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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 17 November 2018

Exclusive: Royal Institute of British Architects scouts UAE office in global expansion

"Good architecture really can improve the way we live,” says the head of RIBA Arabian Gulf

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is an example of well-considered architecture, according to Sumaya Sabbagh, founder of Sabbagh Architects and head of RIBA's regional chapter. Jeff Topping / The National 
The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is an example of well-considered architecture, according to Sumaya Sabbagh, founder of Sabbagh Architects and head of RIBA's regional chapter. Jeff Topping / The National 

The Royal Institute of British Architects, a UK-based membership body of around 44,000 architects, plans to open an office in the UAE as part of an expansion to increase its influence and standard-setting worldwide.

“There is a need for RIBA to establish a physical presence here, which would give it teeth to lobby for higher standards of architectural practice and education in the region,” Sumaya Dabbagh, founder of Dubai-based Dabbagh Architects and head of RIBA’s Arabian Gulf chapter, an informal network of RIBA-chartered architects in the GCC, told The National in an interview.

RIBA, which was founded in 1834 and this week awarded the Ruler of Sharjah Sheikh Sultan bin Mohammed Al Qasimi with an honorary fellowship, is in the process of expanding its operations and looking at potential locations for branches overseas, its president Ben Derbyshire confirmed in a statement.

“Opening an office in the UAE – something we are considering in the near future – will help us to work more closely with the industry to promote quality, sustainable architecture and provide additional support to our growing number of members.”

RIBA is a professional body that charters architects and their firms according to different levels of training. It also accredits architecture courses run by academic institutions worldwide – including several in the UAE – and works with governments, real estate developers and others to promote high-quality architecture. Most architecture courses in the UK are accredited by RIBA, and the institute is working with Abu Dhabi University, the American University of Sharjah, and others in the UAE, to validate courses and give graduates a professional edge.

Already, there are around 350 RIBA-chartered architects in the Arabian Gulf, according to Ms Dabbagh. However, this figure is not reflective of the total, as often members register using home addresses even if they have been working abroad for years. Others are contracted on a project-by-project basis.

RIBA’s industry exams award architects with different levels of qualification, from Part I to Part III, and also require education in ethics and how to run a practice.

This is important, said Ms Sabbagh, “because architects have a responsibility to improve people’s lives, and good architecture really can improve the way we live.”

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One element of architectural design that is often overlooked is public space, that is, what is in between buildings – which is just as important as the buildings themselves, she added. The Burj Khalifa, designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, and the surrounding Downtown Dubai area is an example of a well-considered scheme that comprises a striking building with high-quality common space.

However, in other developments across the region, commercial considerations too often usurp quality of design, she added.

While standards of designing buildings in the Middle East have improved over the years as markets mature, the practice is not as advanced as it could be, Ms Dabbagh said.

With a diverse population representing hundreds of nationalities, the level of training of GCC-based architects can vary dramatically. “In many countries, you only need an [architecture] degree to practice – there are no professional exams like in the UK and other markets.

“As a result, there are huge differences in training and disparities between the fees different architects charge because their services are so different,” she said.

RIBA has no powers or remit to lobby GCC governments to promote higher standards of architecture, but a regional hub in the UAE or elsewhere would give it more clout.