By CW Guest Columnist

Other than a few iconic structures such as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa or Riyadh’s Kingdom Tower, most of the new planned developments in this part of the world are alien to their context.

As a city built largely from scratch, Dubai has struggled to find an identity.
As a city built largely from scratch, Dubai has struggled to find an identity.

They could as easily exist in Kuala Lumpur or Frankfurt as they could in the Middle East.

The issue of architectural identity is more elusive in cities that are practically being built from scratch – the likes of Doha and Dubai – than it is for Amman or Cairo. But at a time when any material and any product can be made available anywhere in the world, this is an important debate to have.

While Dubai may have developed the prototype of what a modern global city can look like, and created an exemplary image for others to follow, many have questioned whether the development of generically modern designs is appropriate. Is it inevitability, or a choice?

But modernity is not the only problem. Equally problematic are new buildings that look to the past nostalgically, implementing building blocks of faux wind catchers, domes and other elements. We have seen what this looks like, kitsch – decorative designs that are not truthful in their response to the context or the climate, unlike their predecessors that truly were.

Even worse, some of today’s examples were created by architects from outside the region representing their interpretation of an invented style that never existed.

The identity issue is different for GCC cities than it is for Cairo or Damascus, primarily because the demographic mix is very different. Who are we designing for? Should design look to the past heritage of the indigenous population, or to the current mix, where the indigenous population in GCC cities forms, in many cases, no more than 20% of the total population.

There is great interest now to have designs that do not simply elevate the image of many cities in the region to appear more international and developed, but rather to design buildings that could only exist here. A new paradigm? I would argue, it is merely a sensible return to basics.

I believe we need to develop a new design strategy – an approach based on, and responsive to, context. This context can be distilled to people (encompassing their traditions, customs, rituals), climate (responding to and taking advantage of temperature, prevailing winds, light), and materials. History and heritage do have a place, but not as the primary driver.

To be sure, this is more about a design strategy than style. In time this will likely develop into a regional style that can both speak about and be rooted in the region’s identity. This is about sensible design, design that is at the same time sustainable, both in its ability to endure, as well as its responsibility to the environmental.

If we can do this, the region can have something to be proud of and call its own – a built environment that reflects our identity.