exceptionally regional, while ideological and architectural-theoretical coordination is possible and effective only on Pan-Islamic level.

“Arab-centered” conceptions coincide with Pan-Islamic ones in their initial statement about inseparability of Islamic architectural tradition, but at the same time they treat just Arab architecture and the achievements of architectural schools of Caliphate period, i.e. that of Umayyad and Abbasid empires, as a fundamental principle of the Pan-Islamic in architecture.

Form the point of view of the authors, belonging to this group, the architectural schools of Persia, the Ottoman empire and the Great Moguls’ empire represent variations of the main themes of Arab architecture, and at the same time they enrich it by the heritage of the cultures, with which they come in contact. For Ottoman this is Byzantium architecture, for Great Moguls – Buddhist and Hinduism architecture and so on. We should note, that the followers of this point of view objectively stand on nationalistic positions (the fact, that G. Stierlin is an Englishman and A. Rallev – an Ukrainian, doesn’t abolish that). The ideological sources of this research directive stretch to the period of struggle for independence.

In organizational sense these conceptions give more or less the same possibilities as those of the first group, with the only difference that Arabs as the main carriers of “originality” turn out to be as if responsible for the whole Islamic super-region. Taking into account the situation in modern Islamic world, it’s evident, that neither in political, nor in practical aspects this variant is better, than the first one.

“Integrative” conceptions. The third group of conceptions, which may be called “integrative”, consider Arab architecture as a kind of sufficiently mechanical “sum” of architectures of present Arab world’s subregions – Arabia, Syria, Egypt, Maghreb. The conceptions, which form this group, may be called “positivist”. At the modern stage the states of the Arab Bay (UAE, Kuwait), whose influence and importance have grown sharply in the second part of the XX century, should be added to these four regions.

The main idea of these conceptions lies in that Islamic architecture is being formed as a result of integration of a great number of local schools, which fall into the sphere of influence of Islam culture. From the point of view of these conceptions only the schools of Arab world’s subregions could be distinguished, but not Arab architecture as the whole. Regional architectural schools are “taken” by this group of conceptions together with those diverse cultural influences, which were assimilated by those schools on certain stages of their development.

The organizational-program continuation of this point of view on the history is a highly conservative strategy, which fix in each of subregions local monuments and “vernacular”, and which try as far as it is possible, to resist to commercial development pressure in the reconstruction of the cities. This strategy doesn’t even need any coordinative efforts either on Pan-Arabic or even more so, on Pan-Islamic level. Architectural-town planning policies (state, inter-regional, municipal ones) in the framework of this approach remain entirely within European architectural culture. Such strategy is able only to hamper, but not to stop the process Arab heritage dilution in a homogenous mass of “modern” development. 

Multicultural conceptions. To the fourth group we may attribute conceptions of regional originality, which put on the top the process of Arab architecture genesis, but with consider it with all this as principally discontinuous, heterogeneous on different stages of historical and political development of the Middle East countries.

This approach is close to those directions of historical research, which in contrast to euro-centrism and flat evolutionism of positivist methodology of history considers the world history as a circulation of local civilizations. In the history of humanitarian and political thought of the XX century the founders and followers of this type of methodology of history (among them such thinkers as A.G.Toynbee and L.Gumilev), defended the principles of political and cultural pluralism. At the same time for this view of history characteristic is a peculiar cultural and historical fatalism, which became, in particular, one of the sources of that civilization pessimism, which is distinctly felt in postmodernism art.

According to the model of history, which is common for this group of conceptions, there was no essential internal unity in the history of Arab architecture. We’ll call the conceptions of this group «multicultural» ones. The Architecture of Caliphate epoch, of Mameluke empire, of the Ottoman empire, of the period of Anglo-French colonization these researchers consider as different cultures.

Organizational prospect, which arise from this ideology, is also sufficiently conservative. The difference form the previous one is in highlighting key points. If for “positivist” conceptions the main point is just the local as an all-regional, as a kind of integral “image” of a historical region, for “multicultural” ones it’s more important to reveal and conserve in a local heritage hetero-cultural layers, to carry out a kind of museumification of historical Arab cities.
The programs, based on all the examined historical and architectural conceptions, are conservative and/or isolationist.

We share the point of view, according to which the regional unity of Arab architecture should be looked for not retrospectively, but prospectively, in the future, but not in the past. After all, the unity of Arab school may be thought of not only as a nostalgia about majestic, but lost past, but as a modern cultural, educational and urbanistics project, directed to the future. Such an approach allows to avoid political and national-cultural collisions, connected with the variants, examined above.

“Prospective” thinking about Arab architectural school essentially changes the priorities of Arab architectural-urbanistics revival. On the foreground comes the organization of architectural activity. For the project of the rehabilitation of Arab positions in the world architecture it is necessary to overcome once and for all multilateral dependence of modern Arab architecture from the West, first of all, from the former colonial mother countries.

The main buttress of such a project ─ cultural, ideological and methodical one ─ may become historical heritage of the Arab countries.  The criteria of fullness of use of the heritage in modern architecture are the basic features of Arab architectural poetics:

  • predominance of spatial thinking over volumetric one;
  • the advantage, which  is given to surface decorating over sculptural development of form;
  • restriction and artistic modulation of light stream;
  • steadiness of vernacular together with wide and general spread of Pan-Islamic architectural themes and planning patterns;
  • specific urbanism, grown from allied-tribal settling and the influence of dry and hot climate;
  • the own dictionary of symbolic meanings of space and decoration.

The contents of the project of Arab architectural originality revival form the following directions of work: 

  • division of Arab and European architectural traditions in public consciousness;
  • development of professional corporations, research, system of interaction with clients, authorities and community;
  • development of theory and criticism, intraprofessional communication, regional and international creative exchange;
  • forming of competitive schools of architectural training.

Report at the International Conference “Arab City Architectural Heritage: Origins, Historical Development, Mutual Influence with International Architectural Heritage”, Institute of the History of Arab Science, University of Aleppo, Syria, May 08-10 2007.

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