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Middle East public space debated at London’s RIBA

Middle East public space debated at London’s RIBA

From the launch of Dubai Metro to the recent mass protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square,  public and civic space is playing an increasingly important role in the Arab world.

The region’s public space was the subject of a recent debate held at the London headquarters of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), which brought together six experts from around the world.

The discussion was part of a London-wide event called ‘Shubbak: A Window on Contemporary Arab Culture’ presented by the Mayor of London, and Middle East Architect was in the capital to attend the talk.

Opening up the RIBA-backed discussion, moderator Edwin Heathcote, architecture and design critic for The Financial Times, said: “We are right in the middle of extraordinary uses of public spaces in the Arab World. We are seeing a diverse use of space, from protest to celebration to public execution. The public space is at the heart of everything that has happened in the Arab Spring.”

Speaking as an expert on developments in the Gulf, Nadim Khattar, design director at Austin-Smith:Lord Arts & Culture, added that retail is a crucial consideration for any space in the region.

Khattar said: “The problem with creating a cultural space in the Middle East is it’s hard to find out what that culture is. It’s not well documented. But retail is part of the culture – you have to include it in a public space.”

He remarked that he could not think of any spaces in the Middle East that served a civic function and stressed that a large portion of public space in the region is provided by huge shopping malls, such as Dubai Mall.

However, the mall model was dismissed by Murray Fraser, Professor of Architecture and Global Culture, at the Bartlett School of Architecture, University College London. “Moving forward, the shopping mall is not the model to follow. My money is on the open street,” he retorted.

Khattar pointed out that animated streetlife does exist in Abu Dhabi, and warned that some of this character could be affected by the  grid system that is favoured by Abu Dhabi 2030. He said: ” If you go out in Abu Dhabi at night, there some street corners that seem like places in India, where everything  is happening in one place. The plan for Abu Dhabi makes everything formalised.”

One of the main subjects of the discussion was the uprising in Cairo, and the role of Tahir Square as a focal point for protestors. Egyptian architect Shariha H. Fahmy spoke passionately about the transformation of the city’s public space in the wake of the revolution.

Fahmy commented: “Now,  in Cairo, when you walk on the streets, there is life. Previously there were a lot of streets and empty spaces that were run by the state. The revolution needed space. People felt it was their city and they claimed it back.  [The revolution] sparked a new behaviour [in the public space].”

Michel Mossessian, agreed that public space has a huge influence on public activity. “Public space needs to be safe. The space that [architects and planners] provide influences the behaviour of people,” he commented.

Speaking as an expert on Lebanon, Bernard Khoury, principal at DW5/Bernard Khoury, bemoaned the lack of public space in Beirut. He said: “Beirut has no masterplan – there is no public space. It is a strange concept to us as it in the hands of the public sector. The notion of the square for us is a very Middle Age concept. My city is on my TV.”

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