Wael Houssein


Style and Vigour.
Contemporary Problems of Arabic Architectural Aesthetics



It's difficult to argue with the conference organizers about the fact, that for a long time already the main goods on the contemporary architectural market are not so much architectural objects in their materiality, as "ideas, cognitive conceptions, preliminary positions and expectations". However it's difficult to agree, that this situation is detrimental. It's out of sense, in our opinion, to criticize things, taking their natural course. The phenomenon of "immaterialization" is, as it seems to us, a natural reaction of culture on the integration of architecture into the global market system.

As the brilliant Russian art critic Oleg Genisaretski said, all the reproduction processes in the contemporary world are "incentered" on the "production-consumption" pair of processes. In the 20th century in order that something could exist as a social object, it must be included in production-consumption processes, i.e. be on sale, be bought and consumed. At the beginning of the century it seemed, that all those things have called the existence of culture in question. In essence, European architectural functionalism and Soviet "Production Art" can be considered as voluntary capitulation of professional culture to the industry and its distribution appendages.

But during the second half of the century culture has retrieved its own, and it seems, even without special efforts. The proper architectural market is filled now with a proposition of all the cultural packings, which we've enumerated already in the first paragraph, plus contextuality and associations, plus allusions and citations, plus vernacular, and etc., and etc.

The very fact of the erection of a building object became a standard cause for the sale of aesthetic attitude or, more rarely, of art conception. One would like to say "became again", but it was not so. The return to art practice of the 19th century of course has not occured. In the age of industrial design and information technologies the "immaterial" constituent of architecture has took its place among images of mass culture and advertising brands. I do not think it to sound pejoratively for the eternal art of architecture. Simply the way of its social realization has changed once more. Even more, architecture, not mastering it, finds itself inadequate to the market, and this, according to the standards of the century, means a fall-out of culture.


Contemporary situation in the architecture of Arabic world is an extremely vivid illustration of these theses. From the "materialistic" point of view the situation is fully out of problems. The region grows rich. Everywhere, from Abu-Dhabi in the East to Casablanca in the West, the ultramodern hotels, banks and marts are erected. Materiality is simply splendid. But the same situation is perceived by the culture - Arabic as well as European - as a crisis one. Arabic cities in one's sight lose their architectural originality, and this is realized as a part of the general crisis of identity, outlived by the contemporary Arabic society.

The attempts to overcome this situation have been undertaken from the very beginning of the era of independence, i.e. from the period after the Second World war. The most prevalent methods are fully in the spirit of the 19th century - spreading of Arabic (or Islamic) style. These attempts, undertaken first of all in the architecture of official residences, but also of tourist hotels, dwelling complexes etc., are as loyal, as hopeless. They throw the Arabic architecture away on the periphery of the world architectural process, lead it away from the problems, disturbing the architectural community in Europe and America, making it, thus, non-competitive. In the terms of our heading, cultivation "of national style" deprives a local architectural school of the vigour in the struggle for a suffrage in the rivalry of the leading architectures of contemporaneity.


What is then the right way, able to create the new architectural originality of the East, not enclosing Arabic architecture in the vicious circle of nostalgic emotions and anachronistic techniques? The revival of national originality of Arabic architecture lies not in the flatness of selection of traditional prototypes or of style techniques. Competitiveness of contemporary Arabic architecture will be determined by the development of contemporary and dynamic creative activity in the countries of the region.

It is necessary to overcome a number of disproportions, which have arisen in the creative practice of the region during the period of independence. The historical, methodological and organizational infrastructure of architectural science is rather weak, and the subjects of research works are imitative regarding western scientific schools. A system of professional communication is underdeveloped, particularly architectural press. The basic channels of information are still as before dependent on the former colonial mother countries. The contents of architectural education in the countries of the region is also imitative regarding architectural schools of mother countries. In the majority of Arabic countries a student until now can't get sufficient professional qualification.

Overcoming of the dependence of Arabic world from the so called developed countries in the domain of architectural personnel training, is surely only the question of time. In the last years in a number of countries of the region (Egypt, Lebanon) the Master's training in architecture is being already conducted. There are no doubts, that this process will find a further development, right up to appearance in the Arabic world of the own system of pedagogic and scientific personnel training in the domain of architecture.

But that's not the point of the quantitative side of education, i.e. not in guaranteeing the necessary number of professionals, but in a qualitative one - in creation of architectural schools, which are culturally and ideologically independent and able to conduct a professional dialogue on equal terms with the former mother countries.

In Arabic region one can see with a naked eye another problem, this time exceptionally intellectual one, key for the forming of dynamic society, authoritative in the world architecture. This is the problem of interpretation of Arabic architectural legacy in the system of means and methods of architecture of the boundary of the 21th - within creative paradigms of conceptualism, contextualism, "environment approach", "critical regionalism". In professional consciousness there has formed a dramatic gap between the high level of theoretical mastering of the principles of traditional Arabic architecture and the real inclusion of legacy in architectural-urbanistic practice.


The development of artistic means in the architecture of Arabic countries in the second half of the 20th century went in four basic directions of search of architectural expressiveness:

the movement in the course "of international style";

the formal stylization of European type objects on the basis of the motifs of traditional Arabic architecture;

use of style motifs and steady metaphors from the dictionary of the traditional Arabic architecture in combination with the means of contemporary architectural poetics for national attributing "denotation" of a building or complex;

exposure and creative use in new construction of organic structure of traditional types of Arabic architecture taking into account the achievements of contemporary engineering and culture.

On all of these directions there are interesting creative achievements, but, at the same time, on the whole one can established a process of the deepening degradation of the surrounding of traditional Arabic cities and loss of national specificity.

The use of historical-architectural heritage for creation of architectural expressiveness of new construction has diverse nature in the architecture of diverse types of public buildings. In the absolute majority of office, educational, hotel and trade buildings and complexes prevails the "International Style" (50-th - 70-th) or a formal-stylization approach (from the end of the 70-th).

Deep searches of Arabic organic specificity develop from the end of the eighties in a few examples of administrative, tourist and transport complexes, mainly in the countries of North Africa and in Saudi Arabia.

In contemporary Arabic religious architecture prevails stylistic approach (the most reputed example is the mosque of Khasan II in Casablanca). One can state a hypothesis, that such situation is connected with the problems, which exist between the architectural community and Moslem clergy.


We are sure, that traditional Arabic architecture constitutes a "natural" socio-cultural substance, on which the new, authentically original regional architecture can be reared. This substance is still viable, still sufficiently rich and productive, to be confronted on equal with the western tradition. At the same time the architectural language of Contemporary moving and postmodernism has also turned into organic part of professional architectural activity in Arabic world. An overcoming of cultural nihilism of modernistic architecture acquires today the status of purposeful, "naturally-artificial" cultural action.

Knowledge about the roots and specificity of artistic expressiveness of Arabic architecture, accumulated by historic-architectural science (including European), is a sufficient theoretic-methodical foundation for construction of the system of professional activity, able to provide the authentic originality of contemporary region architecture.

But this knowledge is heterogeneous. Behind different historic-theoretical conceptions of Arabic architectural originality there are different ideologies and different organizational strategies of revival. One can pick out four groups of such conceptions: "Panislamic", "Arab-centrist", integrative and multicultural. We stand on a prospective point of view on this problem, in accordance with which the originality of Arabic architectural school is thought of as a cultural-educational, practice-organizational and urbanistic project.

As criterions of plenitude of the legacy use the specific features of traditional architectural poetics of Arabic architecture come forward in contemporary region architecture:

dominance of spatial thinking over volumetric;

advantage, given away to surface decoration over sculptural form elaboration;

limitation and artistic modulating of a light stream;

steadiness of vernacular together with simultaneous and wide-spread diffusion of all-Islamic architectural themes and planning patterns;

specific urbanism, grown from kindred-tribal settling and dominance of dry and hot climate;

specific dictionary of symbolic meanings and relative freedom in the use of space symbolism and decoration in relation to functional typology.

The contents of Arabic architectural originality as a project, aimed at guaranteeing the systematic plenitude of architectural activity, are the following basic directions of work:

division of Arabic and European architectural traditions in public consciousness;

development of the architectural production system and public relations - professional corporations, research works, system of interaction with a customer, power and community;

development of architectural "club" system - of the theory and criticism, internal professional system of communication, regional and international creative exchanges;

forming in Arabic world of the system of national architectural schools, competitive on the world market of architects training.


If it works well to provide the implementation of these conditions, there is a hope, that Arabs will manage to "immaterialize" their architecture, so that it could be quoted on the world market of cultural meanings. The new vigour of creative activity, theoretically founded and socially organized, will not only raise the price of commercial projects, done by the Arabs, on the principally new level, but will be a major step towards the new self-identification of Arabic region, and, possibly, of all the Islamic world.

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