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Across the Persian Gulf, oil-rich states are building on an epic scale. In Saudi Arabia, “The Line” promises to stretch 170 kilometres across the desert — an autocratic and carbon-intensive fantasy disguised as a sustainable future. In Qatar, gleaming new stadiums now host the FIFA World Cup, with the estimated death toll of migrant workers numbering in the thousands. And in the UAE, the world’s tallest buildings clamour for a place in the global spotlight. Conversely, older Arab cities like Amman, Beirut, Cairo and Baghdad are still perceived through an “othering” western gaze, and a modern haze of gridlock, pollution and seeming chaos. So how can we imagine Arab futures beyond oil wealth and Orientalism? 

In the western psyche, it may be hard to conjure the visions we so freely and frequently draw up in sci-fi and fantasy depictions of Europe and North America — or even the Persian Gulf. And compared to the more well-established aesthetics and philosophies of Afrofuturism, Arab Futurism has yet to find a mainstream cultural footing. While the utopian imagery of Wakanda established in the Black Panther films and comics is now a global phenomenon, a push to create decolonized African futures is also being assertively translated into the built environment. Today, African architects like David Adjaye, Francis Kéré and Mariam Kamara are among the world’s most celebrated practitioners, with approaches rooted in respecting the richly varied aesthetic and cultural traditions of the regions they work in, whilst reinventing them for contemporary life. In comparison, Arab Futurism is still a nascent movement.

As a methodology and a cultural philosophy, the notion of decolonized, grassroots Arab futures is just starting to take hold in the collective consciousness. But even that is not without complications. For starters, the notion of an “Arab future” is (like any broad cultural futurism) inherently problematic, implicitly reinforcing homogeneity and suggesting a singular Arab world in the future — something that is likely neither possible nor desirable. Yet, despite spanning much of Western Asia and North Africa — and a population of at least 400 million, depending on the nations included in the count — the MENA region is still establishing its own forward-looking vantage points. 

“Arab Futurism is still very much developing and occurring on an individual rather than consciously collective level,” writes Perwana Nazif in The Quietus. Amidst the MENA region’s rapid urbanization, the question becomes takes on greater urgency. As Amal Dababseh reports, “56 percent of the population of the Arab world currently lives in cities and urban centres and it is expected that the population of cities and urban areas will increase by 75 percent by 2050.”

But we urgently need to imagine our Arab futures if we are to have them at all. The MENA region is among the fastest-heating parts of the planet — owing to the high solar radiation and the region’s soil type, which absorbs and stores heat — with generally poor air quality in the cities. “More than 12 million people in Iraq and Syria are losing access to water, food, and electricity because of rising temperatures and record low rainfall,” Ranj Alaaldin reported earlier this year. “Desertification is sweeping across the region in Iraq, Syria [and] Jordan.”

For Palestinian artist Larissa Sansour, the future is at the forefront of a multi-media métier. In her 2009 film A Space Exodus, Sansour combines the iconography of the moon landing with a declaration of nationhood, with the stars and stripes replaced by a Palestinian flag. After planting the flag on the lunar surface, the astronaut describes the feat as “a small step for a Palestinian, and a giant leap for mankind.” Sansour’s ouevre — which also includes the 2015 CGI film In the Future They Ate From the Finest Porcelain — challenges perceptions of “third world” cultures, juxtaposing Arab aesthetic stereotypes of dark, dry, desolate spaces with Euro-centric visions of colonial expansion. In lieu of the “Gulf Futurism” that defines mega-projects like The Line and the 2022 World Cup, Sansour conjures timelines that engage the economic and cultural realities of the Levant and North Africa. But while her work challenges colonial perceptions, the outcome is often dystopian. It seems we struggle to imagine a future for ourselves which is light, abundant, sustainable and joyful — a radical act given the MENA region’s troubled ecological and political context.

As problematic as its heavily Orientalist aesthetics are, Denis Villeneuve’s 2021 film Dune was a recent catalyst for my own imagining of an Arab future; or at least, a move away from the Arab dependance of attempting to relive our past. The desert setting (shot in Abu Dhabi, no less) and the superior technology of the film’s native desert-dwellers — as well as the overarching spiritualism and theology of the narrative — reflect a Middle Eastern heritage reflected onto a fantastical, intergalactic future. Written during an era of decolonization, Frank Herbert’s eponymous 1965 novel touches on themes of resource exploitation in the Middle East and North Africa. And like the film, the novel depicts traditional ways of living adapted and reimagined in a science-fiction setting. However clumsily, it hints at an assertive cultural and architectural manifestation of Arab Futurism.

A still from the 2021 film Dune, showing actor Zendaya in a sand suit
A still from the 2021 film Dune.

What can that look like in the built environment? African architects like Kéré and Kamara elegantly show that drawing on — and reimagining — vernacular traditions can meaningfully shape sustainable new ways of living. From rammed earth to mud-brick, ancient, climate-adaptive ways of building can be adapted for new contexts. And as Marouane Ben Belfort, founder of Middle-Eastern art and architecture magazine This Orient, explains to me, the architectures of the greater MENA region also have “a long history of addressing issues regarding suitable construction techniques for the climate, which endured centuries.”

Arabs are building this future for themselves. Enter acclaimed Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh. Combining sensitivity to cultural heritage with contemporary style and careful attention to ecology, Ghotmeh embraces stunningly hopeful prototypes for a lush and fruitful Lebanese future. An ongoing project, the Lining Kefraya Hotel is a case in point. Described as “a vertical land work” that engages in “dialogues with the territory on which it is built,” the hotel is a vessel for the landscape, bringing the majestic vineyard of Kefraya — the largest of its kind in Lebanon — into public view. The facade comprises large panes of glass, which open up to a striking panorama from the interior. But from the outside, they reflect the surrounding landscape — and meld into it.

A rendering of Lina Ghotmeh’s Lining Kefraya Hotel.

According to Palestinian architect and artist Dima Srouji, design has a key role to play. “We have the capacity to draw spaces that do not yet exist. But it is up to us to make sure that imagination is liberatory,” says Srouji. And if “all architecture is good for [is] imagining new ways to live together,” it’s also vital to imagining what the Arab region will be like in the future: Will it maintain its fervent religious identity? Will gender roles still be so heavily enforced? Will drought and extreme heat rid the region of life? What will food production and farming look like? These questions are now being addressed without reverting to colonial paradigms. 

“For the first time in centuries. We are no longer referencing Peter Eisenman, there is room for new precedent,” says Srouji. “Something there is very exciting.” The current Jameel Fellow at the V&A and lead of the MA City Design studio at London’s RCA, Srouji explores the soil and ground itself as a site of cultural weight. Her multidisciplinary approach helps her question what cultural heritage and public space mean in the larger context of the Middle East, though with a focus on Palestine. 

Practitioners like Palestinian brothers Elias and Yousef Anastas are also disputing imperial attitudes within architecture. At last year’s Venice Architecture Biennale, for example, the duo’s vaulted stone pavilion installation revived ancient techniques to create a stunning roof, fitted together like an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. For the studio, the project was a riposte to the notion that that sophisticated building techniques were born in the West and exported to the region. 

AAU Anastas introduced contemporary stairs into the Dar al Majous restoration, creating new vantage points that bring visitors up close to heritage architecture. PHOTO: Mikaela Burstow

Earlier this year, their architecture practice AAU Anastas also completed the first stage of the restoration of Dar al Majous in Bethlehem, which is being transformed from a derelict building (which once housed Christian pilgrims) into a publicly accessible heritage site. AAU Anastas wanted to allow its visitors to marvel at the under-appreciated historical features, such as the building’s arches and vaults. By installing a large metallic staircase, visitors can reach positions that reveal new perspectives of the structure. The result is a contemporary intervention for an antique building which shows gratitude and respect for history while ensuring continued use and longevity, and using sustainable production techniques to cut down on waste. 

Dar al Majous Bethlehem. PHOTO: Mikaela Burstow

AAU Anastas provides a fascinating case study for future craftsmanship with their ongoing Stonematters project, developed in collaboration the French GSA Research Lab. The study aims to find innovative ways of working with stone, which for centuries has been the primary building material in the region. Their el-Atlal dome prototype, for example, aims to model construction techniques which the design duo hopes will allow them to envision “new possible cities [and] a sophisticated use of stone,” they told Dezeen. Existing in tandem with AAU Anastas, the duo’s design studio Local Industries also works with Palestinian artisans to fit out new or restored buildings, a vital means to boost the local economy — in a state where trade and export is heavily policed — via a community-based approach to production which is now rippling across the country.

The Stonematters el-Atlal dome prototype by AAU Anastas and GSA Research Lab. PHOTO: Mikaela Burstow

Elsewhere across the region, similar initiatives are beginning to spread. In the UAE, the “Other Environmentalisms” research project by Sharjah-based studio Architecture + Other Things seeks to catalyze environmental practices which challenge what the studio calls “deterministic ideas about the MENA natural environment which limit architectural discourse and production in the region.” By studying how ancient local vernacular building techniques and agricultural practices developed using very limited water, for example, the project explores how a sustainable future can draw from the past.

An emphasis on communal spaces is a vital common thread. In Bethlehem, the recent conversion of the Dar Jacir family home into a now-iconic public arts space demonstrates a way to breathe new life into a 19th-century building. Welcoming the public into formerly private spaces is also focal point illustrated by Civil Architecture‘s Public Garden for Sharjah, which proposes transforming a previously guarded and conservative community in the historic Al Mareija neighbourhood into a shared civic landscape. It’s a drastic yet historically sensitive inversion: Before a western ethos of privacy and privatization encroached on the region’s built environments, a focus on communal spaces was once common across MENA architectures, reflecting famous Arab hospitality — and the spiritual values of community care.

A rendering of Civil Architecture’s vision for the Public Garden for Sharjah in Sharjah.

Mikkel Frost is Danish. The founder of Cebra Studio is acutely aware of his outsider status, and has thus worked to become hyper-localized, building only in Abu Dhabi and immersing himself in local history, culture and landscape. Since 2013, Frost’s aim has been “to design something meaningful,” but to achieve that, his team “really had to understand and study [Abu Dhabi], and that laid the foundation for the work we do there,” he tells me. Like any good design student, Frost made “drawn notes” of traditional Emirati tribe tents and ancient irrigation systems in the desert. “Some offices design the same type of architecture for the whole planet,” says Frost, noting how Saudi Arabian urbanism now dons an astonishingly homogeneous — and Westernized — cityscape. “We are contextualists,” the architect asserts of his studio, echoing Ben Belfort, who similarly notes that architecture “should be born out of local techniques, knowledge, needs and climate conditions.” But even Frost, who has dedicated almost a decade to Abu Dhabi, acknowledges that “if you didn’t grow up there, you can never fully understand it,” a nod to the necessity for inter-cultural design communication. 

The new Al Musallah Prayer Hall is at the heart of the revived Qasr Al Hosn in Abu Dhabi. PHOTO: Mikkel Frost.

Frost and Cebra studio were also behind Abu Dhabi’s Qasr Al Hosn renovation and expansion, which was completed last year. The Qasr Al Hosn Fort is among the most important buildings in the Emirati metropolis, built in the 18th century to protect the city’s only freshwater well, and later serving as the royal residence and a prominent government building. The restored structure is a stunning example of how to work with — rather than repel — the desert landscape, highlighting the beauty of the region’s natural resources without imposing a foreign or disjointed aesthetic. Cebra thoughtfully lifted religious elements from the Qasr, legitimizing their place in a contemporary space. The result bears a forward-looking sensibility that draws on the significance, beauty and strength of local Emirati heritage. Varying sizes of geometric pillars imitate natural rock or mountain structures of the arid land along with the sandy colour, and the use of stone from neighbouring Oman results in a structure that embodies the local landscape. 

As Ben Belfort stresses, the assertion of western aesthetics as well as a “cookie cutter” European design paradigm in the region often results in a saturation of highly consumptive structures which drink up huge amounts of water and require constant use of energy-intensive cooling systems. By contrast, Cebra sourced materials as locally as it could for Qasr Al Hosn and worked with an aesthetic that was superficially “less green” according to Frost. The high cost of water irrigation to keep plants alive as well as the highly damaging contribution to climate issues in the region meant that Frost’s team looked for an aesthetic which was “not like London, with rain everyday,” and instead opted to embrace the desert landscape, using drought-resistant local plants. 

Mikkel Frost
Cebra used native plantings and local stone to create a resilient public landscape at Qasr Al Hosn.

Frost hopes that “instead of shiny new futuristic buildings,” Abu Dhabi will, because of its growing appreciation for “historic” buildings from the post-modernist 80s, have the “tactility” which layering old and new provides. “The leaders preserved Qasr Al Hosn,” he tells me, “because it had a sentimental role for the people.” By reviving a heritage building, Frost hopes the Qasr will become an inspiration for how to deal with existing buildings moving forward. And it’s important to keep in mind how young a city like Abu Dhabi is. The ancient cities of Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut have much more historical built form to preserve, restore and work around. It won’t — and shouldn’t — be as breathlessly rapid as the development of Persian Gulf urbanism.

As Srouji reminds me, “the Gulf functions differently and almost in opposition to the Levant and North Africa.” She believes that these regional frictions and contradictions may “allow for something to be born, a form of mutation that might be generative, or not.” What she is certain of, though, is that the global reckoning that has emerged following movements such as BLM and MeToo — where the marginalized are becoming ever more present in previously exclusionary spaces — is also an Arab phenomenon. As for Ben Belfort, he hopes there is no “Arab Architecture” in the future, “filled with unnecessary ornaments for a language fulfilling Western imaginations of the Orient.” He calls for architecture which is diverse and sensitive to “specific regions and countries.”

The Hamalah Mosque in Bahrain, by Civil Architecture.

The question remains: what will the future of the Arab region look like? What I do know is that younger generations are beginning to affirm what they want their future to look like. Arab youth are slowly but increasingly becoming more socially liberal, concerned primarily with ecological and social harmony. This will undoubtedly change the way the region looks, raising more interesting questions. “Architecture is and has always been driven by economic and political circumstances,” says Ben Belfort, “so the question is also a a question of how society looks in 100 years.”

There is little architectural cohesion developing throughout the MENA region, and for good reason. As Frost, Ghotmeh, Ben Belfort and Srouji all demonstrate, each nation — and each practitioner — is so different from one another it would be misguided to strive towards a singular Pan-Arab future. Yet, from experimenting with stone structures and vernacular techniques, inviting communities into public spaces, renovating historic buildings with respect, and taking cues from the natural environment, there is no lack of shared innovation, research and action in the region — and no lack of commitment to building brighter futures. Even as instability in countries like Iraq, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria makes it difficult to steady our gaze on the horizon, it simultaneously affirms why we must continue to try: To prove that Arab futures are indeed worthy of living out beyond our imaginations.

Babylons of Tomorrow: The Architecture of Arab Futures

Dalia Al-Dujaili explores how designers and artists are creating spaces liberated from the extravagance of oil wealth and the western gaze.

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