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Reflections on Regional Research / Nader Ardalan

By March 2, 2021May 2nd, 2022No Comments

Published in 2A Magazine Issue #24

Harvard Graduate School of Design

For five decades it has been my pleasure and fate to professionally research, design, build and write about architecture in the Persian Gulf (Khaleej) Region’. This region is now an inseparable part of me, both professionally and personally. From 1964 when I returned to Iran after having completed my higher education and architectural internship in America, having been away at that time for nearly eighteen year from the region. I was stationed for two incredible years in Khuzestan as the Architect of non-basic operations of the NIOC. One of my first projects there was on Kharg Island, which used to be a lovely isle located to the north of the region, before it was subsequently overwhelmed as that country’s major oil depot. The challenge was to design staff housing that was climatically adapted and that could measure up to previous housing designed by the environmentally sensitive English architects, Maxwell Fry and Jane Drew, whose early collaboration with Le Corbusier and designs had a quiet modernism with a classical elegance. The next experience in the Khaleej was to master plan in 1974 a new city of 100,000 populations in Bandar Mahshahr, which commenced to be constructed, but was regrettably bombed in the 1980s during the Iraq/ Iran War and never fully realized as conceived. My first experience of Qatar occurred in 1991 when I was invited to give a lecture in Doha at the architecturally much publicized new campus of Qatar University. It was there that I met the young architect of the Municipality, Ibrahim Jaidah, who has over the past two decades become one of the leading architects of Qatar, a close friend and colleague, and the co-author of a most influential book entitled The History of Qatari Architecture (1800-1950). This initial experience was followed in 1994 by the conference convened by the Organization of Islamic Capitals and Cities where I met many who were involved with the development challenges facing Qatar. In particular, the archaeology expert, Mohammad al-Kholaifi, was kind enough to present to me his book Traditional Architecture in Qatar, which provided my first glimpse of early scholastic research and

hitectural heritage. Since these first experiences, particularly from 1994 to 2006 when I lived and worked in the region, the opportunity was afforded me to master plan and design some of the major cultural, academic, commercial and residential buildings of the region and to meet the key decision makers and professionals working in this region. Continuing to the present, I have witnessed and participated in the transformations of this region and observed firsthand the contemporary evolution of its urbanism and architecture. Since economic determinism rules have principally dominated development in many of the countries of the region since the 1990’s to now, serious long term retrogressive and destructive ecological and socio-cultural impacts on both land and sea have been observed, while spectacular short term financial gains have been achieved. These gains have also come with the loss of a working knowledge and sense of identity of how in the recent past these societies knew how to live sustainably in context with their natural environment and the indigenous cultures of the Khaleej Region.

After returning to Boston in 2006 and deeply concerned by the majority of unsustainable developments taking place in the region, I accepted to become a Research Fellow at Harvard Center for Middle East Studies and proposed to the UAE Minister of Higher Education & Scientific Research and private donors from Kuwait to fund the first of a series of sustainability research studies for the Gulf Research Project (GRP). Graciously, they sponsored the research and the first results were Peer Reviewed at Harvard and published in the winter 2008 edition of 2A Architecture & Art Magazine. This was followed by the research carried out in 2009 by Prof. Steven Caton, anthropologist, and I that focused on Qatar, Kuwait and the UAE as documented in the New Arab Urbanism-the Challenge to Sustainability and Culture in the Gulf. This publication was published in 2010 by the Middle East Initiative of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and funded by the Kuwait Foundation for the Advancement of Science. Meanwhile, in Qatar, the idea for a region-wide research study of traditional architecture of the region had started in early 2009 when senior decision makers opened dialogue on the importance of documenting the historic urban design and architecture of the cities around the Khaleej Region. This was only natural since these countries shared many of the same environmental conditions and parallel cultures, yet much of this heritage had not been adequately documented and there was a critical need for this documentation before this history was lost by contemporary development. These realizations also became evident due to the lack of written resources on the subject during the research and design of the Msheireb Urban Regeneration Project in downtown Doha to find good sources on the local architectural language. Ultimately in April, 2010 Eng. Issa Al Mohannadi forwarded to me a Request for Proposal on the subject of a holistic research study of the sustainability of urbanism and architecture of the Khaleej Region, which I brought to the attention of Dean Mohsen Mostafavi of my Alma Mater, the Graduate School of Design (GSD) at Harvard. The above compelling concerns provided justifications for the GSD, which was already actively undertaking programs for Urban Sustainability, including the Zofnass Program for Sustainable Infrastructure directed by Prof. Spiro Pollalis, to become interested in the regional research project and to ultimately sign in February, 2011 an agreement to undertake a three phase research project entitled Gulf Encyclopedia for Sustainable Urbanism (GESU) related to the Past, Present and the Future of this region. Over time, the project title was abbreviated to Persian Gulf Sustainable Urbanism (GSU).The first phase of this holistic, multi-year, cross-disciplinary, crossborder study focused on the urban sustainability of the Past in the Region that has been sponsored by Msheireb Properties, a subsidiary of Qatar Foundation, Qatar.

For the purpose of this research project, the Khaleej Region included the eight countries that border this body of water and from them ten case study cities were selected for documentation and analysis (see Fig. 1). They are Doha, Qatar: Manama Muharraq, Bahrain: Dammam/Hofuf, Saudi Arabia; Kuwait City, Kuwait; Basrah, Iraq: Bandar Abbas and Bandar Lengeh, Iran; Abu Dhabi/Al Ain and Dubai, UAE, and Muscat/Muttrah, Sultanate of Oman. These ten case study cities were selected for field data gathering, documentation, analysis and comparative synthesis at four scales from region, city, neighborhood and unit. The methodology was also based on a rigorous study of three research topics: Environment/Public Health; Social/Cultural/ Economic; and Urban Form Architecture’.


There is a profound quest for deciphering the lessons of the past that is as ancient as the history of humankind. It was such a shared motivation that brought together the individuals and institutions who initiated the GSU research about sustainability of past settlements of the Khaleej Region. Here in one of history’s most fabled lands where it is said that the first world civilizations came into being, there lies many lessons, but no systematic academic study of the eight countries that surround the regional waters had ever been made to understand how and why human settlements first came into existence here and more specifically what were the holistic, adaptive characteristics of their sustainability. In these desert regions of highest solar radiant energy gain, minimum potable water availability and scarce material resources how were civilizations able to support human life and sustain an interrelated maritime culture of such unique significance? The search for extracting the meanings that lie hidden in the past of these urban habitats may prove valuable lessons for the countries of this region and also provide valuable understandings and insights into modes of survival for future generations of similar bioclimatic global zones that must adapt to a warming and transforming planet that may slowly approach the environmental conditions of this region. Therefore, the final objectives of this research are to decipher the principles of adaptive urban sustainability of the past and ultimately in subsequent phases to propose the principles that might guide the future development of sustainable cities in the region. As a first step, we selected a series of coastal cities in the eight countries as representative case studies. We then applied a carefully tailored methodology of data gathering field trips & interviews followed by documentation, analysis, comparisons, and sustainability evaluations of these cities, their neighborhoods and building typologies. At the same time, a parallel objective has been to identify the clustering of cities and their components based on degrees of similitude. We defined the past as lasting until the newly found oil and gas industries had a significant impact on the local economy and changed the everyday life of residents. Representative samples of the documentation and analysis that was undertaken at the four levels (Region/City Neighborhood Unit) of Urban Form Architecture research for Bandar Lengeh, Iran are shown below (see Figures 3 to 8).

Summary of Lessons Learned from the Past

Since the global resources in the past appeared to be unlimited, sustainability was not about global resources but rather applicable to local resources and survival. The focus was just local and less focused on energy and more focused on materials and water, only when local resources did not suffice or exist, regional interdependency came into play, such the importation of Chandal poles from Zanzibar. As far as climate change as an issue, it did not apply – maybe only on the adaptation to extreme weather phenomena, such as sand storms, heat waves, etc. With regard to the natural world, the past was primarily concerned with the local environment, but cosmically astronomy and studies of the sciences was of particular interest to Muslim scholars. Issues related to the quality of life were about immediate survival, human comfort, social values plus profound cultural concerns, but with limited planning for future growth. Thus, our analysis and comparisons of the past were based on this framework of sustainability and our lessons learned about this topic have been viewed through the lens of six interrelated principals of sustainability defined below.


Flexibility was expressed in many aspects of urban living. Laws regulating the way the urban fabric was shaped combined with family social structures, allowed inhabitants to reassemble the existing spatial components or add new ones as a response

ditions. Architectural design and furniture less interiors allowing multi-use of a space made the continuous evolution of space technically feasible. The need for resources, such as construction materials, were reduced significantly as extended reuse of existing spaces was made possible. The structure of circulation networks allowed building clusters to merge or separate according to needs for additional spaces or access points. Different thermal environments were created within building units for occupants to select according to thermal comfort needs. Finally it was common for groups of population to relocate following seasonal patterns and availability of resources.


As a sustainability concept, compactness was expressed through many parameters, including the correlation of a city’s footprint with its population and the distances created between locations of various societal elements. Compactness was observed in the geometry of open public space and its relation to private plots. Additionally, plot size, the configuration of built and unbuilt spaces, and the association between buildings on different plots were also complementary expressions of the dense concentration of activities allowed for higher levels of integration and awareness between the members of each community.

Interdependence/ Self-Sufficiency

At the regional and city scale, interdependent trade relations were needed to overcome the limits of basic local resources. These relationships were moderated and balanced at neighborhood and unit scales, where self-sufficiency was pursued. The concept of interdependence /self-sufficiency influenced the social and economic relationships formed at the regional and family level. It also defined the methods for resource management and production, and the allocation of land uses within the city.


The importance of the concept of proximity was found city, neighborhood and unit levels, and was related mainly to optimizing distances, thus reducing human energy demands both in the house and the community. The comfort of pedestrians increased as the exposure to extreme temperatures along routes was reduced. Proximity also contributed to the improvement of social life as communities became better organized and integrated. However, the cultural norms for the protection of privacy, one of the foremost norms of social order, allowed proximity pattems that did not violate privacy needs.


The concept of engagement, participating in cultural and social structures that promoted coexistence and stability, was found at the city, neighborhood and unit scales. Engagement defined the development of social and family norms and identities, and significantly influenced space use patterns and activities. Of particular significance was the role of the Muhtasib, the semiinformal local governance system, which through familial negotiations brought social order to the neighborhood. As public and private spaces were organically produced through negotiations between members of the same neighbourhood or family, the adaptation of space continuously evolved to meet the needs of its residents.

Climate adaptability

Climate adaptability was expressed through dense, compact, shade generating courtyard based urban fabrics that reduced heat gain, enhanced natural ventilation and encouraged daily life patterns that were seasonally adjusted. Inhabitants relocated in search of better thermal conditions, seasonally at the periphery of their city, and daily within their houses or neighborhoods. Additionally, the building technology of thick exterior walls with minimum openings and specific elements and techniques developed to passively cool spaces were key to traditional climate adaptation. Through climate adaptability, regional populations managed to survive and gradually improve their health and comfort. This massive research work of 16 months duration was completed in July, 2012 and presented to the Sponsor in an 852 page, large format Manuscript containing more than 1500 original maps, analytical diagrams and illustrations. It is now awaiting publication. We are deeply gratified that Msheireb Properties has subsequently requested Harvard to proceed with the technical research required for implementing Phase 2-The Present. Many of the individuals of the Sponsor and Harvard team who worked on Phase I will continue with Phase 2 and the effort will include the active participation of many of the academic institutions and the public/private agencies of the region. This concerted outreach program will both enhance the knowledge base of the project and bring awareness of the lessons to be learned to a broad number of those living and practicing in the region. The objectives of the research analysis to evaluate and compare the status of urban sustainability of the key cities in the region to one another and against international benchmarks will benefit the future stability and continued growth of the region society