Can lessons from Arab architecture help resolve climate change?

Hot Cities exhibition will run at Vitra Design Museum until November 5

Powered by automated translation

An exhibition at the Vitra Design Museum in Germany is looking to cities in the Arab world for lessons on how to architecturally cope with the rise of global temperatures.

As the effects of climate change become more palpable, architects are trying to respond by coming up with efficient cooling solutions while considering their planetary repercussions. Answers may lie in the Middle East. Architecture, in its ideal form, responds to its environment, and the region has long had to deal with high temperatures and blistering weather.

If you go into the history of this region, which has been dealing with hot climates for centuries, there’s incredible knowledge that has not been uncovered
Ahmed bin Shabib, Emirati urbanist and curator

The Hot Cities: Lessons from Arab Architecture exhibition highlights traditional architecture from the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Jordan, Egypt, Iraq and Algeria, showing how it can be fused with modern technologies to address environmental challenges.

The exhibition is arranged as a circle of fabric arches, each dedicated to a city in the region. It features archival materials as well as vibrant small-scale models of structures that were designed to mitigate the harshness of hot climes.

Many of these are landmark buildings, and include Sheikh Saeed Al Maktoum House with its wind towers and mashrabiyas; renowned Egyptian architect Hassan Fathy’s New Baris, which envisioned a micro-society thriving in the middle of the desert using passive cooling technologies; and Tuwaiq Palace in Riyadh with myriad water towers and fountains.

The exhibition delves into the significance of each structure, showing how they can inspire solutions to address future environmental concerns.

Hot Cities is curated by Ahmed and Rashid bin Shabib. Coupled with their research into Arab identity, the Emirati urbanists have long been examining ecological concerns related to architecture.

“There are two sensible applications to this exhibition,” Rashid says. “One is, the world is heating. How can we learn from hot cities? How can hot cities teach us how to sustain ourselves, whether we’re in Dubai or Mexico?”

The solutions don’t need to be revolutionary, he adds, pointing out that metropolises across the Middle East and North Africa already offer a trove of ideas on how to adapt to rising temperatures.

“Cities in Europe are heating up, cities in Asia and America are heating up,” Ahmed says. “The responses have been more or less the same. They're just looking at technological innovation as a response to climatic conditions. If you go into the history of this region, which has been dealing with hot climates for centuries, there’s incredible knowledge that has not been uncovered.”

If I say the word courtyard in Arabic, it conjures up images that are different than if I were to say it in Japanese or in English
Rashid bin Shabib

The exhibition covers 22 countries across North Africa and the Middle East, and looks at how each country has responded to harsh climatic conditions.

The structures in Hot Cities go as far back as the 9th century, to the Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Cairo. The mosque’s design incorporates arches and corridors to cool its interior. The exhibition's more recent case studies include Palestinian-Jordanian architect Ja'afar Tuqan’s prototype kindergarten school in Dubai, which utilises traditional wind towers.

Vitra Design Museum is the perfect platform to present these case studies, says Rashid. Architects from across the world visit the institution for cutting-edge ideas on how technology is reconditioning urban environments. He says it offers the opportunity to discuss the evolving role of the architect, as well as re-examine the trajectory of how architecture may develop.

“Architect Christopher Alexander, who basically gave birth to the concept of Wikipedia and open-source data, said that we shouldn’t be designing," Rashid says. We should look at all of history’s designs and produce an algorithm that is open-source, and that demonstrates what a bedroom, for instance, should look like, to produce something that he called a 'quality without a name'.”

Alexander coined the phrase to describe the gratification and pleasure of being in a good building. These feelings, Rashid says, can be produced when applying traditional regional architecture methods in novel ways, which in turn could help alleviate the effects of climate change.

Another aspect of architecture that Hot Cities examines is how much of its history is coded into language.

“We've been interested in language and the relationship between Arabic and architecture,” Rashid says. “If I say the word courtyard in Arabic, it conjures up images that are different than if I were to say it in Japanese or in English.

“If I say two-storey house built from wood, thatched roof, elevated, I haven't produced any sketches, but you already produced an image in your mind. That led us to think about unlocking language.

“Arab architects needed degrees from Paris or London in order for them to practice, which means they abandoned the Arabic language,” he adds. “They started adopting French and English, therefore losing a treasure of intergenerational knowledge. What has happened to the history of this language we’ve lost? While thinking about this, we wanted to look at how this lost treasure, this lost language, can be relevant contextually today.”

Rashid cites the example of Hassan Fathy, who wrote a book on climate change back in 1973.

“He's well known, but people haven’t really looked into his research on climate change. We’re looking at a few of his examples because he was interested in the lexicon of Arabic language and the role of architecture.

“Another example is Mohammad Makia, an Iraqi architect who lived in Iraq and the West, and believed in this Arabic aesthetic and vernacular that is important to reidentify, especially in the Gulf. He knew these states were up and coming. They had promising projects on the state level, and he believed that an Arab approach to architecture would give those cities a type of identity that was authentic.”

While the data might be contentious as to whether humanity has already pushed the planet past the tipping point of climate change, it is critical that professionals working in the creative industry begin to consider the effects of global warming as an essential part of their practice, the bin Shabib brothers say.

“In some of the writings by these architects, they say we’re approaching the way we build our cities as engineers not as architects,” says Rashid. “We’re over-engineering everything. We’re constantly trying to control our environment and what these architects were trying to do is not to control it, but to respond to it.”

Hot Cities: Lessons from Arab Architecture is running at Vitra Design Museum until November 5

Updated: June 05, 2023, 4:11 PM