x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Two Emiratis win five weeks in Gehry studio

A pair of Emirati architecture students keen to blaze a trail for Arab women have already got Frank Gehry's ear, after winning a dream internship with the legendary architect.

A pair of Emirati architecture students keen to blaze a trail for Arab women have already got Frank Gehry's ear, after winning a dream internship with the legendary architect. Sawsan al Menhali and Fatima Baloushi, students at UAE University, were chosen for a five-week programme to work at the Los Angeles offices of Mr Gehry, the designer behind the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. The opportunity, made possible by the Tourism Development & Investment Company (TDIC), brought the young women from Al Ain to the US from April 8 to May 14. There, they met the 81-year-old Canadian-born creator of celebrated works such as the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and the Dancing House in Prague.

Although neither she nor Ms al Menhali, 23, expected to have much face time with Mr Gehry, he surprised them both with his modesty, even asking for their input on his projects. "When I went there, I didn't expect that we will meet him many times because he's very famous, very busy," Ms al Menhali said. "But from time to time on break he passed us to ask, 'What are you doing? And do you like this, or not like?' He was accepting our opinions."

She was also honoured that her mentor, who previously won the coveted Pritzker Prize - the highest honour in the architecture world - would consider her thoughts on the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. "He wanted also to know the opinion of the people here. Like, would they like it?" The students were selected from among more than 20 candidates. A panel from the TDIC chose the winners based on portfolios and interviews.

A spokeswoman from the TDIC said Ms al Menhali and Ms Baloushi impressed the judges with their knowledge of Mr Gehry's work and their desire to represent professional Emirati women and to build the country. "We want our country to be proud of us as we are proud of our country," said Ms Baloushi, adding that the trip to the States was also her first by aeroplane. The internship was an opportunity for Ms Baloushi, under the tutelage of several supervisors, to improve her knowledge of making manual silicon models, rather than building digital models.

As for Ms al Menhali's most memorable experience, it was a toss-up between a surprise birthday party for her organised by the studio staff, and her farewell to Mr Gehry. "I had a photo of me with him and the last day, I went to his office to thank him," she said. "I gave my photo to him to sign, and I had another copy for him, which he asked me to sign for him also." Maybe a sign that he expected great things from her?

"I hope," she said. "Our families encouraged us to go and work because the lifestyle is different now, and the woman can prove herself in the society." @Email:mkwong@thenational.ae