By Nader Ardalan
Research Fellow, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Harvard University
RE-CONCEIvING THE BUILT ENvIRONMENT
OF THE PERSIAN GULF REGION
Climate Change is “The Defining Challenge of our Age”
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, The Synthesis Report of the IPCC,11.16.07
Published in Issue #7
Cutting across all other issues facing the countries surrounding the Persian Gulf and the world is climate change.
Its practical and elegant mitigation by designing Sustainable Built Environments is our greatest challege.
This edition of Art & Architecture Magazine summaries the salient preliminary findings and recommendations of the Pilot Year of applied research program that was undertaken by a multi-disciplinary group to develop new design guidelines and prototypes of urban design and architecture for the Gulf Region. It advocates the benefits of these recommended guidelines and innovations in environmentally and culturally more sustainable designs than the current planning, design, construction and real estate practices and models that are being used in this region, which for the most part demonstrate serious shortcomings due to high resource consumption, urban pollution, loss of quality and urban cohesion plus lacking an indigenous sense of cultural identity. Further, it encourages the continued and more detailed scientific, socio-economic and professional research and application of this subject by the major concerned institutions in the Gulf Region.
In almost every field of urban life, the Middle East countries are at a critical threshold, particularly the oil rich countries surrounding the Gulf region. The referenced countries within the Gulf region include Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Iran and Iraq. Spurred by great windfall wealth and generally provoked by current political events, the eastern region countries of the Arabian Peninsula along the Gulf, in particular, are headlong into vast developments that, however, with more advanced vision could be greatly improved to better adapt to the environment and cultures of this highest radiant energy gain region of the world. Although, significant advancement in technology and visual design thinking is exhibited by the current building designs proposed or recently built and there is good will intended by all decision makers concerned, the troubling problem is that the development and building models being used have been based mainly upon obsolete and irrelevant prototypes of Urban Design and Architecture that will compromise their cost effectiveness, longevity and historical value. Further, they will burden their governments with long term urban infrastructure energy waste, high operation and maintenance cost and generate significant urban pollution. On a larger regional scale, the Gulf waters pose an ecological concern due to extensive offshore oil and gas drilling, in addition to the massive oil tanker and merchant shipping traffic, which provide the economic life blood of the region. As prosperity propels population growth along its shores and recreational tourism increases, the ecological well being of the inter tidal zones and their sea life need to be preserved. Global warming and the predicted water level rise will also impact the coastal developments. There is therefore, an urgent need for an integrated land/sea strategy of sustainable growth on a regional/global dimension. Interestingly enough the region is not alone in this dilemma as the American Institute of Architects (AIA) recently took a bold step in releasing the following policy statements: “The AIA recognizes a growing body of evidence that demonstrates current planning, design, construction and real estate practice contribute to patterns of resource consumption that seriously jeopardize the future of the Earth’s population …. We must alter our professions actions and encourage our clients and the entire design and construction industry to join with us to change the course of the planet’s future”.
The AIA’s Board of Directors set a goal of slashing the fossil fuel consumption of buildings by 50% in four years and expressed strong support for consensus based standards for sustainable design. Yet the Gulf region buildings, currently under design, imitate much of these same obsolete “jeopardizing patterns” of resource consumption. Coincident with these “hardware short comings will be the “software” social disadvantages of congested urban settlements that lack a sense of urban cohesion, human scale and cultural identity. Of specific issue regarding some of the Eastern Arabian Peninsula states, such as the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, with small indigenous populations compared with their large expatriate, migrant communities, will be the socio-political concerns related to “whose country is this, anyway?”. With the recent growth of democratic institutions and consciousness in the region, migrants with long duration local residencies and their offspring’s born in these countries already outnumber by significant percentages the native population. They will in time naturally seek and demand their fair representation in decision making structures of these societies and desire a sense of their respective world views and cultural identities. Therefore, the economic, social and cultural institutions and symbolic signs needed to accommodate such demographic trends within the larger parameters of national goals will have to be boldly, yet sensitively addressed in informed ways.
Such demographic considerations have been slow to come about or are non-existent in the current development plans. They may foster, if left unheeded, near future social problems that could impact the future stability of these countries. As the majority of world fuel resources reside in this region, the future stability of the Gulf is of global and national importance.
For some of the above stated reasons, there are compelling justifications to undertake research to develop and apply potential new Design Prototypes that can generate more sustainable human settlements and urban systems in this region. It might also be proved that such sustainable approaches are also smart national business investment opportunities to help diversify current domestic financial structures, offering long term profits and documenting a new set of iconic images of greater relevance and substance.
The following are salient highlights of the program and activities of the First Year of the Gulf Research Project (GRP) that commenced September, 2006 and concluded August ,2007.
• The GRP is a multi-year program of academic studies composed of architects,planners,engineersand environmentalists from educational institutions and the professions with expertise on the Gulf Region, who are investigating the cultural, environmental and technical impacts of recent built environments and ways to improve the sustainability of future developments. The eight countries surrounding the Gulf waters to be studied will include UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kuwait,Iraq,Iran and Oman.
• The First Pilot Year has focused primarily upon the UAE, with an intial study of Kuwait and has been sponsored by a generous grant from the Higher Colleges of Technology of the UAE and private donations from Mr. Youssef Al Nisf and Mr. Mohammed Abdul Latif Al Shaya of Kuwait. We are deeply appreciative of their support, without which this endeavor would not have been possible.
• The participating academic groups include the American University of Sharjah School of Architecture and Design with the participation of Associate Professor George Katodrytis; the Architectural Association of London Graduate Program in Energy and Environment with the participation of Professor Simos Yannas; Kuwait University Department of Architecture with Associate Professor Adil Al Mumin; The Higher Colleges of Technology with Dr.Tayeb Al Kamali and Dr.Senthil Nathan; the pro bono professional consultants include Halcrow, ARUP, Klingstubbins and ECO-Environmental Consultants. Nader Ardalan, Research Fellow at CMES, Harvard is the Project Director.
• The Fall term, 2006 investigated and recommended some preliminary Sustainable Design Guidlines to achieve Technical and Cultual Design Sustainability of the future Built Environments in the Gulf.
The Spring Term, 2007 included AA student visits to the UAE and Graduate and Senior Level Design Studios that tested the application of the Design Guidelines through case studies on actual sites in the the UAE. Some of the results of these research and workshop findings were exhibited at the AA in London and at the Moutamarat International Design Forum held in May, 2007 in Dubai.
An interim Peer Review seminar on the GRP was held at Harvard by CMES in April, 2007 with the participation of specialists from the US academic community and the program leaders.
• It is proposed that the subsequent focus and program of the Gulf Research Project will be determined in 2008, after the publication of the First Pilot Year Findings.The ultimate intention of this research is to raise conciousness of the need and benefits of “Sustainable Design Thinking” and to help influence decision making about the built environment through creditable approaches, relevant design guidelines and prototyping that can be legitimized and realized by innovative economics and creative governance.