If there is one occupation you would expect to be popular in the UAE, it is architecture. This is the nation that boasts the tallest building in the world and features sublime creations such as Emirates Towers and the Burj Al Arab. But if George Katodrytis, the curator of a new exhibition at the design gallery Traffic in Dubai, is to be believed, architects in the true sense of the word are surprisingly rare here. Katodrytis is an associate professor of architecture at the School of Architecture and Design at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), home to a degree course that attempts to bring the creative, innovative side of construction to a region in which spartan engineering has, he says, been the norm.
"The word 'architect' did not exist in the professional vocabulary in the UAE," he says. "So in order to register as an architect here you have to register through the UAE society of engineers, and you register as an architectural engineer. The idea of design and architecture, even when it's more about a creative process, as opposed to an engineering or purely construction process, is something new."
The exhibition at Traffic titled Form_De_Form_Re_Form_Trans_Form_In_Form, displays the models and plans for 20 projects that have been created by undergraduate students at the School of Architecture since Katroydis first arrived in Sharjah in 2001. The gallery space is scattered with organic-looking buildings made from cardboard, Perspex and foam, cut up, layered and twisted. These are not, though, the meticulous creations of professional architectural firms, and for the lay person it can be hard to see how these constructions, while cleverly put together, would work as buildings. The computer-generated drawings on the walls are more enlightening, but by Katodrytis's own admission, the exhibition is more about demonstrating the creative process than exhibiting final works.
"They're not the most polished end products; they're more like the process, a little bit more rough, which sometimes gives you a better picture of the product, the way of thinking and so on," he explains. "There is a process of design, given the requirements or restrictions or concepts, where you engage in a journey. Sometimes the result is not very visible, and that's what makes this process fascinating. I always say to my students: 'If you know what your building is going to look like at the end you should not do it, because you need to discover it.'"
The projects are what Katodrytis calls "landmark projects" from the eight years that his studio, or class, has been running. They are among the most innovative and groundbreaking fourth and fifth-year projects that he's seen during his time in Sharjah, and their designers are those who have found most success after the five-year degree. "Always, in any school, especially in a young school like ours, there is the student that almost comes from nowhere, and they just produce these amazing things," he marvels. "These students have achieved something different in their professional lives. They are students who have their own practices in Dubai - X-Architects for example won an international award on a new sustainability project they did; another student is starting in London at the AA (Architectural Association); and another two worked in the office of Rem Koolhaas. So in a way an education is one little part of their lives and what is interesting for us looking back is to see how they link their current and recent professional achievements to their early years in the school."
Many of the graduates have grown up in the Emirates and are already working here or have plans to return after their further studies. One of the most successful is Ahmed Ebrahim al Ali, the co-founder of X-Architects. Al Ali is an Emirati architect whose career since graduating started with small villa projects and progressed to ambitious designs such as the Holcim Award-winning Xeritown, a Dubailand development that uses shade and orientation to reduce water consumption and keep the town cool in the hot months. For al Ali, sustainability and cultural sensitivity are the big gaps in Dubai's architecture, and he credits the AUS's architecture degree with much of his awareness of these issues.
"We are trying to show something different, trying to be more culturally sensitive, more environmentally sensitive, and providing alternatives to these kind of [overly commercial] developments," he says. "I think the market is learning from this and trying to slow down. The approach is to understand the environment that we build for, the condition we build for, whether it's social, political or environmental. In that sense, yes, Sharjah allows us to think critically about what we will do, and the environment that we will build, the culture and the political situation."
This comment embodies the more conceptual approach to architecture that distinguishes the school from some of its fellow institutions in the UAE. Katodrytis used to teach at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London, one of the more progressive international schools, and he brings this academic style to Sharjah, helping to produce graduates who are more than builders or engineers.
"My studio tends to be a bit more experimental and conceptual and the exhibition shows that we try to find out different processes and methods to map the city, experience existing spaces, create concepts and narratives and generate new programmes, and eventually use digital techniques to generate interesting forms. And the technology comes with it, so the students do still have to encounter how to build a curved roof or a wall that is inclined."
One graduate for whom the theoretical side of architecture has an enduring appeal is Amin Alsaden, who since graduating in 2004 has practised in Dubai, has worked with the legendary Rem Koolhaus at his Office for Metropolitan Architecture in Rotterdam and is about to embark on postgraduate study at Princeton University. For Alsaden, the practice of architecture is irrevocably entwined with political and social issues.
"It's really not about producing a quantity of buildings or coming back to produce here, but whether the work that I produce can address the complex issues facing the region today, like the political and sectarian conflicts," says Alsaden, who grew up in Baghdad under the regime of Saddam Hussein. "We're really lucky here in the Gulf as it's relatively stable, but we're surrounded by a very unfortunate area and it could be much better. So can the work I produce address these conflicts? Can it address, for example, the cultural struggles that we see in different parts of the region today? Can it address identity issues and relationships with both the West and the East? Can it address issues of education and literacy and so on? This is really the kind of stuff I hope we can elevate the debate on architecture in the Middle East to."
There is, of course, a practical application for these lofty ideas, and Alsaden saw a form of this during his youth in Baghdad. "Baghdad has such a long history, but looking at the buildings that were being built by the regime at the time, it struck me what a strong communication tool architecture can be. It became more apparent to me that architecture is primarily about two things: expression of the architects and, at the same time, communication. I think the most successful form of architecture I saw as a child, even though it's deceptive, even though it's a form of propaganda, is that which addresses certain issues, problems, opportunities, and communicates the intentions of whoever creates it, be it a regime, a political entity or a more social entity."
And that, really, is what makes an exhibition of student architecture worth seeing. It is the discipline that combines in one outpouring the precision of mathematics, the expressive power of visual art, the practical parameters of engineering and the communicative possibilities of advertising. As Alsaden puts it: "It can be very personal and subjective, because you're creating it, as a person, as an artist. Yet it's really ruled by so many other disciplines and practices: engineering, the constraints of construction, of the economy and so on. It possesses this elegance and richness that you don't really find in other fields."
But just as it demands of its practitioners and students an almost unique variety of skills and depth of learning, so it requires its viewers to be fully engaged while exploring it. For the visitor who is willing to put in a little thought, there is a process on display here that may start to reveal the future of the UAE and the surrounding region. "Everyone knows the UAE of the last few years because of the big developments and the publicity and the branding and so on," says Katodrytis. "Architecture here was very commercial but these students' work was done in parallel to this and trying to almost project an alternative way of looking at architecture."
Form_De_Form_Re_Form_Trans_Form_In_Form is at Traffic until Aug 6. Visit www.viatraffic.org for more information.