The idea that a city should be more than just a collection of landmarks, though without denying the importance of iconic buildings to civic identity, is one that that we can expect to hear more of in the UAE now that the Royal Institute of British Architects has opened its first Gulf chapter in the country. Bringing with it all the prestige attached to one of the world's oldest and most exclusive architecture institutes - membership is not easily obtained - the RIBA sees its role here as one of helping to create a community of architects, facilitating debate among its members (there are more than 400 in the Gulf) and organising events open to the greater architecture and design community. But its influence could potentially be far greater than the sum of its parts.
Simon Crispe, a member of the RIBA and the commercial director of Atkins UAE says: "Individual practices should be more collective, they should be talking about commonalities, things that are missing at the moment. All we're really going to be doing is fostering discussion." Landmarks - whether identified with a city or an architect - were not necessarily bad things, he says. Indeed, they could be as important to the identity of a place as its culture - the Eiffel Tower in Paris, for example, or the Sydney Opera House. But when designers focused too much on the exterior of a building, its height, its ability to stand out - the so-called Edifice Complex - they did so at the expense of people, whom it is ostensibly intended to serve.
Rather than making a building to be the single most identifiable symbol of one architect - which has happened a lot here, Crispe says - collaboration is the first step to developing a community of architects here. Communication is key, Crispe believes, because it can imbue a sense that we are all working towards the same goal, albeit through different channels and with our own interpretations. And when that goal revolves around the building of a city, its civic institutions and the spaces between, a unified understanding of what the main priorities are is paramount and can encourage creativity.
RIBA's UAE chapter has chosen educational institutions as the primary vehicle through which to consolidate ideas and hold discussions. The hope is that if dialogue is achieved, professional architects and students of the trade can learn as much from each other as they do in the classroom. The ultimate goal is to exercise the best ideas in practice, benefiting a much broader cohort: the architecture world and, most importantly, the city and its inhabitants.
All this means that the UAE is among the best locations for this to take place: the country is relatively young, uniquely positioned because of its newness to learn from the mistakes of other, older countries and institute best practices from around the world as well as new, innovative ideas. Winners of a design competition launched in May by RIBA - open to students residing in the Gulf - were announced in conjunction with the launch of the UAE chapter. Impressed by the number of applicants, Crispe says the five shortlisted entrants illustrate an important point that he hopes the RIBA can assist with disseminating more broadly: some of the applicants had worked in teams. Two brains are better than one, Crispe says, and the willingness to combine forces indicates the profession of architecture is growing up.
Community sounds nice, so does communication. But the challenges in the UAE are great. For one, it isn't entirely surprising that architects have in the past seen Dubai as a place in which they can experiment. Unlike a city with a longer history and a more established urban fabric, Dubai has almost no consistency in design. What that means for architects and designers is that there isn't an existing urban idea within which their buildings must fit.
But the profession has changed. Architects such as Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright are examples of an ethos that no longer applies. They were part of a school of thought where individual architects truly believed they had the power to change human behaviour, wants and needs by completely altering the building, neighbourhood or city, but now the role of the architect has evolved. Le Corbusier's big idea was the Contemporary City, which consisted of a handful of skyscrapers in which he wanted inhabitants to live, separated by vast swathes of empty lawns and wide roads, utterly convinced that vertical living was the way to develop a sense of community. No doubt Wright designed some of the 20th century's best architecture, but his more debatable idea was that of community planning, in which decentralisation was key. Essentially the model for suburban living, what once seemed to embody the "American dream", has now become America's nightmare - monster homes on sprawling lots. These antisocial communities have been called the slums of the future by James Howard Kunstler, the social critic and proponent of New Urbanism, simply because they are so unsustainable.
More than just ego, architects also have a social responsibility that didn't factor into the trade in the past. In addition to designing and erecting buildings, we call on architects, designers and planners to contribute to the solving of civic problems. What that means in practical terms is that buildings respect a wider context. This evolution is why initiatives such as Abu Dhabi's 2030 Plan are so important.
Peter Jackson, a RIBA member who has been living and working in the UAE for seven years and has been in the country on and off since the early 1970s, explains. "Architects tend to see projects individually, and what happens then is that cities become placeless. Sheikh Zayed Road, for example, there is little sense of place there. "Cultural Square in Sharjah, though, you know where you are when you're there. Architects get to experiment with design superlatives here, but with that there's no sense of creating an urban fabric. There's no holistic view."
The heightened maturity and complexity of architecture has other implications as well. A degree in the trade is not the end of the learning process. Architects have to constantly upgrade their skills. On top of collaborating with the country's universities, the new RIBA branch will organise programmes for professionals called CPDs, continuing professional development. "There need to be opportunities to share educational experiences and keep the educational process alive. It could be a regulatory problem, products, insulation, green building," Jackson says, adding that professionals need to constantly expand their skills and knowledge.
For the students, Jackson says more awareness is needed about design issues, the next generation of architects needs to know the difference between good, mediocre and just plain bad design. There is also the issue that architecture tends to be seen as a sub-branch of engineering in the Gulf, he says. And if that is the case, it diminishes the value of architecture and what is lost, ultimately, is quality design.
Architects, he believes, deserve to have a higher place on the building totem pole. If the RIBA represents a certain standard of architectural excellence, then that is precisely what its members hope to pass on here. "We've been surprised in the past at how many people have to come out to our events, even though they were not advertised much. So there's a real thirst for it. We're bringing dialogue to the table," Jackson says.