Linking Interior and Urban Environments

Dr. John Alexander Smith

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #8


Rather a long time ago the writer had the most peculiar notions about what actually comprised architecture and how it related to other design disciplines. Urban planning and design subjects were progressively introduced as systematic study areas by mid-program, and hence made some sense in the contextual arrangement of buildings, landscaping and infrastructural elements, but at the other end of the scale, interior design was somewhat arrogantly dismissed as an irrelevance at worst and a distraction at best in the context of ‘serious’ architecture. However in the ‘70s, several writers managed to make an impression on this resisting mind and, oddly enough during my professional ‘year-out’, I took to reading voluntarily about issues in architecture that helped provide a more rounded appraisal of an often vexatious subject.
On the back of the then recent energy crisis, George Baird introduced me to and developed the concept of the building as a climate modifier, then disappeared to New Zealand for thirty years before re-engaging my attention as the author of an excellent work, The Architectural Expression of Environmental Control Systems.; a belated ‘thank you’ George. Bannister Fletcher’s comparative method of analyzing historic architecture was sketched out and thoroughly reformatted under the works of James Macaulay and William Brogden. My hitherto unrelenting  conviction that architecture was in fact solid, viz, structure and envelope, was systematically dismantled by Steen Eiler Rasmussen who convincingly articulates the case for ‘cavities’ or voids within his Experiencing Architecture and then valuably, articulates the importance of various elements – scale and proportion, rhythm, daylight, colour and hearing or acoustics. In later years Francis Ching has splendidly reinterpreted the words and photographs of Rasmussen in his highly visual textbooks intended for architecture and interior design students.
But back to the 1970s: John M. Richards as editor of the Architectural Review until 1971, along with Ian Nairn, John Betjeman, and Gordon Cullen, specifically addressed many of the urban design and planning issues that had emerged from post-war Europe, particularly the brutal insertion of various comprehensive redevelopments of war damaged city centres and the distribution of bland suburban ‘estates’ around old and new towns, thereby forever changing the character of the urban entity from within and without. However a new editor at the Architectural Review, Peter Davey, and a lecture given by an emergent personality at Edinburgh University in 1977 helped address a future for architecture and its constituent parts. I am forever grateful to the former for providing an elegant definition of architecture as integrated architectural design – everything else is either building or civic art! The latter, Charles Jencks, almost single-handedly breathed life back into the discussion of architecture with The Language of Post-Modern Architecture and, ironically, in the ensuing years seemed to provoke a new generation of writers determined to outdo each other with doubtful and verbose writing styles where compound-complex sentences were littered with newly invented words and terms that presumably meant something to themselves and their peers from various university schools of architecture; regrettably who had apparently designed and built little but proselytesized and published much. The most outstanding building of the period was, however, unashamedly modern in the form of PianoRogers’ Pompidou Centre where its inside–out appearance of services on the exterior of the envelope freed up the interior spaces for multiple use. What was also clear from visits in 1977 and 1981 to Paris was that such architecture also successfully addressed the regeneration of the urban fabric in what was a particularly depressed area of the city. In this context the Rue De Renard still astonishes the unprepared visitor. By the late 1980s, post-modernism was still in vogue and Michael Graves was the champion of many. Modernism of course continued unrelentingly in the capable hands of Norman Foster whose Hongkong and Shanghai Bank on the main island also unexpectedly introduced the writer to the influence of Feng Sui on building design. Contrast the effect on the urban environment of its near neighbour, the Bank of China Tower by I. M. Pei, where ‘poison arrows’ are reflected back from a plethora of mirrors on adjoining buildings!
At that time the guest editor had the good fortune to meet two significant personalities in London and Sydney respectively. Robert Venturi elegantly outlined his approach to the extension of the National Gallery off Trafalgar Square which had followed on from the intervention by Prince Charles and the dismissal of the previous architects, Ahrens, Burton and Koralek, a firm which had nevertheless produced fine buildings in preceding years. At the other end of the world, Australia’s pre-eminent architect Harry Seidler conversely was bitterly opposed to the new ‘isms’, especially those espoused by Jencks and his imitators. Seidler declared that he had been betrayed by Philip
Johnson with regard to the AT&T Tower in Manhattan and would never forgive him and the ‘fag mafia’ controlling the journals on architecture.
Into the 1990s and with the death of a fellow Scot, Sir James Stirling, it seemed that architecture had been left a void where clarity of visual expression, steeped in the  later modernism of the post-war years and allied with a
feeling for cultural depth and richness of materials, had been dealt a body blow. Architecture can be considered a measurable human response to complex program needs and several architects at that time were producing work that went beyond the conventions of styling and ‘isms’.
Renzo Piano, Michael Hopkins, Ken Yeang and Nader Ardalan each addresses and connects successfully with
the site or setting, the predominant environmental factors and the cultural context for their creations. Their buildings typically work on differing levels of simplicity and sophistication and each has a strong intellectual platform for developing concepts into a reality that fuses interiors, architectural form and urban context. The most important book read at that time was arguably Ardalan and Bakhtiar’s Sense of unity: the Sufi Tradition
in Persian architecture which carefully and accessibly lays out the case for Islamic design principles concerning
the natural and built environments. These subjects also address the notion of green architecture and sustainability which, from an historical perspective, have always accompanied the peoples of the Middle East in terms of
their traditional villages and housing that have evolved according to their recognizing the perfected built response
to climate and weather, limitations of building materials and water supply, together with religious and cultural
Following the advent of a new millennium and a new communication age the accelerating pace of development
in the Gulf region raises many questions and few clear answers about where architecture is heading. The frenzy
of constructing a variety of high-rise towers as a visual backdrop to the ‘city of cities’ that Dubai has become tends to obscure some inevitable consequences for the future, particularly in terms of human values.: the need of neighbourhood, public space as place, a safe and integrated pedestrian experience, affordable life-styles, and so on. Fast development with futuristic projects are all very well in terms of attracting world attention based on shrewd marketing media exercises, but few commentators from future generations will applaud the legacy of mistakes that are accumulating. Future city planning will require to address the energy equation while offering a more integrated approach to accommodating people, buildings and infrastructural elements. The gated communities that  effectively corral their residents while disbarring the low income workers of today will require rethinking in the context of an inclusive society of tomorrow. In order to achieve these and other aims, the design professions will be obliged to adapt and co-operate through a sense of common purpose and this can be tackled at the educational and vocational levels. Consequently a common language of architecture is as essential for interior designers as it is for landscape and urban designers and planners. In this way architecture can truly link the interior and urban
environments of tomorrow.
The contributors to this edition of 2A Architecture and Art offer unique individual positions in developing a visual narrative intended to explain their stances on some of the issues identified above. Nabyl Chenaf and Sinclair Webster provide acute observations on how the city of Dubai is perceived – from the viewpoints of the resident and the visitor – and what might be achieved by tackling the physical and psychological environments. These elements form strands of Taha Al-Douri’s deeply thoughtout ideas into ‘form and transformation’ and the promotion of
a ‘freedom tower’ where symbolism can connect with all layers of society.  Another cerebral approach to interior and exterior design issues is apparent in the varied work of Morris and Sato where the physical and the temporal are constantly reappraised. Professors Andrew MacMillan and Angelo Bugatti examine how the urban wall, whether enclosing the European or desert city, or as a linear building form in itself, contributes to the sense of order and satisfaction derived while offering a variety of interpretations in integrating interior and urban spaces. As a case study,Professors Andrew MacMillan and Angelo Bugatti examine how the urban wall, whether enclosing the European or desert city, or as a linear building form in itself, contributes to the sense of order and satisfaction derived while offering a variety of interpretations in integrating interior and urban spaces. As a case study, Richard Dagenhart highlights his students’ approach to solving many of the issues associated with Dubai’s CBD, on either side of the Creek, a locality that seems to have been left behind as the city expands away from its historical centre while embracing various cities within the metropolitan area. This disengagement between the urban original and its progeny can be addressed through the insertion of landmark buildings that operate beyond the level of gimmickry or fashion statements. Christoph Kapeller’s exciting designs for Stockholm, Seoul and Prague offer the facility of the planned rooftop as a viable form of urban space that links well with its architecture and interiors. Cities and buildings at night

can be transformed by the application of suitably inventive lighting schemes and Jonathan Speirs has engaged in a career that continually dramatizes and harmonizes the built environment constituent parts whether streets, trees, bridges, buildings and their interiors.

The subject of interiors is very much the domain of Chen Yi who has identified a number of notable projects in Shanghai that introduce architectural thinking to realizing suitable solutions for challenging projects. Kun Lim in his case study attempts the full repertoire of architectural skills by linking historical precedent, site setting, architectural form, landscape clements, interior spatial planning and design, environmental control and urban context. On a more circumspect level Hala Al-Madfar demonstrates how themed interiors when carefully planned and detailed can lend an air of communication with the architectural setting and the implied urban world beyond. Sarah Naarden notes how the language of urban planning, viz., streets, facades. and so on, can be adapted to successful interior space planning of a major new children’s hospital.

Each of these articles addresses how architecture in some latent or more obvious way links interior and urban environments. The writer contends that mastery of this subject area will contribute to successful city planning. and landscape, architectural and interior design in the future. With this in mind he has decided to accept the offer of a deanship at a new school of architecture and interior design, the first of its kind in Dubai.


John Alexander Smith is Professor and Emeritus Chairman of the Department of Interior Design at the American University of Dubai and Dean Elect of the School of Architecture and Interior Design at the Canadian University of Dubai

He took his doctorate in architecture and landscape design at the University of Aberdeen and has been a chartered architect since 1980. As a practitioner he has worked in the UK. Oman. Iran, Hong Kong. Alhamia and Malaysia. In the Gulf region he has taught as a full-time professor at the University of Teheran, Ajman University of Science and Technology and the American University in Dubai. He has published extensively and lectured in North America, Europe, the Far East and Australia on urban planning, architecture, interior design and traditional garden design in the Gulf region