By Kim A. O’Connell
A few years ago, Studio27 Architecture was asked to review the feasibility of designing a world- class soccer stadium in Juba, Sudan. Soccer is a major pastime in Sudan—so big, in fact, that its capital Khartoum boasts the oldest soccer league in all of Africa. But the Washington, D.C.- based firm quickly learned that, al- though the desire for a stadium might be there, the infrastructure was not. Infrastructure is just one challenge facing American architects working in the Middle East and Africa. War, regime changes, uncertain financing, logistical hurdles, culture differences—all are potential barriers to working in this part of the world.
According to Todd Ray, AIA, Studio27 principal, developing the stadium would have required shoring up the airport runway for bringing in materials, constructing a road wide enough to transport equipment five miles to the construction site, diverting water from the White Nile to a small water treatment facility, establishing an on-site energy generation plant or solar array, and collecting stormwater and gray water, among other things.
“Although it was very interesting,” Ray says, “the lack of infrastructure was definitely a project killer.”
Yet, American architects are increasingly viewing the Middle East as a profitable and rewarding market, especially given the region’s ongoing building boom and the concurrent stateside construction slump. Last September, the American Institute of Architects opened its first chapter in the Middle East, representing only its fifth chapter outside the United States. From its office in Dubai, AIA Middle East covers a broad region including Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emerites (UAE) and Yemen.
In a statement announcing the new chapter, Steven Miller, FAIA, the chapter’s fellowship director, cited the need for greater interaction and oversight among American architecture firms working in the Middle East and North Africa. Miller estimated that more than 25 American firms are currently employed in the region—more than those representing Europe or Asia—and that those firms tend to use more architects than those from other nations. Local firms are in on the action too. Studio27 also designed a residence in Juba, called House Suliman, that got mired in land ownership issues but is now awaiting construction.
Perkins & Will’s D.C. office has developed highrises in Dubai and Abu Dhabi. RTKL Associates, which is headquartered in Baltimore and has an office in D.C., opened offices in the UAE in the last two years. And Norfolk-based ClarkNexsen Architecture & Engineering has landed commissions for the Naval Facilities Engineering Command Far East, de- signing facilities across Africa. HOK has planted a flag in the region as well. The firm’s D.C. office tripled its revenue between 2006 and 2007 because of its Middle East commissions, and the sector has stayed strong despite the re- cession. Recent projects include a residential tower for The World development in Dubai, the Doha International Airport in Qatar, and the Central Bank of Kuwait.
“It was smart for us to tap into that market, especially in the past couple years when the local developer work has dried up,” says Roger Schwabacher, AIA, a senior associate and project architect in HOK’s D.C. office. “We got into that market even before the recession, and it has helped us to avoid layoffs.” The firm is currently engaged in a massive project for the King Abdullah Petroleum Studies and Research Center (KAPSARC) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Like other wealthy nations in the region, Saudi Arabia has sought to increase its international prestige by hiring Western architects to create a new architectural identity.
The main KAPSARC building, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects, is made of modular six-sided cells and emphasizes connectivity through court- yards, indoor gardens, underground tunnels, and roof terraces. HOK is responsible for designing a new virtual city in support of the main campus, including 200 residences, along with community centers, utility facilities, and a photovoltaic array and wastewater wetlands. The project is going for a LEED Platinum rating by employing solar and wind power, as well as sustainable irrigation and landscaping, among other elements.
HOK partnered with a local Saudi firm, Scado Architects, to develop construction drawings. “We don’t have anyone on the ground or on the construction site,” Schwabacher says. “It’s been one of the big challenges.” Schwabacher extols the benefits of working with a local firm—accountability and credibility among them—but adds that the culture shock and language barriers can be daunting. “But once you get into the technical aspects of designing and building,” he says, “the language is pretty universal.”
If oil-rich countries are all about building, then war-torn nations are all about rebuilding. In Angola, an African nation that has been devastated by civil war, the government has worked to educate and train its young people in the years since an armistice was declared in 2002.
Recently, SHAREcircle, an Illinois-based humanitarian agency, awarded a commission to Norfolk/Tampa-based Hanbury Evans Wright Vlattas + Company to de- sign a master plan for the new Angola Central Highlands University, including its first academic building, known as the Access Academy. The fractal-inspired, village-like campus design seeks to combine the best of Western notions about higher education with African traditions and culture, according to Steven W. Gift, AIA, design principal. Yet challenges remain. The client is now seeking governmental approval of the plan before it can start fundraising.
Because much of the surrounding province was destroyed, the required infrastructure is lacking. Still, the experience is richly rewarding, according to Gift. “Starting from scratch in any circumstance related to planning and design, with no context, is daunting,” he says. “When you operate in a foreign culture, all questions are new again. You can take very little for granted, and you learn a lot. But when you see the impact of higher education on these people, you can sense the power of that transformation.”
Kim A. O’Connell is a writer based in Arlington, Virginia, who has written for Preservation, Architect, Traditional Building, National Parks, and The Washington Post.