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Values of excellence and the narrative of architectural pluralism

Traditionally, the notion of modernity has been associated with Europe and, as a result, the term has often been used as a substitute for Westernisation (Mitchell, 1999). Classical writings on the topic of modernity by Western social scientists, as well as philosophers such as Auguste Comte, Karl Marx, Ferdinand Toennies, Max Weber, and Emile Durkheim, strove to create a dramatic and unprecedented break between past and present

(Appadurai, 1996). These writings reinforced the idea of a clear difference between ostensibly traditional and modern societies; such notions repeatedly distorted the meanings of transformation and the politics of past-ness. However, in a world where modernity is “decisively at large” (Appadurai, 1996:3), the break from the past is not as distinctive and the westernised image of modernisation is not as clear. Hence, the traditional/modernity dividing line made by such undocumented pronouncements has become much more blurred and more meshed.

The spread and manifestation of such definitive notions of modernity during the last century raises the question of whether modernity is simply a natural phase in a world that has already been concluded. In this regard, some would argue that, despite the use of terms such as postmodernism, modernisation should be actually interpreted and reinterpreted in relation to motives of physical development and technological progress (Farjadi, 2009). With that in mind, the essence of modernisation becomes more linked to a constant process of temporality and contemporaneity, rather than a past phase or memory of history. The representation becomes even more multifaceted when various experiences of modernity are investigated; this includes discarding the linear concept and the single Western model of modernity to instead illustrate its diversity.

The concept of multiple modernisms can best be represented through the wide variety of contemporary architecture, which is constantly evolving to encompass both functional and communicative characteristics. Generally speaking, architecture is envisioned as a primary visual means to convey silent, nonverbal messages. Through architecture and architectural styles, buildings communicate with users and can trigger emotional responses, unleash feelings, and nurture memory. At the same time, architecture can be a tool for reflection and an important expression of certain ideas, values, beliefs, and culture. In this regard, architecture is best regarded as a two- way mirror (Salama, 2009). The first side conveys nonverbal messages that reflect the activities and social conceptions of its users, whereas the second is viewed through the perceptions of a certain society or group as means of conjuring particular images that stem from that society or group.

Conventionally, architecture has been a representation of a certain society’s cultural values and local identity. This is true of any society or culture, including the Islamic world. However, due to the widespread variations of the Muslim world, a culture that expands across five continents, limiting one set of cultural characteristics or identifying one single local identity is inaccurate or, in fact, impossible. The diverse geo-cultural, political, and economic contexts of Islamic societies, in conjunction with different forces of colonisation and influenced by rapid modernisation and globalisation while still attempting to placate locality and identity in the Muslim world, has thwarted the conceptual unification of mindsets. In addition, the unique cultural and geopolitical position of Islamic societies has provoked a variety of architectural experimentation, which reflects the various endeavours to find a balance between tradition and modernity, locality and globalisation.

This chapter presented several projects that endeavoured to transform cultural aspirations into a manifestation that relates to world architecture while still addressing contextual particularities. In some cases, these particularities are rooted in regional culture and heritage, whereas in others they lie within natural environmental features. Examples in the chapter demonstrate architectural excellence through design solutions that reflect a unique visual identity of a locality and a profound interpretation of cultural and environmental elements and symbols. Here, eight projects recognised as demonstrating outstanding architectural excellence, together with two projects covered earlier, are identified to advance the narrative on pluralism.

The two projects noted in chapter 4 are the Kantana Film and Animation Institute in Thailand and the Ceuta Public Library in Spain. The architect of the Kantana institute conceived the idea of a nature-friendly building through extensive use of handmade brick. With the use of contemporary and unique massing, the architect created a building that has a surrealistic ageless, scale-less quality. The connection with natural environment was not only forged through the use of local materials, but also through the integration of the outdoors within the central circulation walkway of the building (Ali, 2013). Conversely, in the case of the Ceuta Public Library, there was no considerable relationship with the natural environment, as the building is located in an urban area. However, the unique design concept relied on integrating important archaeological remains from a 14th-century Muslim Marinid city in order to create a modern structure that functions both as a library and as a cultural venue (Mostafavi, 2016c).

Other examples of structures that have a strong connection with their setting and natural environment are the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands in Addis Ababa and the Issam Fares Institute in Beirut. The design concept of the Royal Embassy of the Netherlands stemmed from the architect’s desire to combine traditional Ethiopian architecture with Dutch cultural and architectural themes. The project not only combined the use of modern concrete with Ethiopian stone and timber, but also incorporated the building with its environment. Despite the security issues often associated with embassies, the architect managed to overcome such difficulties through a unique and simple organisation of spaces. According to the master jury of the Award, the project created an innovative building that is archaic and modern at the same time. The building belongs to the indigenous peoples of Ethiopia as much as to its Dutch homeland. “In its conception and daily operation, the building responds to its social and physical context with inventive design and poetic sensibility” (Johnston, 2007).

In contrast, in the Issam Fares Institute at AUB the architects did not attempt to integrate the building into the natural environment or complement the surrounding historic buildings. Rather, the building is projected as a piece of contemporary art that is representative of its time. The structure accommodates an authentic volumetric structure with a surprisingly small footprint. The design concept of the cantilevered structure pushed to the limit the physical application of modern materials; at the same time, it preserved the old cypress and fiscus trees as a canopy and did not block views of the Mediterranean Sea from other buildings. In distinguishing itself from other buildings through its contemporary form and the purity of its architectural language, the institute upholds a strong affiliation with its context. According to the master jury of the Award, the Issam Fares Institute “with its simple, exposed concrete surface and strong volumetric presence, it is an elegant yet unique solution to a complex and special context” (Mosta- favi, 2016a). The design is simultaneously courageous and a fully respectful contribution to the multi-layered physical environment of the historic AUB campus.

The image of the National Assembly Building in Bangladesh also reproduced a sense of modern architectural principles in its scale, composition, and colour. Even so, the building is profoundly rooted in its vernacular Bengali context. The National Assembly Building has been recognised for the clarity of its overall configuration and scale, which conveys the supremacy and importance of the building, but also for drawing upon architectural ideas from various civilisations. According to the master jury of the Award, the architect of the National Assembly Building did not duplicate elements of regional architecture, yet at the same time he did not import contemporary or historically derived vocabularies from other parts of the world. Rather, he reinterpreted and transformed certain ideas and adapted particular concepts of construction technology to the local and climatic conditions of Dhaka. In so doing, despite being universal in its sources of forms, aesthetics, and technologies, according to Steele (1994), the building cannot exist in any other place.

Unlike the National Assembly Building, where modernity is reflected in the very appearance of the building, the image of the Al-Kindi Plaza in Saudi Arabia is a portrayed translation of vernacular architecture in scale, colour, and architectural details. Although concrete was used in the framed system along with hollow concrete blocks and precast concrete slabs, the facades were sprayed with stucco in order to create a similar texture and sensation of a traditional mud-brick plaster finish (Al-Radi, 1994a). The use of vernacular architecture also extended to the organisation of spaces, the use of thick walls and small exterior openings, and the extensive use of water and greenery in the interiors. Certain traditional principles, such as privacy and hierarchy of spaces, were also manifested in an abstract form within the design concept. However, borrowing elements, symbols, and concepts from traditional architecture were not merely cliche, but rather these were reinterpreted to create a project that is in harmony with the international architectural mainstream (Steele, 1994). The result was an extravagant modern project that delivers a new understanding of traditional architecture and urban concepts in an Islamic cultural context.

The Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Egypt and the Ipekyol Textile Factory in Turkey utilised modern technology and materials to become iconic landmarks that hold great value and meaning within their context. The Bibliotheca Alexandrina was a revival of the legendary ancient library built during the Greek times; this was the most famous and the first universal library in the world, and the new design is radical in architectural and technological terms. The building with its tilted disc has a robust symbolic significance, which reflects human understanding of time in relation to the sun, moon, and stars. Along with its vigorous design and symbolic form, the library is also recognised for its substructure, which extended 18 metres below ground, as well as its superb lighting and detailing. According to the master jury of the Award: “The bold tilted disc forms an icon while delivering a highly formal and monumental building” (Baker, 2004).

While the Bibliotheca Alexandrina stands out as a beacon of knowledge and exchange, the Ipekyol Textile Factory in Turkey acts as a building model of an efficient and pleasant workplace. The construction utilised modern materials and technologies. The use of light structure, high ceilings, and internal courtyards maximised the flow of natural lighting and ventilation. Lined with trees and benches, the internal courtyards also provide resting areas for the workers. During the 1990s, many factories in Turkey were built using prefabricated concrete beams and metal corrugated sheet roofing. These were not based on any design concept, as they were essentially perceived as shelters for the machines regardless of the needs of the people who work inside the factories. However, the design of the Ipekyol factory was different from these bland buildings as it successfully used a design that greets the human value of the workforce (Kanipak, 2010). According to the master jury of the Award, the Ipekyol Textile Factory “combines functional efficiency with humanity to the commercial advantage of the client” (Mostafavi, 2011).

These innovative examples support the view that modernisation should no longer be viewed as a single horizontal reciprocal and linear axis. As such, the linear form of development as promulgated by Western social scientists should no longer be used as a guideline to evaluate transforming societies from being labelled as underdeveloped or developed, or from a lower strand to a higher one. The world should no longer be perceived as having two different cultural and socio-economic systems; the modern West versus the traditional rest (Kamali, 2009). Appadurai (1996) notes that rather than separating the globe into a Western core and non-Western periphery, it is more sensible to view world order as complex and discursive, as an entity which shifts according to the varieties and vagaries of cultural, financial, and political forces.

The projects presented in this chapter highlight the fact that modernity can be received and developed in various ways in reference to specific historical and socio-cultural contexts that do not necessarily follow the European or North American model. The projects all succinctly illustrate a global phenomenon that can be expressed using various terms, such as multiple, local, or alternative modernities. These terms are often used to refer to various interwoven vernacular expressions and manifestations of modernity, which can be in the form of resistance to hegemonic patterns, an examination of alternative models, or locally specific to a given context. Regions with cultural richness and multiple layers of history, such as that of the Muslim world, provide a rich environment for experimenting with projects that manifest the presence of multiple modernities, regional modernism, or modern regionalism (Salama, 2005).

Finding equilibrium between globalisation and regionalism is one of the new priorities of the Muslim world. The search for such balance is evident in the presented projects, which although they vary in approach, are similar in essence and outcome. Some of the selected projects have incorporated certain traditional architectural elements within their design; others have reinterpreted specifically rooted traditional images and symbols, whereas still others have based their design on modern principles and the use of revolutionary construction systems. In brief, they all incorporate regional visual attributes into modern technology through means of reinterpreting the past to form a contemporary image.

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