Six Influential Arab Architects Who Aren’t Zaha Hadid

Learn more about 20th Century Architects who helped shape and define our architectural tapestry and our vernacular traditions

by Ennis Jalal

Lifestyle 19 February 2019

When we think of influential Arab architects there is one name that comes to mind. Although her work was never very contextual or regionally critical, never an architecturalization of her own cultural ideas or identity, a simple Internet search with the key words ‘influential Arab architect’ will return a result loaded with the name and image of Zaha Hadid.

The British-Iraqi’s work, which has spanned across the last few decades of the 20th century and well into the new millennium, is synonymous with innovative, interrogative and progressive design.

However, prior to the 20th century, as far back as we can recall, architects from the Middle East were known for some of the greatest buildings and ancient structures the world had seen. Names such as Sinan of Turkey, who designed many of Istanbul’s Mosques or the famous ancient Egyptian Architects, Ineni, Amenhotep or Imhotep who may have been the first architect in the world to use stone as a structural column, although all of them notable, none were Arabs.

So who were the other Arab architects from our history? The ones who helped shape and define our architectural tapestry and our vernacular traditions? Architectural feats in the Arab world, during the Islamic golden age, specifically in Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, were generally attributed to the Caliph who was ruling at the time. In Yemen it was the artisans and master builders who crafted the incredible and historically rich vernacular buildings and adobe skyscrapers of San’aa and Shibam and most notably the buildings Dar Al-Hajar and Buqshan Palace.

How about the 20th century, with its cascade of innovative and ground breaking ideas and architectural movements? Well here is a list of six influential Arab architects from the 20th century who you may have never heard of.

This list not only reveals that these architects were influential in their own right but also shows us that unfortunately the lack of gender diversity is a common thread shared with any list of influential western architects. This only proves why Zaha Hadid was incredibly important, as she broke through that glass ceiling allowing many women to follow as well as being the only Arab architect to spread her ideas and designs across the globe.

HASSAN FATHY 1900 – 1989

An Egyptian architect from Alexandria and generally regarded as Egypt’s best known architect since Impotep, Hassan Fathy was notable for going against new western ideas and building designs of the 20th century by re-establishing the use of adobe and traditional building techniques. He pioneered appropriate technology in architecture by ensuring projects were small scale, energy efficient, environmentally sound and driven by being locally autonomous.

Fathy’s legacy and contribution to architecture became clear during the end of the 20th Century as his outlook on contextual and sustainable buildings as well as his social leanings became more appealing. He is renowned for reviving the Nubian Vault, which he did so after studying existing Nubian architecture in the village Abu Al-Riche, as well as being attributed to the neo-Islamic windcatchers or ‘Malqaf’ of Egypt, a traditional tower that draws outside air into a building creating natural ventilation.

Mohmamed Saleh Makiya 1914 – 2015

The British educated Iraqi Architect, Dr. Mohamed Makiya returned to Iraq in the late 40s to start his practice and spent most of the 50s familiarising himself with Iraq’s architectural heritage. He founded the school of architecture in Baghdad and spent the 60’s as head of the department until 1968. He spent many years of his career after that opening offices across the Arab world and beyond, designing notable religious and civic buildings. His designs include The Great Mosque Kuwait, The Grand Sultan Qaboos Mosque in Muscat as well as the headquarters of the Arab League in Tunis. One of his most notable works was the extension to the Khulafa Mosque in Baghdad where he integrated the old and new mosque, restoring the 9th century minaret.

Makiya contributed to the field of architecture and urbanism, especially in the Arab world where he developed his ideas of incorporating traditional forms into modern design and architecture. His ideas of urban conservation, regionalism and continuing vernacular heritage in architecture, has appealed to many younger generations of architects across the Arab world

Rifat Chadirji 1926 – present

Considered to be the father of architecture in Iraq, Rifat Chadirji was one of the most distinguished architects and theorists in the Arab world during the 20th century. Known for seeking a balance between both regional expression in design and modernism, Chadirji combined western technical advances in building with local and vernacular forms. He spent his youth with his brother Kamil documenting Iraq and Syria, fearing the loss of regional architecture and monuments as a result of the oil boom.

The first half of his career was spent designing over one hundred buildings including the Tobacco Monopoly Headquarters and the Central Post Office in Baghdad, as well as the National Insurance Company in Mosul. His most notable and influential project was the first Monument to the Unknown Soldier in Firdos Square, Baghdad, built in 1959. A design, which was both a modern adaptation of the arch of Ctesiphon as well as the conceptual form of a mother bending down to pick up her son, a dead soldier, but being unable to, she plants her hands and feet into the earth becoming one with him. The monument was destroyed by Saddam Hussein during the 80’s in order to erect a statue of himself.

Chadirji spent the second half of his career as a theorist and lecturer at Harvard University. His legacy and contribution to architecture in the Arab world cannot be overstated. He spends his days now living in London with his wife, where many great writers, artists and architects from the Middle East still visit him to talk about his influence. He won the Aga Khan award for Architecture in 1986, as well as the Tamayouz Excellence Award in 2015.

Khalil Khoury 1929 – 2008

Not much is documented or known of Lebanese architect Khalil Khoury, who spent his career working with his brother Georges. Together they designed across different scales, from designing and producing furniture, many buildings as well as participating in developing a master plan for the Beirut central business district, post civil war. He was a follower of Le Corbusier and a leading figure in the principles of the Modern movement in Lebanon. He was a designer who favoured exposed reinforced concrete like many of his international modernist counterparts.

Unlike many of his Arab peers, Khalil Khoury was tired of what he felt was a lethargic tradition and a restrictive vernacular in the Arab world and so sought new ideas to introduce to Lebanon. His most notable building is the Interdesign Building in Beirut, and although work began in the 70’s, it wasn’t completed until the late 90’s, a result of the civil war. One look at the form of the building and at the treatment of material indicates both an influence of International modernism as well as an urge to introduce that new wave of modernism to the Arab world.

Salma Samar Damluji 1957 – present

An Iraqi born in Beirut, raised in Baghdad and educated in Great Britain, Salma Damluji is the leading authority on the vernacular architecture of Yemen. She’s spent her career split between academia at the AA in London and her work in Yemen, where she restores villages and builds new buildings by working with local master builders and craftsmen who have carried and continued the vernacular building traditions and techniques for hundreds of years. She has published over 12 books on the architecture of Yemen and the Middle East, detailing the building techniques and materials of stone buildings, mud brick buildings and shale construction.

Damluji’s formative years post education were spent working with noted Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy whose work she had always been influenced by. She had the chance to learn from his research and worked with him towards the latter part of his career. The time spent with Fathy cemented her love of restoration and vernacular Arabic architecture and led her on the path towards working in Yemen. She has always been critical of modern Arabic architecture and how it has deserted tradition favouring badly designed bureaucratic buildings or trying to attain a western capitalist dream of glass and steel. She says of Yemen that it is one of few Arabic countries with such a distinctive tradition of architecture, and its vernacular should be an influence on buildings everywhere in the region.

Ammar Khammash 1960 – present

One of Jordan’s more famous architects, Ammar Khammash is also a photographer and artist who studied architecture in the United States and archaeology and anthropology in Jordan and now practices from his office in Amman. His early career in the 80’s and 90s focused on architectural interventions and renovations of archaeological sites in Jordan. His study of materials found in the Arab world, such as limestone and brick, coupled with his love of earth, saw him employ traditional construction techniques for his built work. His later work uses new techniques to achieve an architecture which is contextual, reflecting the landscape it sits on by using local materials that have developed on the sites for thousands of years.

Khammash’s love of the land and the site goes so far as allowing the site to dictate the design of his architecture by informing the project about the light, wind, slope and topography. His buildings are honest and reflect the land and site so much so that his most beautiful buildings gracefully float above the ground, or are cantilevered, almost not touching the earth. His most notable building of recent years is the Royal Academy for Nature Conservation from 2013. Khammash’s work interrogates what it means to build on precious land and how we should consider both our historical heritage as well as how we complement this with new architecture. In his opinion the combination of the two “should age well and even if they deteriorate over time they should crumble beautifully and with grace.”

Ennis Jalal is an architect, translator and bibliophile based in London where he spends his time reading up on ancient Mesopotamia.

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